a look at the music of Vangelis Papathanassiou

This 1983 soundtrack to the obscure and ultimately rather touching movie directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara (1927 2002) was only released world-wide some five years later. The film was apparently based on a true story and a big success in Japan at the time, where in 2001 it was released on a double DVD set that unfortunately lacks English subtitles. However, the story line is easy to follow and this movie is as much about that story as it is about the often breath-taking shots of Antarctica and its wildlife.
Across the opening titles we hear Life of Antarctica, a dramatic piece that uses sequencers, various layers of harmony and flute-sounds to set up an atmosphere of adversity. It is used for this purpose at a few points throughout the movie. The actual story develops as follows: about halfway through the film, a team of Japanese arctic explorers is forced to abandon camp due to extreme weather circumstances. Those circumstances make it impossible to take along the full complement of dogs, who are left behind chained to a rope. This is especially hard on their two caretakers, who had developed an emotional bond with the dogs, after having been saved from trouble by them during one of their treks across the continent. This trek, made by 3 men and the dogs pulling a sleigh across the icy mountains, provides the first opportunity for the music to fully play its part. A couple of short ambient non-album pieces are introduced here as periods of intense activity alternating with periods of rest plus shots like a beautiful sunset are accompanied by tracks such as Deliverance and Memory of Antarctica.
Of some 20 dogs left behind, 7 eventually manage to break free to start a long battle for survival. They initially bond together, but fatal events and various injuries make the group split up and become smaller and smaller. There are extended scenes showing the dogs trying to find food (frozen fish in the ice, the occasional bird), running across the ice (Kinematic) and witnessing some amazing sights. One of those, the strange magnetic phenomenon of Aurora Australis (or Aurora Borealis, as it'd be called in Canada, where the film was mostly shot) has an ambient piece which would have been worthy of inclusion on the album. Some sad scenes show the dogs come to an end in different ways. Here the contemplative music of Antarctica Echoes and Memory of Antarctica is often used.
Meanwhile back in Japan the two caretakers keep wondering about the fate of their dogs and be depressed about their having been so powerless to do anything about it. When summer returns to the white continent, two dogs have somehow managed to survive the ordeal. Eventually an opportunity comes along for the two men to return to the camp and at least put their minds at rest. As expected, they find most dogs dead but are then happily reunited with the two survivors to the majestic sounds of the Theme, which also covers the end-titles. That theme, the opening piece on the album, is a magnificently orchestrated blend of harmony and percussion. Its drawn-out melody is trademark Vangelis - using only a few notes and achieving harmonic resolution by the simplest of means it's got class written all over it due to its spacious arrangement. I've heard it being used for a TV-documentary about ocean sailing as well, it evokes that sort of feeling of heroism very well. The album's own overall effect is one of virtuosity, an inspired Vangelis at a high point in his musicianship.
There is some, but not much additional music and alternative versions in the movie that are not on the album, on the other hand none of the fully worked out pieces on the album are heard in their entirety in the movie. Barring the lack of subtitles, the Japanese DVD-set is definitive: the first disc contains the movie in both 2.0 and 5.1 sound, the second has many interesting extras (like little documentaries about Japanese arctic missions) including a nice "making-of". This has a short sequence showing the team visiting Vangelis in London, showing him scenes from the movie and Vangelis briefly demonstrating his set-up, as well as being interviewed about why he chose to contribute to this project.

Review by Ivar de Vries