Adapted from a novel by Nobel Prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata, Sound of the Mountain is reportedly director Mikio Naruse’s favorite among his pictures and, to a point, it is easy to see why. A work of immersive textures and perspectives with sets and locations designed to look like Kawabata’s own home and neighborhood, Sound of the Mountain revisits and more confidently expresses the themes of Naruse’s “comeback” film Repast, with which it also shares several of the same lead actors. It is the only Naruse film that has brought me to tears, not surprisingly during its final sequence—set on an infinitely extending park walkway—where Kikuko Ogata (Setsuko Hara) confesses having had an abortion to her father-in-law Shingo (Sô Yamamura). It’s the revelatory moment in a relationship that, over the course of the film, revolves around a kind of unspoken solace, a necessary byproduct of Kikuko and Shingo’s dealings with the cruelly philandering Shuichi (Ken Uehara), husband to the former, son to the latter.
Naruse details Kikuko and Shingo’s interactions as a codependent dance. There are inklings throughout of misplaced affections never consummated—everything stays roiling and bubbling under the surface as befits societal norms. It is a platonic love story of extreme psychological precision and Kikuko’s climactic outburst achieves its tremendously affective power in no small part because of the film’s rigorous narrative structure that, as evidenced by the late-film appearance of Shuichi’s mistress, is an expertly envisioned series of withholdings and revelations. Yet why, despite all my resultant emotional blubbering, does Sound of the Mountain finally seem a decidedly lesser Naruse?
There’s a tendency, I think, to view our rawest emotional states as the most honest expression of our humanity, yet we rarely admit that the tears we shed are quite often blinding. Though Sound of the Mountain certainly earns its conclusion (indeed, the masochist in me hopes that Naruse’s endings will one day be gathered into a compilation film, though I wonder who among us would dare to brave such perpetual and ubiquitous emotional devastation) there’s something of a desiccated, lifeless feel to the film, as if Naruse is so close to the source material that he is effectively embalming it rather than allowing it to breathe within its own space. It is a confident, perfectly executed piece of work that for the most part lays there like a prettified corpse and though Kikuko’s confession scene suggests this is part of the tonal point it nonetheless comes off jarringly in retrospect as too-little too-late. Naruse’s opinion that Sound of the Mountain is, among his output, “one of my all-time favorites” unfortunately calls to mind Jeanne Moreau’s somnolent admonition (caveat artiste) in Fassbinder’s Querelle: “Each man kills the thing he loves.”