Sunday, May 15, 2011

REVIEW: Sound Of The Mountain

山の音 (Yama no oto)

Released: 1954

Mikio Naruse

Setsuko Hara
Ken Uehara
So Yamamura
Yatsuko Tanami
Yoko Sugi

Running time: 96 mins.

Reviewed by Bob Turnbull

In one of the essays that comes packaged with Masters Of Cinema's "Naruse: Volume 1", Audie Bock talks about the "art of the sidelong glance" and how it is one of the key aspects of Naruse's films. A short look at or away from a character can reveal so much more than lines of dialogue or narration can and do so in just a few seconds. In 1954's "Sound Of The Mountain", the art of the pause seems to have been perfected as well. The glances and looks are still there, but always with a pause for reflection, sadness or regret and then the characters move on with the regular business of living. That regular business is filled with mundane activities like cleaning, cooking and office work, but behind them lie emotions that rarely surface. As Akira Kurosawa said of Naruse's style of filmmaking it is "like a great river with a calm surface and a raging current in its depths".

In another of his shomin-geki films (showing working class people's daily lives), Kikuko (Setsuko Hara) and Shuichi (Ken Uehara) are a husband and wife that appear to be stuck in a loveless marriage (similar to the previous Naruse film "Repast"). They live with his parents who show Kikuko far greater affection and attention than Shuichi does. As Catherine Russell points out (in another of the essays in that Masters Of Cinema set), Kikuko and Shuichi never once actually meet each others gaze. He's completely distanced himself from her, treats her as a maid and only seems to care somewhat about his work and his extra-marital affairs. He works in the same office as his father Shingo, but he never comes home with him - preferring to go dancing, drinking or meet up with his mistress. Shingo is aware of this activity, but mostly covers for him in order to protect Kikuko from being hurt. He adores her and - in contrast to Kikuko's relationship with her own husband - they always look directly at each other and enjoy each other's company.

Not that Shingo himself has a prize marriage. He seems to put up with his wife (sighing and gently trying to stifle her snoring), but there's little passion. "You were just unlucky" she says to him after recalling how much more beautiful her sister was and asking if he would've married her instead if she hadn't passed away at an early age. "That's all in the past" is Shingo's rather non-committal answer. He is also quite cold to his own daughter who visits with her two children while trying to get away from her own bad marriage (one that Shingo arranged). She complains about her husband, but he answers back that it must be her fault too. In another revealing glance, Shingo's reaction to his daughter's statement that (in regards to her own two children) "the kids suffer when the parents fight" speaks volumes about his own regrets. There's a great deal of misery handed down from generation to generation as well as via societal convention. Shingo's daughter, even though she feels trapped with her two kids and ignores them as badly as her father ignored her, still asks of Kikuko "You're still not pregnant?".

Many of Naruse's films are women's films and in the end "Sound Of The Mountain" is indeed Kikuko's story. Though she comes across as somewhat weak in how she deals with her husband (or doesn't deal with him - most of the characters are quite passive to their troubles), Kikuko takes a specific action of her own choosing late in the film that strongly states that she will not give up at least some control over her fate. She bravely keeps a smile on her face when she can and looks for happiness in her kindness towards her in-laws, her conversations with her father-in-law and even in nature. Happy moments seem to be few and far between for the other female characters - her sister-in-law, her husband's mistress, her father's secretary, etc. - so Kikuko (particularly as played so wonderfully and with great subtlety by Hara) ends up being one of the stronger people in the film. Based on Kawabata Yasunari's novel (the first Japanese author to win the Nobel prize in Literature), "Sound Of The Mountain" indicates a great deal of sadness lurking in Japan in the post-war years, but still leaves you with a small dose of hope.

Read more from Bob Turnbull at his blog.

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