Monday, 24 March 2008

Sound of the Mountain (Naruse, 1954)

Mmmhmm! Sound of the Mountain (1954) is a film that practically invites comparisons with that Yasujiro fellow, innit? Post-war familial strife featuring Setsuko Hara as the perfect daughter-in-law, and Sô Yamamura as her father-in-law! Shit, Tokyo Story redux (with Yamamura instead of Chishu Ryu?!) Well, okay, no. Sound of the Mountain isn't really one of the twenty greatest films evah... but the rigorous minimalism of Ozu's masterpiece makes for an interesting contrast with Naruse's more relaxed approach towards similar subject matter. Naruse's construction is by no means as perfect as Ozu's, and his commentaries re: family and society are probably less acute, but his emotional scope is arguably more expansive and the cumulative effect is just as overwhelming.

Sound of the Mountain also invites comparisons with a couple of other important Japanese films: namely, Naruse's own Repast (1951) and Ozu's Late Spring (1949) - and it compares pretty favourably to both of those wonderful efforts imo. Repast presented us with a couple's marital woes, and their somewhat reluctant attempts to work through them. Mountain offers up the same actors from the earlier film (Hara + the very underrated Ken Uehara), who are again asked to enact a marriage on the rocks - except this time, Naruse's pessimism is considerably amplified to the point where the tensions of Repast seem far tamer as a result (of course, this is all brilliantly disguised by the director, but I shall return to that in a sec!) As for Late Spring, our first view of the wife (Kikuko) in this drama is a shot of Hara riding into the frame on her bicycle, complete with that radiant smile of hers - and only the cine-illiterate among us would fail to make the link between that image and the Ozu, right? I'm not entirely sure how Late Spring was perceived in mid-1950s Japan, but I can't help but feel that Naruse is actively drawing upon certain elements of that film here: the father-daughter relationship at its core is echoed by the father/daughter-in-law one here. Both paternal figures want the best for the Setsuko Hara character, but crucially Yamamura's Shingo is both less able to provide it and more misguided in his attempts to do so - a sign, perhaps, of the feelings of disconnect that permeate so many of these characters' relationships. Moreover, by evoking the image of Noriko, the director is surely utilizing the virtuous, idealistic aspects of Hara's star persona? In short: Naruse essentially seems to be reviewing the couple from Repast three years later, by way of Yasujiro Ozu, and his conclusions (which are even more damning) suggest that any optimism that the audience took away from the earlier film (which wasn't much) is in need of abrupt revision.

Judging by the very few Naruses that I've now seen, I'm starting to think that one of the director's overriding concerns is the disintegration of traditional family units? Nowhere (lol, I've only seen four films!) is that better expressed than in Sound of the Mountain imo, which is a film whose characters all fail miserably in their socially-prescribed roles. Shingo (the father-in-law) explicitly states that he judges himself by the success of his children's marriages, so the film's conclusion must leave him with very low self-esteem indeed; Shuichi (the husband) is a philanderer and a drunkard; his sister is revealed to be incompetent as both housewife and mother; even Kinuko, the "other woman" of this piece, subverts the villainous nature of her role and also [Spoiler:] becomes pregnant, thereby breaking the understanding between herself and Shuichi. As for Kikuko, despite her best intentions her marriage is a failure that provokes a displaced (but mutual) affection for Shingo. Furthermore, to return to that earlier point, Naruse recalls the myth of Noriko and her resilience only to shatter any illusions that we may have about that character's ability to survive in his filmic world. He manipulates Hara's role as "Eternal Virgin" in order to suggest its regressive qualities (compare Kikuko with Repast's Michiyo), and - in one of Mountain's more startling moments - he even alludes to the character's underwhelming performance in the bedroom. Such frankness seems to be a typically Narusean trait, and the director takes it a step further with his attitudes towards the pivotal [Spoiler:] abortion, which is presented so matter-of-factly (we have no idea that the decision is even being contemplated) that one can't help but reconsider Kikuko's own role in the breakdown of her marriage.

Whilst Naruse certainly has an interest in the sympathetic qualities that are inherent in Hara, it's a concern that seeks to undermine these attributes in order to achieve a more complex presentation of modern life imo. By shifting his emotional focal point from the issue of marriage towards the dynamics of the Kikuko/Shingo relationshp, Naruse examines cross-generational failures but also exploits the dramatic ebbs and flows that characterize their platonic (but possibly more?) love. Their social roles prevent them from being completely honest with one another, and their close friendship means that both repress certain facts in order to protect their precarious sense of harmony - and the audience is as often as blinded by this as they are. Indeed, one could argue that Mountain is a film preoccupied with that which is concealed, and Naruse's aim is to uncover those secrets and expose them for the glaring inconsistencies that they create in our idyllic portrait of family life. The director's visual presentation augments such notions, for the world that's provided to us is a lush and lively one filled with light - i.e. one that creates a notable discord against the individual turmoils that exist within it. Naruse's decision to maintain this façade even as his characters are in perpetual crisis has a devastating purpose, because during the film's finale - when this surface has finally been overwhelmed by anguish - there's nothing left for audience to do but stare down reality alongside Kikuko and Shingo. And it's this that makes Sound of the Mountain a definitive example of Naruse's unbridled pessimism, because over the course of 96 minutes he has effectively deprived his characters of all their aspirations and left them with nothing but "an unobstructed view of everything." And it's that "unobstructed view" which heartbreakingly reveals how hopeless life really is in Naruse's world.

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