Zen and Zimmer: Hans gets serious

The Tom Cruise star vehicle The Last Samurai, about an American Civil War army officer who is captured and becomes a part of the fading Japanese Samurai culture, is one of several scores this year that has been met with both excitement and consternation amongst film music fans. Excitement because the film looks to be a powerful and engaging historical epic in the vein of Dances with Wolves – the kind of serious and adult film that 2003 has noticeably been lacking – and consternation because the always polemical Hans Zimmer is the composer. Zimmer’s recent comment that Samurai would (at least musically) be the Japanese version of Gladiator stirred the proverbial pot even further, as that score has an equally divided fan base that simultaneously praises it raw power and condemns its cartoonish bluster.

The big surprise for me in The Last Samurai is that Zimmer has actually managed to not sound like Zimmer. Gone are the crude monophonic melodies and gaudy wall-of-sound synthesizer banks of his past work. Instead we get a much richer sonic experience, both in orchestration (he uses a primarily acoustic orchestra, with synthesizers used mostly for ambience) and resonant harmonic and thematic structures, which permeate the often-quiet score. It’s probably no accident that some of Zimmer’s score reminded me of John Barry’s Dances With Wolves – not only do the stories have much in common, but Zimmer is obviously making a conscious effort to tone down his style, and his sound here mimics Barry’s sensitive woodwind and string writing.

The first track, “A Way of Life”, is one of the album’s best; as powerful and moving as any music Zimmer has yet written. The first half of the track is comprised of a slow, gentle repetitive string figuration paired with an ethereal, vaguely ethnic theme presented alternately on very subtle synthesizer, shakuhachi and violin. In the second half of the track, this light introduction steadily builds toward the introduction of a more forceful theme. This music will sound more “Zimmer-esque” to most, but he still exercises uncommon restraint even in these sections. The cue concludes with a melding of the two themes, which provides an excellent aural metaphor for the concatenation of American and Japanese culture as well as the film’s central theme, a struggle between tradition and modernity.