Formerly a member of Japan's Yellow Magic Orchestra, Ryuichi Sakamoto has gone on to prominence as a challenging solo artist, as well as an actor and a film composer. The Handmaid's Tale, directed by Volker Schlondorff, has provided him with a chance to break away from music for movies with a decided Oriental bent (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and The Last Emperor) to compose a score for a movie set in a futuristic, fundamentalist-ruled America. It's a score that, to a degree, allows him room to work with another set of themes he's approached before -- religious music, again first seen in his score for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. In many respects, this is a noble attempt -- a score to grace a fairly downbeat picture about very negative themes. Consequently, the music is very moody, very dark in tone, often chilling in its rhythmic exactitude, sometimes even crushing. Rather than opting for the simple tactic of utilizing obviously synthesized tones, Sakamoto mixes strings and wind instruments into the cues, and in a number of places there's a very lonely-sounding piano voice, often playing the most obvious, and most haunting, theme in the album.
The biggest problem, really, is that, unlike earlier efforts, nothing ever quite gels or sticks. While the compact disc consists of only two tracks (neither of them indexed in any way, which is a serious problem when trying to focus on a particular cue), those two tracks are divided into an enormous number of cues -- there has been no real attempt to evolve the score into a series of suites, so it exists instead simply as a collection of cues. This translates, in listening terms, into a vague experience indeed, as classical elements, hymns, and many other things rise and fall from minute to minute without direction. If anything, this album can be seen as a good attempt that falls short of the mark. In audio terms, it's very well mastered, despite the frustrating lack of indexing (an all too common complaint with compact discs). Sakamoto has done far better and more challenging work; this is, for him, almost a journeyman effort.