草の響き「Kusa no Hibiki」
Release Date: October 08th, 2021
Duration: 116 mins.
Director: Hisashi Saito
Writer: Hitomi Kase (Script), Yasushi Sato (Original Novel),
Starring: Masahiro Higashide, Nao, Shunsuke Daito, Kaya, Yuki Mine, Shigeru Muroi, Yuta Hayashi,
The loneliness of a long-distance runner forms the basis of The Sound of Grass, a gentle film about a man striving to find peace for his mental health troubles via physical exercise while those around him fall by the wayside. It is the latest film commissioned by the Hakodate-based mini theater CINEMA IRIS in a marathon of cinematic adaptations of the works of late author Yasushi Sato, a Hakodate native, as a resurgence in interest in his output continues apace after a period of under-appreciation.
Yasushi Sato, a contemporary of Haruki Murakami, was a writer and essayist whose social-realist stories offered a downbeat counterpoint to Japan’s boom economy. Despite being nominated for multiple major literary prizes in his lifetime, Sato failed to secure any and he soon fell out of the public eye when his works went out of print following his death in 1990. Interest re-emerged when certain titles were republished in 2007. One might speculate that this renewed interest was prompted by the bursting of the bubble economy in the early 90s as people could better relate to characters who have lost their dreams but still quietly struggle to live. Whatever the case, Sato’s stories first came to the screen with Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s gloomy and overly long omnibus film Sketches of Kaitan City (2010). This was then followed by Mipo Oh’s beautiful and sensual depiction of desperation The Light Shines Only There (2014), Ryuichi Hiroki’s glossy Over the Fence (2016), and Sho Miyake’s quiet and nuanced And Your Bird Can Sing (2018). Despite updating the setting and applying their own style, each filmmaker brought to life Sato’s complex moral world and his sympathetic depictions of ordinary people wrestling with worsening socio-economic situations and mental health troubles. The Sound of Grass, made to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Sato’s death, is slow and steady and rather simple in comparison to the aforementioned films but that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Based on a story wherein the late author used his own experiences of using jogging as therapy for his autonomic ataxia as material, we follow Kazuo (Masahiro Higashide), a 30-something guy who has quit his job at a publisher in Tokyo and moved back to his hometown of Hakodate with his wife Junko (Nao) following a bout of poor mental health. On the advice of his psychiatrist, he uses jogging to regulate his physical and mental state and change begins. Part of that change is who he is influenced by. Running in parallel to Kazuo’s story is one of three teens. These adolescents are a poor brother and sister (echoing The Light Shines Only There only without touching too much on class difference) and a skateboarding transfer student to a prep school named Akira (Kaya) who hangs out with them to avoid being bullied by classmates. Ostensibly sparky and self-possessed, these youngsters have their own struggles that offer something of a dramatic foreshadowing for Kazuo’s fate, albeit casting the final moments of the film in a more open-ended light but the real dramatic meat of the film is Kazuo’s marriage.
To get to that ending, you have to let yourself get absorbed in long sequences of characters running, skateboarding, and so forth as the film shows the small gains in stability that come from persistent physical activity. These sequences are done in long tracking shots at steady speeds and scored with flowing piano melodies. They allow the viewer to enjoy the ambience of Hakodate, a city that makes a scenic backdrop as it sprawls around a bay and crawls up mountainsides.
Aside from these moments, the general tone of the story is subdued and melancholy. This comes from the atmosphere which is defined by a handful of suburban exterior locations and comfortable middle-class interiors, calm camerawork where subtle pans and mid-shots focus on a small cast dialoguing quietly and a general lack of action on screen beyond exercise. This calmness, far from being dull, offers space to understand the dynamite subtext laced efficiently into naturalistic conversations as Kazuo and Junko go through the routines of marriage but find their relationship straining under the weight of Kazuo’s mental health problems and his sometimes selfish desire to work on things while Junko’s own patience wears out as her sense of isolation as she supports her husband wears her patience thin. This contrast in emotion leads to an ending where director Hisashi Saito uses close-ups to magnificent effect as the dramatic limiters come off and the actors look directly at the camera and engage in a searingly honest conversation where the words feel honest painstaking nature of dealing with mental health issues feels like it is dealt with in a realistic way. By this point we have internalised the drama of the two and watching them try to negotiate this latest hurdle in their relationship hurts, especially as actors Masahiro Higashide nails his character’s struggle to articulate his love in the face of mental confusion and Noa gets the hopelessness in Junko’s dialogue as her character finally voices her frustrations. Whatever the result, like the other adaptations of Sato’s works, the film ends on an open message of hope and it is worth sitting through the film to get there.
While it is kind of amusing to see Masahiro Higashide play a responsible adult seeking a way out of his problems when his own personal life is in disarray, here he delivers a performance that convinces as a man struggling to make sense of his loss of emotional control. It is as good as his turn in Keisuke Yoshida’s Blue, which was released in the same year.