ひかりのおと (Hikari no oto)
Director: Juichiro Yamasaki
Running time: 89 min.
Reviewed by Marc Saint-Cyr
“The Sound of Light” is a film entirely set in one of the tougher corners of the world; a place where hard work is a minimum requirement for making a living – and not even that can guarantee prosperity or even survival. Yoshitomo Fujihisa plays the main character Yusuke, a young man who, three years prior to the events of the film, moved back to his family’s farm in the mountain town of Maniwa in Okayama Prefecture from Tokyo after his father (Toyoyuki Sato) badly injured his foot. This move put Yusuke’s ambitions of pursuing a musical career on indefinite hold – a necessary sacrifice so he could lend a much-needed hand in the many physically demanding tasks dutifully upheld by his father and grandmother (Junko Sato) over the years. A small dairy farm fighting off debt, the business requires the constant feeding and milking of its cows, among other chores. Here, routine and dedication are the defining factors of daily life, bringing a regular flow of early mornings and toil.
The events of “The Sound of Light” are overshadowed by a past event described in an opening title card: three years ago, a dairy farmer named Natsuo Asano was killed in a car accident that spared his wife Yoko (Eri Mori) and son Ryota. These characters are tied to Yusuke’s family in various ways: Natsuo was best friends with Yoshiyuki (Takeshi Masago), Yusuke’s uncle, and the two men worked hard together to establish their own dairy farm. But in the wake of Natsuo’s death, Yoshiyuki’s life and business collapsed into ruin to the point that he now bears the reputation of a madman. Also, Yusuke is in love with Yoko and hopes to marry her – a plan complicated by Ryota being the only remaining male in the Asano family. If Yusuke and Yoko were to get married, the boy would have to go live with his grandmother on Natsuo’s side so as to continue the Asano family name, thus presenting Yoko with a difficult decision – and indicating another way how family responsibilities shape the characters’ lives.
One of the clear strengths of “The Sound of Light” is the total immersion into small-town farming life it gives. The impressive Chugoku mountains surround the town’s scattered farms, businesses and homes, emphasizing the rural isolation in which the characters eke out a living. Work maintains a strong grip on daily life: whether tending to vegetable patches, preparing meals or, most often, tending to the cows, Yusuke and his family – including his sister Haruko (Yoshiko Nakamoto) and her boyfriend Takashi (Soichiro Tsuji) who visit and lend a hand in the various chores – constantly see to the tall order of responsibilities that need to be met. Writer and director Juichiro Yamasaki, himself a Maniwa farmer, admirably approaches such actions with a still, observant eye that ably captures the quiet dedication of the farmers. The viewer is made quite aware of the tolls such a lifestyle demands – especially through Yoshiyuki, who is publicly regarded as a failure and a cautionary tale. Having driven away his wife, he burns down his barn, gives in to drinking and attempts suicide. His misfortunes show that it takes more than hard work to survive in farming; that loyal friends and family serve as irreplaceable supports for perseverance. But even then, the farmers are at the mercy of forces beyond their control. In one integral dialogue scene, Yoshiyuki explains to Yusuke how he and Natsuo had to contend with a sudden rise in feed costs and, more importantly, people’s indifference to local businesses in favor of convenience. “The harder you work, the less you get,” he says, underlining the dire consequences of the growth of world markets at the cost of the farmers’ hard-won labors. This bitter truth is not dwelled upon for too long, but its weight is certainly not lost on the viewer.
Impressively, Yamasaki maintains an even balance between depicting the real-life textures and issues of the farming community and the more narrative-dependent strand of the film dedicated to Yusuke’s personal situation. Visiting a graveyard of amplifiers in the woods and uncovering a hidden guitar and the organ his mother gave to him before leaving the family (alluding to a rift between her and Yusuke’s more farming-oriented father), he still clearly holds onto his love for making music. His father even offers to give him a saved bundle of one million yen to help re-ignite the distant dream of returning to Tokyo. Yet Yusuke remains bound to the important sense of duty that has kept him at the farm. As a son and the heir to the farm, the weight of expectation lies heavily upon his shoulders, even if his family grants him the permission necessary to break away.
“The Sound of Light” gives an even and honest portrayal of farming life, neither exaggerating the great endurance it requires nor holding it up as a utopian alternative to the light and bustle of Tokyo, which has never felt so distant in a Japanese film as it does here. But occasionally, Yamasaki allows for moments of hope and beauty: the night scene in which an actual calf is born, Yusuke’s song to his mother quietly performed in a cold barn, the annual climb up a nearby mountain on the morning of New Year’s Day to see the first sunlight of the year. Such scenes make Yusuke’s journey seem worth the challenges it has brought him, confirming that the sacrifices he made were willingly and, at times, perhaps even gladly chosen.