Although he has been left overshadowed by the masters of Japanese filmmaking at the time (Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi), Mikio Naruse is amongst the most fascinating of Japanese filmmakers from the period for his own forays into melodrama. There’s a beauty to the pessimism of Mikio Naruse’s films and in Sound of the Mountain, never has it felt all the more profound in here. From what little I have seen of Mikio Naruse so far, it would not surprise me if Sound of the Mountain remains the best of his films, for he exposes a sort of raw form of emotion from his own pessimism. Naruse never shows everything all at once, but there’s a specific power arising from his picture, it is because it is not about what takes place as opposed to being about the absences.
Having been adapted from the novel of the same name by Yasunari Kawabata, Mikio Naruse tells the story of social change. We are being shown this story from the point of view of the family’s patriarch, who is played by none other than So Yamamura of Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story. As the father in this family, he is watching his own family crumble apart as his daughter’s marriage had failed and his son’s marriage is falling apart before his own eyes. As I would expect from Naruse, he carries a very pessimistic overtone to his work, but this sort of pessimism is something that also draws me closer to what he creates in the sense that it is also presenting what easily can be seen as society falling upon itself the moment in which tradition has been broken.
While Sound of the Mountain is already powerful enough in its adoption of a perspective that is suffering, there’s also a degree to which it is admirable from the feminism it displays especially from how Naruse is rounding out the character of Setsuko Hara. Setsuko Hara, for how compelling her performances already are in the films of Yasujiro Ozu, plays Ohata Kikuko, the wife of Ken Uehara’s Shuichi Kikuko, and she is a woman of good intentions. However, in spite of her own well-being, she is treated terribly. When we consider the time period in which such a film has come out, there’s a reason to which something much like Sound of the Mountain truly is set to capture you for it is a concept that is so scarcely approached then. In America, films like Douglas Sirk’sAll That Heaven Allows depict the struggles which women encountered within the day, but if we are to look at what Mikio Naruse is creating, something more is coming.
Like Douglas Sirk, Mikio Naruse is also a filmmaker who is critical of society through the use of melodrama as a shell. In Mikio Naruse’s Sound of the Mountain, it is clear that Naruse is addressing how some husbands are using their marriage against women. Looking at Naruse’s way to explore such societal issues only made for a much more harrowing watch from start to finish and having the film told from the patriarch’s eyes only made everything much more difficult. It was made all the more difficult when one looks at how his archetype is indeed sticking to a tradition, but Naruse’s attention to detail upon his own mistakes which had arisen from how he had raised his own children ended up rounding out to forming something so deeply human.
If I were to talk of the performances that Naruse has brought out of Sound of the Mountain, it would be easy for myself to say that they are indeed incredible. If watching the films of Yasujiro Ozu was not proof enough that Setsuko Hara was one of the greatest actresses to grace the silver screen, Mikio Naruse has brought a different sort of role from her – in which she is playing a woman who is suffering from the poor treatment she has received upon marriage. This is quite easily one of Setsuko Hara’s best performances in the sense that it presents a well-rounded arc that highlights her own sorrows, unexpected of Naruse as he tends to go into a much more melodramatic territory than Yasujiro Ozu does. Like Ozu, Naruse also is understanding of the fragility of his characters’ emotions, which in turn brings out powerhouse performances not from Hara alone, but also one from So Yamamura as he is watching his own family slowly fall apart.
This is a heavily underseen piece of beauty that deserves much more recognition, though the same can easily be said for many of Mikio Naruse’s films. It’s quite amazing how Mikio Naruse pictures the female struggles that occur within Japanese society during the time period but it is also outstanding how Naruse is able to capture a sense of frailty especially within tradition. From what little I have caught of Mikio Naruse’s body of work, this may very well be my favourite so far – as what had been left behind in here is the beauty that comes out from implication. One does not need everything taken at face value in order to witness the power of any form of art, what Mikio Naruse has created in Sound of the Mountain excels by showing how absence can also be more powerful than the actual event. A heartbreaking piece of work indeed, one that only excites me to check out more Naruse.
Directed by Mikio Naruse
Screenplay by Yasunari Kawabata, from the novel by Yoko Mizuki
Produced by Sanezumi Fujimoto
Starring Setsuko Hara, So Yamamura, Ken Uehara
Release Year: 1954
Running Time: 96 minutes
All images via Toho.