Vladan Petkovic checked in from Belgrade to see The Sound of Light, a very personal film by Japanese farmer/filmmaker Yamasaki Juichiro.
There is surprisingly little sound in Juichiro Yamasaki’s debut feature for a film called The Sound of Light (Hikari no oto) — and not that much light, either. Or maybe the sound levels on the version I saw on the IFFR’s preview website were, incidentally or not, set very low. As my computer’s speakers died recently, I am using headphones without their own volume control, so I cannot tell for sure. But what I am sure about is that I feel oddly connected to Yusuke, the main character of the film, played by Yamasaki himself.
Apart from the fact that we share the same year of birth — 1978 (this is Yamasaki’s, not Yusuke’s per se, but once you know the director is playing the main character, it is hard to pull yourself away from a potentially biographical aspect of the film story) — on the surface it does not seem we should have much in common. I live in downtown Belgrade, a noisy, dirty, busy city, and Yusuke lives on a dairy farm (albeit next to a very noisy and busy highway) in the mountains of the North Okayama Prefecture in Japan. An aspiring musician, he used to live in Tokyo, but after his father hurt his foot he felt obliged to go back to the family farm and help tend to the small herd of cows. I am not so sure I would have done the same thing if I were in Yusuke’s shoes. Maybe Japan is still a more patriarchal and family-oriented society than Serbia, though I bet most people living in Western Europe or North America would swear it was vice-versa. But superficial news stories and spills from the internet probably lead them to imagine both Serbia and Japan differently from the way they really are. And people who are reading this are likely to gather lots of their knowledge from films — an infamously unreliable source of information. Anyway, I have not been to my grandmother’s village in fifteen years, and no one from the family has, so we recently sold the house — it would require too much investment and work to keep, and no one is really interested in using it. That is basically the last of the countryside from my family that I know. All other branches of the family tree have been living in Belgrade since long before I was born.
But I said Yusuke was an aspiring musician. I used to be one too, until I realized that I was not talented nor disciplined enough to make a living off playing drums. In Serbia in the 1990s it also meant you did not have much time for hobbies. Yusuke got an electric organ from his mother when he was a kid, which caused a heavy row with his father, and we see that the mother does not live with them anymore. The organ must be a part of the reason, you know how hard on their women these Japanese patriarchs can be. My parents, on the other hand, had easily agreed I should not get drums. So now Yusuke lives with his father and grandmother, taking care of the farm, which he is clearly not happy with. But regardless of his father’s assurances that the farm can die with him and that Yusuke is not obliged to keep it up, Yusuke declines his father’s offer to take a million yen and go back to Tokyo.
His younger sister, on the other hand, lives in Tokyo with her boyfriend, and the two of them come to the farm for the New Year’s Eve. It is a family tradition to go climbing up the nearby mountain during the night between the two years, so that they can see the first sunrise of the New Year from the best watching place in the area. The sunlight that shines on their faces in the morning and throughout the last minutes of the film must be the light in the title. Because until the very end of the film, the sky is cloudy and the colours are tinged with grey.
But the beginning sets the films in a strange way, quite different from its otherwise down-to-earth, very direct nature. It opens with a narrative title informing us that on December 29 (of an unspecified year), a truck driven by dairy farmer Natsuo Asano (30) struck a concrete irrigation canal, killing the driver but not his wife Yoko (25) and son Ryota (1). And that what we are about to see is happening three years later. So this leads a spectator to expect that Yoko will be the main character of the film. But no, she is Yusuke’s girlfriend now, and he wants to marry her. However, it is not that simple because Ryota is the only man in the Asano family now, and he is the one who will continue the family name. So if Yoko remarried, then she would have to leave Ryota to his grandmother, Natsuo’s mother, and the reason why this is so important is told to us through a scene at the cemetery where the three of them go to visit Natsuo’s grave on the third anniversary of his death. In Serbia, this would not make much difference: My son would have my family name whoever he lived with. If my hypothetical wife divorced me, my hypothetical son would keep my name and she would keep hers — they would have different family names. The same would go for my hypothetical daughter. So probably a woman’s role in the Japanese society is bigger than in Serbia. That is not much of a surprise. Historically, Serbian women always had distinctly less importance and influence on society than men. Maybe only in very fundamental Muslim societies women were less subjected to men than in the Balkans. Nowadays, of course, it is different, but in the rural areas (which include a lot of people physically living in urban centres, but mentally they will always be home in the backwoods) women are still more often treated as a piece of furniture (rather than meat — which still gives them a somewhat stronger role).
There is another important character in the film, Yusuke’s uncle Yoshiyuki. He used to be best friends with Natsuo, and after he died, Yoshiyuki apparently lost his mind. He gave in to drinking and clearly chased his wife away (intentionally or not) as she also lives in Tokyo now. Early in the film he sets fire to his farm, ruined for the lack of proper care. We are led to think he is just a weak person, but after Yusuke prevents him from committing suicide, there is a pivotal dialogue scene with the two of them in which Yoshiyuki gives us a timely, actual explanation for his despair. Of course this is no excuse for a suicide (I am one of those people who believe only cowards do it, but then again, maybe I have had it easy in life), but his layman elaboration of the current economic crisis gives his character more weight and clout. Also, he is the one who knows where Yusuke’s mother lives.
Eventually, Yusuke goes for the decision a family elder would go for. On one hand, I can identify with this, just as I understand him when he declines the money and the offer to leave his family for Tokyo. Yes, we do have a responsibility towards our families, with all taken into account, we would not be what we are if not for the family. But my individualistic, humanistic (you may even call it liberal) side tells me I should think of myself. Who knows what wonders my brain keeps, who knows what I might be able to contribute to the wider society, even the world? If I dig myself deep into cow dung, how will all that genius ever be able to surface? (This is not as sarcastic as it may sound; I am a pretty self-confident person).
But the place where I identify myself with Yusuke the most is the fact that he is the Son. In every move he makes, in every sentence he pronounces, in every thought (we think) we see him thinking, Yusuke is a son. A son of his father who both asks important things from him and offers him freedom, a son of his estranged mother he is too frightened to meet again once he’s given the chance. His piano-playing mother, his for-my-son’s-electric organ-fighting mother. Unlike Yusuke, I lost my father eleven years ago and I have been my mother’s son in day-to-day reality ever since, but in my work, in the languages that I use, and the way I use them, and in my facial expressions (as witnessed by my family), I am clearly my father’s son. As my career and my social status developed after my father’s death, I cannot say I would not be frightened at the opportunity of seeing him again (disregarding the fact that he would have to be a vampire or a zombie for such an occasion to rise). It’s not the matter of living up to the expectations. It is a matter of seeing yourself in a mirror.
So probably Yusuke’s decision has to do with him not wanting to be estranged from his family, like his mother is. I cannot tell if I think his decision is right. Given the chance in different periods of my life I would probably opt for different choices. But at this point of his life, for him, his decision is right. Maybe he will come to regret it later. Probably, even. Still, it feels like the right ending for this film.
The Sound of Light (Yamasaki Juichiro, Japan 2011, 89′)
Vladan Petkovic is the Balkan correspondent for Screen International and Cineuropa.org. He programs the International Film Festival Kratkofil Plus in Banja Luka (Bosnia and Herzergovina) and advises various Balkan festivals’ programming.