Best known in the West for his Takeshi Kitano scores, Japan’s Joe Hisaishi becomes the country’s first film composer to direct a movie with “Quartet,” a pleasantly enjoyable ode to getting on with your fellow human beings. Essentially a light relationships drama centered on the fractious members of a string quartet, film will appeal strongly to music-lovers with its yards of rehearsal and playing sequences, all skillfully shot; more general auds may find the attached story a little obvious and thinly stretched across almost two hours. However, it’s still a smoothly helmed, accessible debut, with specialized fest and small screen play possible.
Prologue shows the four leads, all college seniors, playing in a student contest — a highly agitato piece of music that grinds to a halt as each player is hit by bad luck (one loses his music, another sneezes, the cellist has a string break). Silence.
Three years later, all of them are marking time in their careers. First violinist Akio (Yoshihiko Hakamada) is concert master of a provincial orchestra; second violinist Tomoko (Sachiko Sakurai) is backing groups for rock concerts; violist Daisuke (Nao Ohmuri) is teaching in a private music school; and cellist Ai (Kaoru Kukita) is still trying to make it as a soloist.
That summer, they all meet again by chance when attending auditions for a Tokyo orchestra. Afterward, they decide to regroup temporarily as a quartet to enter a prestigious competition.
Akio immediately starts throwing his weight around, and insists they play an original composition rather than a classic. He produces the manuscript of a G minor piece simply entitled “Quartet” — in fact an unfinished work by his late father. Grudgingly, the others agree; meantime, they all have to accept a low-budget touring gig to earn some money, during which time they work out their relationships with each other.
However, when they get back to Tokyo, the tour’s manager has vanished with their earnings, Ai’s family has gone bankrupt, Daisuke’s wife is in labor and Tomoko is in debt. Pic’s theme is very simple: that the balance, chemistry and lack of self required in quartet playing — often described as the purest form of ensemble music — is also required in personal relationships. Akio confuses leadership with solo playing, Tomoko is short on stamina, Daisuke is weak on rhythm, and Ai lacks strength in her bowing — all basic to their instruments’ roles in a quartet but also mirroring flaws in their characters as well.
It’s an interesting theme that would have benefited from less obvious treatment in the script. However, the performances, which start to gel nicely during the summer tour section, go a long way to mitigating the script’s shortcomings. As the blond-haired Akio, Hakamada has the flashiest role, with Kukita the quietest and least developed as the cellist. In fact, it’s the actors in the middle — Sakurai as second violinist Tomoko and Ohmuri as violist Daisuke — who create the most sympathetic characters.
Above all, “Quartet” is a pic suffused with music and the love of playing it, and Hisaishi has come up with a score (including the rather Delius-like Quartet) that’s inspirational and invigorating by turns. One magical moment, during the group’s summer tour, catches the communicative joy of music that only a composer could convey: as the four saw away at a classic as unheard background to a fireworks display, the music slips into a modern Hisaishi melody, the effects track falls away and young children turn their heads for the first time to listen. It’s a point where Hisaishi the director meets Hisaishi the movie composer.
For the record, the film is also one of the very few that has convincing “playing” by its cast. In fact, only cellist Kukita is a real musician, though even to the trained eye it’s almost impossible to spot the difference. Tech credits, especially Zensho Sakamoto’s textured lensing and Yoshiyuki Okuhara’s pointed editing, are all peachy.