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Film composer has story of his own

On Feb. 10, the Harvard Film Archive presents “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” John Huston’s 1967 adaptation of Carson McCullers’s novel of sexual obsession and repression on a US Army base in the South. The film boasts Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando, a daring, sepia-infused color scheme, and a score — one of only two for an American film — by Japanese composer Toshiro Mayuzumi (1929-1997).

Mayuzumi was an avant-garde pioneer in Japan in the 1950s, experimenting with modernist techniques, creating pieces for tape, spurring the creation of the NHK electronic music studio. His “Nirvana Symphony” utilized waveform analysis of the sound of a Buddhist temple gong, anticipating ideas of spectral music. Mayuzumi’s film career — encompassing more than 100 movies — showed similar range. (Mayuzumi also became a television celebrity: Fom 1964 until his death, he hosted “Daimei no nai ongakukai” [“Untitled Concert”], a musical-performance series still on the air.)

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Huston impulsively hired Mayuzumi to score his 1966 epic “The Bible”; it earned the composer an Oscar nomination. Huston again turned to Mayuzumi (after being turned down by the trio of Benjamin Britten, Samuel Barber, and John Cage) for “Reflections in a Golden Eye”: an intimate and dissonant score mirroring Huston’s formal elegance in framing the lurid plot.

It was the last Hollywood production Mayuzumi worked on. Mayuzumi was a political and artistic ally of Yukio Mishima, the preternaturally talented writer and fierce critic of modernity and the West who advocated a reawakening of Japanese imperial might. The two fell out personally, over an opera collaboration (Mishima grew angry when Mayuzumi missed the deadline for finishing the score), but Mayuzumi continued to espouse a similar nationalism. After the “Mishima incident” — a quixotic 1970 coup attempt that ended with Mishima’s ritual suicide — Mayuzumi was a right-wing political figure; in the ’80s he became chair of the National Council for the Defense of Japan, which promoted revisionist history, with textbooks downplaying or eliminating mention of Japanese atrocities in the 1937-45 war.

Political differences had already ended a fruitful partnership with director Shohei Imamura; Mayuzumi had scored most of Imamura’s exuberant, shambolic celebrations of lower-class Japanese life throughout the ’50s and '60s. One seeming exception was Imamura’s 1966 satire “The Pornographers,” with music credited to one Toshiro Kusunoki. But “Kusunoki” was Mayuzumi, adopting a pseudonym — in all likelihood, to avoid any perceived link between “The Pornographers” and “The Bible,” which were in American release at the same time.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at
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