Sound of the Mountain

I needed a few viewings to love SOUND OF THE MOUNTAIN, perhaps because it’s a film more about absences than events. Yoko Mizuki’s adaptation of Yasunari Kawabata’s well-known novel tells its story principally from the point of view of an observer, the aging patriarch Ogata (So Yamamura). This has the effect of concealing events at the film’s dramatic focal points – the bad marriage between Ogata’s son Shuichi (Ken Uehara) and Kikuko (Setsuko Hara), and Shuichi’s clandestine extramarital love life – and presenting us instead with a pile of second-hand information. One of the consequences of pinning the story to Ogata’s perspective is that the film becomes a wide-ranging inquiry into the lives of women at a particular moment in Japanese culture: not only Kikuko and Ogata’s hard-luck daughter Fusako (Chieko Nakakita), but also the dark underworld of the abused lovers of Shuichi, with Ogata’s secretary Tanizaki (Yoko Sugi, memorable) playing Heurtebise to Ogata’s Orpheus. Naruse’s approach to the complex material is more poetic and allusive than usual: he sometimes cuts directly to closeups where establishing shots are expected, and often ends scenes with close shots that emphasize mystery instead of giving information.

All the major characters are more complicated than the archetypes that they first seem to present. Ogata is a decent chap, but one senses that his amiability is due to some extent to the effects of age. When Shuichi asks him if he ever had a mistress, he doesn’t say no.  He is tagged repeatedly for having damaged the life of his daughter Fusako by never showing her affection.  His compromising of Tanizaki’s position by enlisting her help is not explicitly criticized, but the film makes it clear that his actions cost the secretary her job.  There are hints that his kindness to Yukiko is largely motivated by some romantic ideal that she incarnates for him, rather than by purely humanitarian considerations. Shuichi is obviously a bastard, but he is an intelligent and complicated bastard, the kind one sees more in real life than in movies. His relationship with Ogata is intriguing and surprisingly honest: Shuichi shows no concern for his dad’s occasional anger, but never returns it. He never reveals an emotion or yields any power, but he seems to understand Yukiko better than other observers. And there is no reason to doubt Ogata when he tells Yukiko at the end that Shuichi loves her. The husband says about his mistress and wife, “One is a torrent, the other a lake”: a classic womanizer’s defense, but not without appreciation. As for Yukiko, while enacting the archetype of the long-suffering, patient Japanese woman, she has, one eventually realizes, ended the marriage in her mind before the movie begins, and is beyond forgiving her husband.  I imagine that her decision to override Shuichi’s wishes and abort her pregnancy was daring in 1954.

The film has a mirror-image narrative which is the outcome of a dialectical process:

  • Thesis: Yukiko, the child-woman, by nature loyal, obedient, and uncomplaining, embodies an old-fashioned feminine ideal that is easily fetishized (cf. the child mask that Ogata likes so well).
  • Antithesis: a current of perversion, associated with modernity, is embedded in the family via Shuichi (infidelity, violence, sadomasochism), and can be traced through the breadcrumb path of young women that Ogata follows through the modern underworld.
  • Synthesis (via the marriage of the two most extreme characters): Yukiko becomes inaccessible to us, acts behind the scenes against her expected interests, is driven to an uncharacteristic abortion, resists all social pressures against her and carries out her plan to leave the marriage. The straight world, embodied by Ogata, can only stand by and watch in incomprehension.

Despite the evocative geometrical compositions of the final scene in Shinjuku Garden, the film’s climax is unsatisfying to me, perhaps because Yukiko’s decisive actions occur off-camera and away from home. Naruse seems to try to compensate for this hole in the narrative by throwing extra dramatic emphasis to Ogata’s encounter with Shuichi’s pregnant lover Kinuko (Rieko Sumi), concealing her face until the last moment and giving her a showcase that seems out of proportion to her importance. Apparently Kawabata’s novel continues well beyond the ending of the movie,[1] returning Yukiko to the household of her husband and in-laws; perhaps the sense of imbalance in the movie’s denouement is related to this significant truncation.

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[1] Russell, The Cinema of Naruse Mikio, 264.