Monday, February 08, 2010

96. Japanese maestro Mikio Naruse’s "Yama na Oto" (Sound of the Mountain/The Echo) (1954): Underlining profound Asian sensibilities

Mikio Naruse’s cinema will appeal to many as it hits sensitive spots in the hearts and the minds of the viewer without resorting to the impressive tools of modern cinema, specifically special effects, stylized camerawork and use of sound and music, which contemporary film directors fall back on to mesmerize audiences. Naruse’s cinema is unpretentious, recalling the works of Satyajit Ray. Most cinema lovers forget the trio of Japanese masters who contributed a great deal to world cinema--Kurosawa, Ozu and Naruse. Unfortunately, Naruse was the least exposed of the trio to Indian and western audiences but he enjoyed domestic recognition. Decades later, critics are rediscovering Naruse.

The story line of Yama na Oto might not make audiences of the Western world sit up. That is because the concept of strong women characters holding families together is never a selling theme in the Americas and Europe.

This Naruse film is all about family values. The male head of the father is concerned about his son who is leading a wayward life after marriage. He is equally concerned about his daughter with two children of her own who is struggling to keep her marriage from falling apart. While most western audiences and audiences in Westernized Japan might accept this changing male attitude, tradition and values are important for the old man and a considerable cross section of Japanese society even today. The relationship of a woman towards her parents-in-law is another aspect etched out with care in this film. Here, the daughter-in-law is devoted to her parents to a fault and the parents-in-law reciprocate that by showering love and respect for her. However, the underlying tension that Naruse builds up is between a wayward husband and a dutiful, smiling wife, efficient and gracious to all who encounter her.

This Naruse film is also paean to the virtues of being an intelligent woman, sensitive to all family members who depend on her. At the same time, this is not a doll toiling away in the kitchen but a person who can take incredible mature decisions by herself without consulting others of whether she should procreate within a bad marriage or continue to hold the marriage and defy the wishes of her doting parents-in-law.

For cineastes who loved Kurosawa’s Ikuru, the final shot of Naruse’s Yama na Oto would strike a chord as father and daughter-in-law walk away, almost hand in hand from the camera. The camera makes you realize ironically that they are two remrakable individuals who in another life would have made a great couple, if they were not separated by age. (In Ikuru, it was the tragedy of a single, lonely individual captured in a bleak winter. Both images invite comparison and contrast.) Human relationships can be truly wonderful when one gets to appreciate the moral strengths of individuals that often lie hidden as though their real faces were behind a Noh (Japanese theater form) mask. This, incidentally, is a subject of conversation in the film Yama na Oto. A mature worldly face can change into an angelic childish face with the aid of a mask. Somehow the final shot of Yama na Oto made me recall the the end of the somewhat contemporary 1997 French film Nettoyage à sec (Dry cleaning) where the relationship of a married couple is examined through a cathartic finale, using Occidental values of cinema. Even Lars von Trier's The Anti-Christ does the same. But these examples of Occidental cinema rely on sex and violence to communicate with the viewer--a necessity which Naruse consciously rejects.

It is this aspect that the erudite American film critic Susan Sontag found most interesting in this film. Not the Noh mask but the performance of the lead actress is what she found amazing. Sontag found the performance of the Setsuko Hara in this film one of the finest performances ever on screen. If you see this film, you will concur with Sontag, as the lady is able to transform from a childlike angelic personality into a strong-willed modern woman. She not only surprises her on-screen father-in-law but the audience who never expect the events that follow. Naruse and Hara are truly amazing as they weave magic.

Naguse’s peer Akira Kurosawa once stated “(In the films of Naruse,) a flow of shots that looks calm and ordinary at first glance reveals itself to be like a deep river with a quiet surface disguising a fast-raging current.” To some the film might remain as a great adaptation of a popular Nobel Prize winning Yasunari Kawabata's novel, which I have not read. But to others like me it is true cinema, the images, the acting and direction, which in combination makes the film a treat to watch.

I do wish that TV channels and DVD stores make films of Naruse, Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Kurosawa more accessible to viewers worldwide. Here’s a film on sex and marriage without any sex on screen. Here’s a film on character and morals. Here’s a film on true heroism—the story of an ordinary housewife, not a swashbuckling hero on horseback! Even in black and white, this 1954 film for me will remain a major work of cinema.

1 comment :

Peter said...

Lovely photo of Setsuko Hara.