Mikio Naruse

Sound of the Mountain (1954 Japan 94mins) 35mm

Source: Heritage Prod Co: Toho Dir: Mikio Naruse Scr: Yoko Mizuki from the novel by Yasunari Kawabata Phot: Masao Tamai Art Dir: Satoshi Chuko Mus: Ichiro Saito

Cast: Setsuko Hara, So Yamamura, Ken Uehara, Yatsuko Tanami.

If you have ever wondered what happened to the various Setsuko Hara characters from all those Ozu films after she was forced to trade her life as a daughter for a probably loveless marriage, Sound of the Mountain is the film for you. Hara, the most delicate member of the repertory company of actors gracing the works of the Japanese classicists, is here faced with slow marital suffocation, depicted with typical lucidity by director Mikio Naruse.

Hara’s circumstances are bleak indeed; she is married to the husband from hell, one of Naruse’s most memorable creations, incarnated by Ken Uehara across three of his films. This is an archetypal slob wholly indifferent to his wife, often coming home drunk, dropping his clothes at the floor for his wife to pick up. In Sound of the Mountain the Uehara character is a rather tragic figure, shuffling indolently through the film as if devoid of life. However, in Repast (1951, also with Hara) and especially in the thematic follow-up Husband and Wife (1953) he reveals himself as somewhat of a Cary Grant of the East, capable of expressing himself through the minute manipulation of body and face.

Other rock-solid actors are on show. So Yamamura, one of the sons in Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), has here aged gracefully into the distinguished-looking father-in-law of Hara. In fact he is one of that rare specimen in Naruse: the sympathetic male character. As usual with this director, the situation of the various family members is but different facets of the central theme, everything worked out in a most subtle fashion. The father-in-law and his wife function as a couple purely on the level of business partners, having long ago learnt to repress their mutual resentment. In an unusual turnaround of Narusean gender characteristics, it is the wife that is superficial and out of touch with what really goes on in the family, while the father-in-law is an acute observer of human nature. Some time into the film their sullen daughter, Hara’s sister-in-law, arrives at their house. She has left her husband, but is so bitter about her situation that she neglects the little daughter she has brought with her. Her predicament presents a chilling glimpse into the pregnant Hara’s future if she should choose to part from her disinterested spouse. The presence of the little child also creates powerful resonances since Hara later decides to have an abortion, detesting her husband to such a degree that she refuses to bear his child.

For Uehara does more than neglect his wife; he keeps a mistress and not even bothering to make much of a secret of it. The father-in-law takes it upon himself to investigate this affair with the intention to force his son into a more decent behaviour. That is a hopeless task however and the difficulty of the situation inspires Hara into maybe her best performance ever. She hangs her head like an enigmatic, sad statue and expresses complex, conflicting emotions with a subtlety that should be baffling even for long-time admirers.

Sound of the Mountain is possibly Naruse’s most perfect entry in his preferred genre of shomin-geki (films about the daily lives of the lower middle-classes), possessed of a measured pace and a melancholy, lyrical undercurrent. Although, as in most of Naruse’s work, character interaction is mainly via dialogue, at this early stage in his career these interchanges are slower and full of meaningful pauses, creating room for contemplation. But here we also find some of Naruse’s most inspired mise en scène: Hara and her father-in-law on lyrical walks among the tree-lined lanes of the neighbourhood, leaves casting delicate shadows over them; one of those patented Naruse storm scenes, with the family members navigating their home by candlelight during a power blackout, the house suddenly turned into a series of dark recesses; a mask with an eerie likeness to Hara’s visage, lending at times a delicately mystical tone to the film; expert tension-building by avoiding to show the face of the elusive mistress of Uehara for as long as possible.

The film ends with the famous walk in the park. It is when watching these eight minutes one feels that, after all, Naruse is the equal of his more famous contemporaries Mizoguchi and Ozu. The carefully accumulated detail of the film is here discharged in an achingly lyrical sequence featuring Hara and her father-in-law. The freedom of the open spaces of the park contrasts meaningfully with the powerlessness of the couple. The bare trees, standing in for the people of an emotionally crippled society, cast shadows both ominous and strangely beautiful. The alternation between static shots when they stand still and slow tracking shots when they walk creates a mesmerising rhythm. And there are two point-of-view shots that in their simplicity are pure genius. First the father-in-law, then Hara, watch other people strolling in the park, and the circumstances of the people being watched represents the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters doing the watching. These shots are shown in graceful pans, moving in opposite directions with an air of both mathematical accuracy and a mild caress of the viewer.

And the irony of it all is, of course, that Hara and the father-in-law would have been the perfect couple, feeling a sense of harmony and respect for each other rarely found elsewhere in film, and even rarer in the work of Mikio Naruse.

About The Author

Dag Sødtholt is a Norwegian film critic specialising in East Asian cinema, from Mizoguchi to Hou Hsiao-hsien.