Sound of the Mountain opens with an image of white collar workers leaving their urban space of labor. It would seem ominous if its placement wasn’t so forgetful. The context of the sequence is explained. We discover we’re at the office of Shingo and his son, Shuichi. Shingo is headed back to their home in Kamakura, while Shuichi has stayed behind and discreetly asked his secretary if she wants to join him for a night out. Shingo provides the perspective in Yasunari Kawabata’s source novel of the same name, but of course, in Naruse’s world, we discover the ripples of his behavior and the people it hurts. Sound of the Mountain is a film about a man, but the concern is not in his troubles, but instead in the women he, rather obliviously, harms. The pain and suffering is quiet, almost muffled, but Naruse in his unique brilliance, reveals not only this pain but the processes that allow it to occur.
Shingo and his son, Shuichi are joined at home by their respective wives. Kikuko, presumably still in her 20s, is dutiful to her father-in-law but reciprocates the cold indifference she faces from her husband, Shuichi. Quickly, we learn that Shuichi’s sexual concerns are elsewhere, first we see him keep up a casually flirtatious relationship with his secretary and later, we learn that he’s having an affair with a dancer named Kinu. He grows increasingly frigid to Kikuko, who greatly enjoys (and prefers) the company of her father-in-law. Meanwhile, her sister-in-law, Fusako moves in with her children as her husband has once again abused her trust.
Late in the film, Shingo’s own wife, Yasuko remarks, “The sadness of a woman is very different from the sadness of a man.” In context, the quote reads as a critique of Shingo’s attempts to “understand” the women around him. Shingo is the main protagonist in both Kawabata’s novel and this adaptation. Yet, he serves a very different purpose here. His thoughts are privileged in the Kawabata novel, programmed as the filter with which we experience the events of the story. Naruse’s film, which many describe as literary, cannot be described as literary benefiting their source. In a way, Naruse has compiled a critique of Kawabata’s novel, one that gracefully creates holes in Shingo’s perspective. Shingo is a noble character, sure, but it is here (not the novel) that he’s not the peacemaker he makes himself out to be. He’s displeased with his son, but their shared apathy has been to the benefit of their guarded, perhaps subconscious sexist ideas.
Shuichi hurts many women throughout the film, though our attention to initially directed towards his actions (or lack thereof) regarding Kikuko. Our sympathies are established with her at the start. Because of this, a sick feeling in our stomachs develops when we see Shuichi flirting with his secretary, Hideko. A less observant film would point our outrage to Hideko for participating in this act, we would be just as angry with her as we are with Shuichi. Naruse sets Hideko and later, Shuichi’s mistress, Kinu as obstacles to a happy marriage. This is convenient and it happens a lot in narratives such as this, but Naruse peels back from this limited framing and gives us the lives of these women. In Lightning, Mitsuko and Kiyoko visit the home belonging to the mistress of the former’s deceased husband. Here, Naruse doesn’t shift our sympathies as much as he expands them. We can feel Mitsuko’s pain as she mourns the loss of her husband and struggles financially as we feel for her husband’s mistress who might be even worse off. This expansion of sympathy happens throughout Sound of the Mountain, as we uncover the pain Shuichi is responsible for in Kikuko, Hideko, and Kinu.
Notably, these three women never appear on screen together and there is evidence to suggest that they’ve felt Shuichi’s wrath on different levels. Kikuko is ignored, Hideko is yelled at, but Kinu is physically beaten. All three are violence, but only one act is visible to us on screen. That’s Shuichi’s lack of action to Kikuko. His tantrums and outbursts aren’t shown to us, which might question some to ask if Shuichi, so quietly portrayed by a stone faced Ken Uehara can really be responsible for these acts? The answer, of course, is yes and these forms of violence often are never visible in public. Acting aloof, which is how he conducts himself around Kikuko, doesn’t suggest to many violence, but sometimes not doing anything creates the situation where suffering persists.
As Shuichi obliviously perpetuates and excuses the violence he inflicts on the women around him, his father struggles to fix the situation. Many have written about Shingo’s quasi-incestuous relationship with Kikuko, but there’s a balance in sexual curiosity (which manifests most brilliantly in the scene with the noh mask) and mutual respect. Shingo’s quest to save his son’s marriage has more to do with this sensation he feels for Kikuko, but a passive misogyny (one that has carried over to his son) stunts his ability. Quite early on, a lecture to his son about family is given a sufficient retort: “how many mistresses did you have, dad?”
Shingo’s presence is crucial to Sound of the Mountain but his existence, his struggles, his anguish is not Naruse’s concern. Shingo, almost like a detective, uncovers the suffering his son has inflicted on Kikuko, Hideko, and Kinu. The film is not a moral moment, and its poignant finale is not a moment where he is redeemed for his son’s behavior. Instead, Naruse, in one of his most moving sequences, allows Shingo and Kikuko, a goodbye. Kikuko makes an observation about the vista in the park, and it is the first moment in the film where she asserts herself socially. Nothing has been overcome, though, Naruse has just given us a small victory. Kikuko has left Shuichi, leaving the family (or at least the father-in-law) that she cared about so much. It’s trite to say that who knows what the future holds, but in Naruse’s case, that isn’t exactly an exciting prospect. The abusive living conditions has been escaped, but resiliency doesn’t guarantee that Kikuko only has happiness awaiting her. Still, there is something rewarding in knowing she doesn’t have to deal with Shuichi.