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Tuesday, October 9, 2018
Mikio Naruse | 山の音 Yama no Oto (Sound of the Mountain)
behind the mask
by Douglas Messerli
Yoko Mizuki (screenplay, based on the novel by Yasunari Kawabata), Mikio Naruse (director) (山の音 Yama no Oto) (Sound of the Mountain) / 1954
It is somewhat surprising that a Japanese film—based on a novel by Nobel-Prize winning Yasunari Kawabata— made in the early 1950s, seems almost ripped out of the contemporary headlines. If Naruse’s film, in some respects, seems superficially tame, almost slightly “embalmed,” as film-critic Keith Uhlich describes it, some of those reactions emanate simply from the style: the realist settings of the picture (Naruse filmed on sets built to look like Kawabata’s own neighborhood) and his use of almost post-card-like vignettes, each framed with a slightly slow fade-out that suggests a further sense of nostalgia, as in Vincente Minelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis.
Even more importantly, in this male-dominated Japanese cultural moment, the major figure of the film, Kikuko Ogata (Setsuko Hara), who has evidently replaced the maid in her in-law’s household, seems ecstatic as she goes about her daily duties of shopping, cooking, and cleaning while in near-servitude to her family. The slightly hidden incestuous-like relationship with her kind and caring father-in-law, Shingo Ogata (Sō Yamamura), also dampens some of the emotional resonance of the movie. How can this woman be so seemingly joyful in her situation, we can only ask?
Yet this is hardly a valentine to the central Japanese values of the day. Shingo’s daughter Fusako (Chieko Nakakita) soon returns home with her two children unhappy with her relationship with her husband, and later, after returning to her marriage, escaping it once more to live temporarily with others before again moving back in with her mother and father. Fusako’s timid daughter seems emotionally scarred.
Even more disturbingly, Shingo’s main ally, Kikuko—his wife is a rather sharp-tongued complainer, who noisily snores each night—is equally unhappy in her own marriage to his son Shuuichi (Ken Uehara), a kind of spoiled drunk (in a manner very similar to what has been ascribed to the younger Supreme Court Judge, Brett Kavanaugh) who works for his father, and is witnessed by the older man as meeting several nights each week with his secretary. When he does return home, late most evenings, he is drunk and dismissive of his wife, continually referring to her as childish and ignoring any attempts she devotedly makes to please him.
What Naruse, working outside of many Hollywood conventions, doesn’t reveal is that inside her emotions are, as Uhlich characterizes them, “roiling and bubbling,” as if a volcano might lie within the mountain of the title, emotions sensed by Shingo—particularly since he is now confronted with his past disinterest in his daughter’s marriage—discovering from the secretary that his son also has another extra-marital affair, this, it is hinted, with a singer who has a lesbian relationship with her roommate, the two of whom in their evenings with Shuuichi, alternate musical interludes, hinting that they both share in his sexual activities. Welcome to the Kanagawa Prefecture of the late 1940s!
Ultimately, Shingo attempts to visit his son’s “other” lovers, but, at the last moment, refuses to encounter them. After all, as a younger man, he too apparently had had affairs. This is, Kawabata and Naruse remind us, a patriarchal society. Yet he is determined to protect his daughter-in-law at all costs by, at least, keeping his son’s philandering quiet.
What he doesn’t know is that Kikuko is aware of his husband’s sexual alliances and his alcoholic dalliances. The final scene of this sad film takes place on a park path where Kikuko admits to Shingo that she has had an abortion, unwilling to raise a son from the man who has fallen out of love with her; and, perhaps, we suspect, afraid that the son might be too much like his cruel father, a man clearly fascinated with and who himself hides behind masks.
Only occasionally did Hollywood films of this period attempt such intensive analyses of a family life that has fallen apart. One must recall that Eugene O’Neill’s tragic family drama did not premiere until 1956, in Sweden. This 1954 film, based on the novel serialized from 1949 to the year of the movie, deals with issues that might be seen as already sympathetic with our current #MeToo movement and the continued debates of Roe vs. Wade. Patriarchal society is deeply questioned, and, even though neither father-in-law nor his son’s wife act on their emotions, they have a deeper love and respect for one another than they do for the others by whom they are surrounded; throughout he brings Kikuko home small presents of fish and flowers, almost as if he might be courting her.
If Naruse’s film might appear, at first sight, a little tame, by the time we reach the last frame that safe world has been completely upended, and we are thrust into a world of different values. The characters, in various ways, reveal what might be described in those days as engaging in unnatural sex, struggles for dominance, and parental neglect. O’Neill’s family seems almost Victorian given the goings-on in the Ogata family. It’s little wonder that Naruse himself described this work as one of his favorites.
Los Angeles, November 9, 2018