Hiroshi Shimizu Andrew Chan

In a two-part retrospective of the director’s oeuvre, the 1956 tragic romance Sound in the Mist is a powerful standout.

Ken Uehara as Kazuhiko Onuma and Michiyo Kogure as Tsuruko in Sound in the Mist. © KADOKAWA.

“Hiroshi Shimizu,” at Museum of the Moving Image, 36-01 Thirty-Fifth Avenue, Astoria, NY, through May 19, 2024, and at Japan Society, 333 East Forty-Seventh Street, New York City, through June 1

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In Hiroshi Shimizu’s gorgeous chamber drama Sound in the Mist (1956), the central pair of lovers are depicted alone together in only two scenes, totaling less than fifteen of the film’s eighty-four minutes. Separated by an expanse of many years, these all-too-brief encounters are initially freighted with amorous possibility, but in both instances a sense of defeat quickly sets in. Even as the man and woman talk, they avoid looking into each other’s eyes; they embrace just once, never to touch again. Shimizu is catching them not while their desire is still burning hot, capable of destabilizing their lives and undoing their sense of propriety, but at points when failure seems inevitable. We’re presented with a dramatic conundrum: If these characters are weak-willed enough to forsake their love even before it has taken flight, how can we feel any urgency or hope for their future together?

Instead of cultivating our attachment to this doomed dyad, the director holds them at a remove. An industry veteran who began working in the silent era and was already approaching the end of his career when he made Sound in the Mist, Shimizu isn’t widely known as a maestro of tragic love stories; unlike his compatriot Kenji Mizoguchi, he showed at most a passing interest in the form and was sparing in his use of the melodramatic conventions that typically generate sympathy and suspense around a couple’s fate. Instead, he excelled at stories about groups of marginalized people navigating life together in unfamiliar environments. Many of his best films—Mr. Thank You (1936), The Masseurs and a Woman (1938), Children of the Beehive (1948)—are rambling affairs with sizable ensemble casts; loose, sometimes improvised narratives; and lots of plein-air location shooting. Though he had a suitably wide range for a director bred in the studio system (he started out at the legendary Shochiku company, then landed at Daiei in the 1950s), his oeuvre suggests a general aversion to the hothouse intimacies that tend to ignite on-screen romance.

Still from Children of the Beehive. © Kobe Planet Film Archive.

In contrast to Shimizu’s more celebrated films, Sound in the Mist is insular and highly structured. The story, based on a play by Hideji Hojo, is divided into four sections, all of which take place in the Japanese Alps during the autumn equinox. The action unfolds in and around a cabin compound (a setting that calls to mind Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson’s rustic refuge in All That Heaven Allows), from which we periodically catch glimpses of the natural world—tantalizing visions of the freedom and harmony that the lovers will never attain. The man is an austere botany professor named Kazuhiko (Ken Uehara), and the woman is his doting assistant, Tsuruko (Michiyo Kogure). When Kazuhiko’s wife—an aspiring politician with a steely gaze and an ambitious feminist agenda—pays a visit, she suspects that her husband is having an affair (despite his repeated insistence that he and Tsuruko have never been “physical”). In a display of virtuous self-abnegation, Tsuruko abruptly cuts ties with her boss, hoping to spare him the kind of catastrophe she believes awaits all philanderers.

Ken Uehara as Kazuhiko Onuma, Yoshiko Fujita as Yuko, and Michiyo Kogure as Tsuruko in Sound in the Mist. © KADOKAWA.

Shimizu had a neorealist’s affinity for people enduring war, poverty, and disability. With its relatively bourgeois protagonists, Sound in the Mist at first seems like a departure, but its heart lies with the downwardly mobile. After Tsuruko decides to extract herself from the love triangle, she makes her living as a geisha, servicing lower-class clients at the same mountain cabin—where, carrying a torch for her former employer, she plans to stay for the rest of her life. Years after the erstwhile lovers’ separation, their lives intersect twice at the cabin, but on the first occasion they don’t actually see each other. The film underscores the injustice of this missed connection by sidetracking Kazuhiko (now a widower caring for a young daughter) with a less desirable coincidence: a run-in with a male acquaintance who boasts about his boisterous family life, the paragon of heteronormative achievement.

Still from Image of a Mother. © KADOKAWA.

Despite past attempts to revive interest in Shimizu’s oeuvre, the director remains one of his country’s most underappreciated geniuses—though hopefully the magisterial retrospective now underway at the Museum of the Moving Image and Japan Society will change that. Perhaps I’ve made an odd choice in highlighting a film that, in some ways, seems more aligned with the aesthetic of Mikio Naruse—a contemporary who, in the years before Sound in the Mist was made, released a string of superb films about marital discord starring Uehara at his most unsympathetic, including the similarly titled Sound of the Mountain (1954). But Shimizu’s late-career triumph, among the most beautifully realized achievements of his postwar period, nevertheless exemplifies his attentiveness to inconvenient feelings and awkward entanglements—a quality shared by his subsequent melodramas Dancing Girl (1957) and Image of a Mother (1959).

Still from Ornamental Hairpin. © Shochiku Co., Ltd.

In subtle ways, Sound in the Mist hearkens back to the director’s previous work. Like Ornamental Hairpin (1941), an exquisitely unresolved drama populated by transients at a rural spa, the film has a vivid sense of place, rooted in the characters’ attachment to their wooded getaway. Shimizu captures interiors with elegant lateral tracking shots—one of his trademark stylistic flourishes—that show the lovers in various states of spatial separation. And, in keeping with the title, the film’s sound design takes on outsize significance, as the babbling of water and the chirping of crickets punctuate eerie swaths of silence that call to mind the hushed minimalism of early talkies (including Shimizu’s 1933 film A Woman Crying in Spring, whose evocative sonic details were an influence on his friend Yasujiro Ozu).

Ken Uehara (left) as Kazuhiko Onuma and Yoshiko Fujita (middle) as Yuko in Sound in the Mist. © KADOKAWA.

Though Sound in the Mist hinges on a distinctly grown-up predicament, the film is most powerful as a portrait of a widowed father’s bond with his daughter, his only child—a theme that links it to Ozu’s classic Late Spring (1949) and allows it to transcend the affective limitations of its chilly romance. Shimizu was well known for his lifelong concern for the plight of children, a preoccupation that fuels many of his key works and that even led him to adopt several orphans in the aftermath of World War II. Here, his attunement to the perspective of youth is found in the film’s framing device, which charts a path from innocence to experience. At the shattering denouement, after Kazuhiko happens upon news of Tsuruko’s tragic fate, his daughter (now happily married) catches sight of him sobbing. Inadvertently witnessing this eruption from his heretofore hidden inner life, she responds not with dismay or voyeuristic curiosity but respect. Like us, she isn’t granted full access to the depths of passion underlying this emotional collapse. But through Shimizu’s suddenly tender observation, we are invited to join her in an act of love: leaving this man to his private grief, even as, in the breathtaking final shot, it leads him irrevocably away from us.

Andrew Chan is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of Why Mariah Carey Matters, published by University of Texas Press.

In a two-part retrospective of the director’s oeuvre, the 1956 tragic romance Sound in the Mist is a powerful standout.
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