Sound of the Mountain (1954)

Author: Patrick Galvan
January 1, 2015
Note: review may contain spoilers

I think it's fair to say that 1954 was a golden year for Japanese cinema and undoubtedly the most important year for Toho. Within this twelve-month span, a number of remarkably talented directors created some of the finest and most important films ever to be produced by this studio. The most renowned is, of course, Seven Samurai (1954): the 207-minute epic by Akira Kurosawa, which influenced generations of artists and storytellers and remains one of Japan's most popular movies to this day. Another iconic release from that year was Godzilla (1954), helmed by Kurosawa's close friend Ishiro Honda. That picture took clichés and narrative patterns set forth by previous giant monster films and converted each and every one of them into resonant postwar symbolism.

Both Seven Samurai (1954) and Godzilla (1954) have rightfully earned their status as two of the most important Japanese pictures ever made, and few of their imitators came close to copying their power. But there was also a third masterpiece released by Toho in 1954—one which has sadly gone without much exposure in the western world. The director was Mikio Naruse (who ironically enough brought Kurosawa and Honda together—they were assistants on his 1937 production Avalanche), and the film was called Sound of the Mountain. The second of four Naruse films featuring the enamoring actress Setsuko Hara, Sound of the Mountain is a hauntingly dramatic story about the universally understood longing for happiness, with Japan's postwar sense of loss resting quietly—but effectively—over everything.

As is so very often the case with Naruse, the story concerns a small group of ordinary Japanese civilians, in this case an upper-class family, the Ogatas. The family is headed by Shingo (So Yamamura), who runs his business with his son Shuichi (that marvelous actor Ken Uehara) under his wing. Every morning, they embark to their office in Tokyo. However, whereas Shingo promptly returns home each afternoon, Shuichi routinely elects to stumble in late at night, dead drunk. Despite the differences in their behavior, both of these men are in fact married to women they have no legitimate affection for. Life presses on. At first, there appears to be no serious repercussions, but Shuichi's drinking—and, it is later discovered, womanizing—eventually begins to take a harsh emotional toll on his wife Kikuko (Setsuko Hara). Meantime, the family's natural daughter Fusako (Chieko Nakakita) infrequently returns home following bouts with her estranged husband. Shingo attempts to mend the disintegrating matrimonies around him with varying degrees of interest and no real success, all the while becoming more distant from his children and closer to his suffering daughter-in-law.

Mikio Naruse is oftentimes compared to Yasujiro Ozu, and the reasons why are apparent. Both men developed calm, unpretentious styles of filmmaking (although Naruse moved the camera far more often than Ozu) to tell stories about regular people and their qualms in everyday life. Their characters oftentimes ended up lonely and sad, but their plights were of the ordinary: marriages without love; parents and children growing apart; poverty. Circumstances everyone has experienced or been a witness to at least once in their lives. Hence why the stories these two men told (separately) remain so poignant and relatable to this day. They drew context from Japanese culture, but the emotions can be universally understood.

Let's consider Sound of the Mountain. The entire Ogata family has a common, superficially unremarkable struggle: they are all entombed in heartless matrimony; they simply respond to it in different ways. Shingo and his wife Yasuko (Teruko Nagaoka) have no feelings whatsoever for one another—we learn Shingo was actually drawn to his wife's deceased sister—but have successfully taught themselves to live together with dignity. Then there's Shuichi and Kikuko. The latter remains devoted to her husband and in-laws, tending to them without complaint, masking her unhappiness to the best of her ability, until Shuichi's behavior ultimately proves to be too much. There's no physical abuse on his part, just a complete lack of empathy. Lastly, we have Fusako. Her part is smaller, but no less important. She represents two things: one, another example of how loveless marriage is sometimes dealt with—separation—and two, a warning.

The 'warning' is directed at the mournful sister-in-law. Fusako was coerced into an arranged marriage she wanted no part in. Now she alternates between tolerating her married life and fleeing from it, with two children to care for in the meantime—children who are, we observe, also affected by the constant separation. The movie indicates that Fusako has even reached the point (or maybe she was there before marriage) of not particularly caring for her children; she raises and tends to them with no more enthusiasm than if she were babysitting the kids of a total stranger; they're almost a necessary nuisance. Fusako essentially represents what Kikuko will become if she does not free herself in time. In 1950s Japan, raising children was more or less expected of married couples. (The in-laws state they expect a new member of the family.) There is a point in the film's second act where Kikuko feigns visiting a sick friend in the hospital, and instead aborts her own child. (No one knew she was pregnant.) The supporting characters interpret this the daughter-in-law smiting her adulterous husband. But in actuality, Kikuko is trying to spare the world further sadness: bringing children into the midst of an estranged, crumbling marriage would add to the suffering, not curb it. Her decision is one of mercy, and it devastates her at the same time.

What's brilliant about the narrative is that we deduce these details and motives from the perspective of a single character—with no narration—and not from the character we would expect. It would have been simple enough to present the sad wife's struggle through her own point-of-view. (Naruse had used this very tactic before, in A Woman's Sorrows and Repast.) But in Sound of the Mountain, we are never allowed directly inside Kikuko's head. She's a dominant focus of the narrative, but she's not the protagonist. Instead, Naruse guides our feelings toward her through the father-in-law. Even though Kikuko hesitates in confiding in him, Shingo goes to the trouble of uncovering every detail in her plight. When news of the abortion reaches the rest of the family, Shingo is the only one not riddled with disappointment, because he has bothered to try and understand Kikuko. The others are merely bitter at having been deprived of a new family member; the possible consequences never crossed their minds because unlike Shingo—and the audience—they haven't bothered to look a little closer.

The indications are strong—though never too explicit—that Shingo and Kikuko are the only two people in the film who are truly and passionately in love. (This was not the only time Naruse told a story about a near-incestuous longing—see Yearning.) As a result of this ambiguity, the emotional dynamic between these two characters is startlingly powerful. In the months before, they had some small level of comfort and happiness just being close to one another, but all of that must now come to an end. Circumstances—again, brought forth by ordinary human life—will now separate them. Both Hara and Yamamura deliver excellent performances. Yamamura (in actuality a mere ten years older than his co-star) is impressive at playing an older man. And Hara, as usual, demonstrates how much greater an impact gestures, expressions, and movement have on a performance—and a character—than dialogue. The dialogue is a tool; her own humanistic capabilities are what really make us feel for the character she is playing. Setsuko Hara is one of those magnificent talents who makes great acting look easy, as if anyone can do it. Now some might ask: is this a copy of her performance in Naruse's Repast, also about an unhappily married woman, done three years earlier? Not at all. Her performance in Repast showed a person who was more discontent than rueful, more willing to break free, less afraid to leave the past behind her. By contrast, Hara's performance in Sound of the Mountain shows a young woman struggling to abandon a life which is both happy and terrible, who wants to hide her sadness but cannot avoid showing a little more of it as time presses on. She's undergoing the pain of staying put as well as the pain of letting go. Watching the character and the performance evolve throughout the story is truly mesmerizing. I cannot claim to have seen every Setsuko Hara film ever made, but this could be her finest performance.

Sound of the Mountain is a film which still has World War II on its mind. The idea of moral degradation after Japan's defeat had been expressed in previous cinema and might symbolically explain Shuichi's behavior. In the third act, Shingo meets his son's pregnant mistress (Rieko Sumi, unseen until this crucial moment in the narrative), who was widowed by the war. She despises and envies Kikuko (they have never met) because Kikuko at least has the knowledge that her husband will eventually return home. The mistress lost her loved one long ago. Naruse presents other lonely, unmarried women throughout the picture: another reminder of the postwar consequences. Finally, is it a coincidence that Shingo and Kikuko say their goodbyes in Shinjuku Garden, which itself was ravaged and partially obliterated in the Tokyo air raids of 1945? The fact that they meet in winter, with the trees cleansed of vegetation and the sky laden with smoky clouds, further suggests a sorrowful nation struggling to recover.

Then again, it could be argued that the wintertime imagery is simply Naruse progressing with a previously established visual motif: using seasonal imagery to convey the passage of time and the further bonding between the two primary characters. Throughout the course of the film, Shingo and Kikuko take three long walks while contemplating their surroundings. The first time, it is summer—Shingo comments on a fully bloomed sunflower. The second occurs in autumn—Kikuko takes note of the color of the leaves. And finally, it is winter—and the vegetation is stripped to a few bare trees. As the father and his daughter-in-law walk through the garden, several other couples around them step off the designated path and onto the grass, free to go as they please. Shingo and Kikuko, however, remain on the path until they reach a large vista. What does this mean? I'm not one hundred percent sure, but if I were to venture a guess, it would be something like this. The cycle of their time together has run out (remember the changing seasons), and these two characters are locked upon a path set forth by others—by society—which they are unable to change. They cannot divert in pursuit of their own happiness. Then they reach that vista, which as Kikuko puts it, allows an unobstructed view of everything. 'Everything' in the metaphorical sense. But again, I'm not sure, and the ending is bound to leave others with different interpretations. In addition to its staggering emotional strength, the ending of Sound of the Mountain gives us the always-welcome opportunity of drawing our own conclusions.

In reviewing the films of Mikio Naruse, I have a tendency to end my critiques with a lamenting cry: How can the western world continue to disregard such a brilliant filmmaker? But I would like to end this review with a passionate declaration. Of all the Naruse pictures that I've seen (and I've seen a fair few), Sound of the Mountain could be his greatest accomplishment. I wouldn't call it my personal favorite (Two in the Shadow still holds that title), but I most definitely consider it a masterpiece. A masterpiece from one of the most intelligent and talented directors who ever lived. If you are an enthusiast of Japanese cinema, Mikio Naruse is a name you must know, and Sound of the Mountain is very much worth your attention—and repeated viewings.