What is “music”? Adapted from the manga by Akira Saso, Masaaki Taniguchi’s Musicophilia (ミュジコフィリア) finds its heroes grappling with a series of conceptual insecurities attempting to draw lines around what the what word might mean while torn between conservation and innovation as they struggle to find their own voices. Yet as the hero comes to realise, you can’t make music on your own letting go of his resentment and childhood trauma to remember his natural love of sound while repairing his relationship with his estranged half-brother in the wake of his father’s death.
Gifted the talent of synesthesia in the ability to perceive shape and colour in the sounds of nature, Saku (Kai Inowaki) harbours a deeply held resentment towards “music” which he believes destroyed his family life, his mother (Misuzu Kanno) having been seduced by well-known composer Kishino (Kanji Ishimaru) as a student and thereafter forced to give up her dreams of becoming a professional cellist. Though he had contact with his father in his childhood, his stepmother never missed the opportunity to make him feel inferior while her own son, Taisei (Ikusaburo Yamazaki), became his father’s protege. Saku was not even allowed to touch his piano as if he were somehow unworthy of his artistic legacy. Having enrolled in art school in Kyoto, he nevertheless ends up being adopted by the contemporary music club which practices avant-garde and experimental techniques only to re-encounter his brother who is now in the third year of a PhD and an unpleasant elitist privately insecure about his musical talent.
Everyone agrees that Taisei’s playing is technically perfect, but somehow dull lacking the individual spark of a true creative genius merely a carbon copy of his father’s teaching. Saku’s new friend Nagi (Honoka Matsumoto) compares Taisei’s skill unfavourably with the untrained talent of his brother, insisting that Saku’s music has the colour of joy and shape of kindness while Taisei’s sounds like notes arranged by a machine. Taisei is indeed cold and arrogant, snapping back at Saku’s question “what is music?” with the reply that music is what he’s played, as if he owned it and it only belongs to him. He even breaks with protocol and insults his professor claiming that his criticism is down to “internal politics” because he and his father did not get on, publicly criticising his translation of a German textbook on music telling him to “grasp the fundamentals of language” while his professor urges him to master the fundamentals of composition rather than arrogantly insisting his playing is unimprovable because it is the definition of “music”. Of course, some of this is his own insecurity afraid he can’t match up to his father and worried that in the end all he is is a poor imitation. For his part, Saku is often less than kind to Taisei, Nagi trying to point out to him that he’s better that but simultaneously finding him heading in the same direction as he tries to overcome an internal insecurity in order to rediscover his musical voice while unfairly lashing out at those around him.
Taisei sucks the joy of out music, and indeed everywhere else, through his arrogant perfectionism his treatment of violin-playing girlfriend Sayo (Noa Kawazoe) approaching the abusive as he consistently runs her down and blames her for his own sense of dissatisfaction, while Nagi meditates on how freedom can make you lonely, herself seemingly the only one who thinks she’s in a musical, as the youngsters find themselves isolated by their own desire for artistic expression. Yet what the two men discover is that their father may have intended something else for them and that his desire was that they’d rediscover the innocent connection they’d had as children able to help each other should they become stuck either in life or in music. Saku’s natural talent is born of being immersed in the world around him realising that this too is “music” while Taisei struggles to move forward too obsessed with technical perfection to allow his music to breathe only rediscovering his humanity after an immense humbling that allows him to re-immerse himself in the natural world. At heart a coming-of-age tale in which two young men learn to put their differences aside and rediscover their childhood bond, Taniguchi’s gentle drama also offers a mild critique of academia and the tendency of institutions to exploit and manipulate talent only to wash their hands of it if something goes wrong placing funding above ethical concerns but eventually discovers that music is everywhere if only you’re willing to listen.
Musicophilia streamed as part of the 14th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.
Trailer (no subtitles)