When it comes to family dramas, no world cinema has produced more genuine geniuses than has Japan’s. The Big Three directors who dominated the silent era and middle years of our very young film industry are Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, and Mikio Naruse, and all were masters of the domestic drama. Indeed, Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) may be the greatest family drama of all time. Later Japanese directors, including Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki, also have explored families in several innovative ways, such as Ran (1985), Kurosawa’s version of the Shakespeare’s royal domestic tragedy King Lear, and Miyazaki’s anime instant classic Spirited Away (2001). Sound of the Mountain, based on a novel by Yasunari Kawabata, winner of the 1968 Nobel Prize for Literature, is a superb example of the genre the Japanese have claimed for their own.
The film focuses on the Ogata family of Tokyo. The patriach, Shingo (Sô Yamamura), lives with his plump and comfortable wife Yasuko (Teruko Nagaoka), son Shuichi (Ken Uehara) and daughter-in-law Kikuko (Setsuko Hara). Shuichi and Shingo are in business together, but rarely come home from the office together. Shuichi enjoys dance halls and has been embroiled in an affair for some time. The beautiful and modest Kikuko tends to her in-laws’ every need, and while the domestic scene isn’t blissful, it is in a balance of a sort. When the Ogata’s daughter Fusako (Chieko Nakakita) returns to the fold with her two children in tow, vowing never to return to her cheating and feckless husband, Shuichi moves into action to reconcile the couple.
Fusako’s return is a turning point for both Shingo and Kikuko, as it brings into focus the truth of their lives. Shingo sees how his passive approach to the lives of his children, which could seem to be a virtue in some eyes, is actually harmful to them both. Kikuko reacts strongly when Fusako complains to her father that he should have given her husband a more thorough going over before he married her off to him. Kikuko finally must admit how desperately unhappy she is, and she and Shingo both must have the courage to ensure her freedom. For, you see, they love each other very much.
I don’t mean to imply that there is a romantic love between them, though I’m sure that emotion may be a tiny part of the mix. In fact, it is a closeness that transcends father and daughter to include a deep friendship. Kikuko cares for and waits on Shingo at home, perhaps to substitute for the love she wishes she could lavish on a husband. Shingo, in turn, dotes on her. Tellingly, Yamamura and Hara also starred together in Tokyo Story; their chemistry is a rare and wonderful thing, putting their familial love at the very heart of this heartfelt movie.
It would be easy to dismiss Shuichi as the villian, since Uehara portrays him as a surly cad who treats his wife brusquely. But it becomes evident that somewhere along the line Kikuko rejected him. The couple is childless, though both tell others that each is keen to have children. Shuichi says, “Kikuko is a very fastidious woman. She doesn’t want my child.” The pain of that statement cut me like a knife. Secondary characters, such as Shuichi’s mistress, are given room to tell their story. The disappointments of life, a characteristic sentiment of Naruse films, are revealed with economy, insight, and sympathy.
In the last scene, Kikuko and Shingo meet in a park. Shingo comments on how nice it is to have so much open space available inside Tokyo and marvels at the wide expanse of the lawn. He fumbles for a word to describe it. Kikuko helps out. “Vista,” she says. “What does that mean?” asks Shingo. She replies, “Perspective. It makes the area look larger.” This is the lesson Shingo and Kikuko both have learned to help them pursue happiness without each other. The vista Naruse has provided us with in Sound of the Mountain can’t help but expand us within. This is a film to treasure.