Sunday, February 05, 2006

Oda Satoru: the man behind the (theme) music

Filmgoers in Japan during the 1960s will no doubt recall that many of the great films of that era featured highly evocative theme songs, such as Jean-Luc Godard's "Vivre sa vie" and "Le Doulos" starring Jean-Paul Belmondo. What they probably aren't aware of is that many of those memorable tunes were actually created right here in Japan.

After keeping the secret for four decades, their creator, jazz saxophonist Oda Satoru (78), has decided it's time to spill the beans and explain how these works came to be.

An exponent of swing music at the time, Oda found himself unable to latch on to the then-fashionable trend of modern jazz, and instead found success with his jazz adaptations of ballads and folk songs. It was around this time that he received a rather unorthodox job offer.

"One day a record company asked me to write a theme tune for a movie. They showed the film to me before it was released, and it didn't have any theme music. The music in the original version repeated a short theme, and was really little more than an acoustic effect. So I borrowed its motifs, re-edited and re-wrote it, and made it into a piece of music. It was sold as part of the film's soundtrack, and played behind the movie's credits."

Oda went on to compose special theme songs for over 20 hit European movies between 1962 and 1966, including "Young Aphrodites," "Les Grands Chemins" and "Topkapi." In cases where there was no theme song at all, such as with Lindsay Shonteff's "Licensed to Kill," Oda ended up writing the whole piece himself.

According to film industry sources, it was common for hit films in the mid 1960s to produce hit theme songs, such as with Rene Clement's "Plein Soleil." There were even radio shows dedicated to such tunes. However, European films rarely featured theme music, and movie distributors struggled for ways to promote them. This more than likely explains the emergence of these Japan-only theme songs.

A former record company employee recalls: "Composers of the original score were paid for the rights to use the soundtrack. Oda's music was used for these films in Japan, so it wouldn't be lying to say that they were part of the soundtrack. But at the time it was probably pretty dodgy in a legal sense."

"Quite a lot of these tunes have stuck in the memories of film fans," explained Oda. "If I didn't come clean about them, their real history would never be known."

Oda will perform his theme songs once again for a special Tokyo concert on February 15th entitled "Maboroshi no Sukurin Tema-shu" (Phantom Screen Theme Collection). (source: Mainichi)

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