Goodbye Silence (Japan, 2018)

Entertainment, ideas, and art are vital for people. They become part of human instinct. It is seen in the way people dress, arrange their homes, and the way they respond to sounds and images. So what happens when you take them away from people? This is the question explored by many stories perhaps the most famous being Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Director Kenichi Ugana follows his debut Ganguro Gals Riot (2016) with his fitfully interesting sophmore feature Goodbye Silence which addresses this issue through a dystopian tale.

The story takes place in an alternate reality Japan where entertainment like music, movies, and TV are banned by the state and a fascistic police force brutally punishes anybody found enjoying them. As a result of this censorship life is dull for people including our lead characters Mizuto (Kaito Yoshimura) and Tokio (Ryuya Wakaba), two young lads who work at a screw factory. In the absence of things to inspire them, their entertainment is skipping stones on lakes and breaking into houses. One day, they pick the wrong house. What seems like a seemingly normal abode turns out to be the site of an execution of a man who concealed and used his collection of recording devices, vinyl, CDs, cassette tapes, and televisions to make music. For reasons best described as “aid to plot development”, the police left the house and its contents intact for anybody to discover. These items are inspirational for Mizuto and Tokio who find a new dimension opens up in their world as they take to making music. They aren’t the only ones connected to that location…

It seems ineptitude runs rife with the cops since they failed to catch the dead man’s beautiful daughter Hikari (SUMIRE) who went on the lam after seeing her father get summarily executed by Sugimura (Takumi Saito), a psychotic jackbooted officer with a penchant for sadism. Mizuto and Tokio’s fascination with music puts them on a three-way collision course with the authorities and Hikari who is keen to discover the one place in Japan where there is still music being performed secretly, it is known as “Son of a Noise”. It acts as more than just a place for people to enjoy music, it is resistance against anti-entertainment laws and it is something Sugimura is determined to shut down.

Why is he determined? That issue is fudged. The film does great in showing a reality without entertainment but the reasons for its ban are obscure and the state organ orchestrating the ban too thinly sketched to be effectively menacing.

Considering that this is set in a fascist dystopia there should be a sense of oppressiveness from the police presence, a Big Brother so to speak, but the lack of anything story-wise to provide a clear motivation for the state’s actions or budget-wise to provide any visual glimpses of the scope of its power leaves the threat towards our main characters feeling ill-defined and hampers any attempt to build tension as they race to get to “Son of a Noise”. That, and the lack of actors to portray the police doesn’t help since the same handful are tasked with giving half-hearted chase of our heroes in sequences that lack flair and excitement. More interesting is the unintended results of the banning of entertainment. It seems that without it, people are liable to create havoc in the absence of a way to express themselves, from house-breaking to murder, and it is Takumi Saito’s Sugimura who is the best and most damnable example since his psychopathic assaults on the citizenry are state sanctioned, a status which allows his perversions to grow. Ugana plays this for effective horror at first but sometimes allows Saito’s character to go overboard with his craziness in extended sequences that become tiresome and turn him into a rather one-dimensional villain. Still, we don’t want the kids to be caught by this madman. The more interesting and heartfelt side of Goodbye Silence is the fallout from banning entertainment, which is well illustrated by the locations.

The film uses a more naturalistic style and in its depiction urban life, it is shot in areas that are guaranteed to be quiet due to the time of day. Backstreets and alleyways where small snack bars and karaoke places burst to life with song and light at night in our reality are shot during the day when they are at their most anonymous and quietest. Their familiarity brings the film close to our reality and Ugana’s decision to highlight the silence of these locations lends them a lifelesness. We see that within these dull streets are bored people who lead lives lacking in stimulation. They are the sleeping passengers on buses and shambling shoppers in stores. They hurry to and from work with bored expressions and they barely speak and tend to keep to themselves. A sort of enervation is felt in the actors in their placidity. The silence is deafening, choking even. The silence is broken by ambient noise until the film’s heroes use entertainment and find artistic inspiration to bring life to the film. The joyless surroundings they have to navigate provide a cradle for scenes of joy.

We naturally root for Mizuto, Hikari, and Tokio because their desire to be entertained is easy to understand after experiencing their surroundings. They get scenes where their experiences with music are seen to be euphoric. The happiness and inspiration they experience as they play different musical tracks and bounce around their surroundings is brilliantly conveyed through the physicality of the actors who have an infectious energy. During these scenes, Ugana allows the technical aspects of the film to be rough and ready as audio is distorted due to the volume of voices and music and the camera and editing become choppy. Their growing creativity and awareness of the world around them is a joy to behold and becomes poignant especially as they indulge their ability to record sounds from nature such as ducks on a river, rocks plunging into water, the wind and themselves.

Experimentation with electronic feedback and playing different instruments shatters the silence of the film and when they find other like-minded people, the energy picks up beautifully and shows how entertainment can bring people together. We understand why people fight for it in the face of the brutal repression of the state and so the scenes of Tokio and Mizuto skipping stones at the beginning and the sounds and imagery of ripples take on profound meaning as the story stumbles to its conclusion with people fired up by the prospect of music and fun.

It sets up an ending of somewhat misjudged melodrama but the meaning has been established through the world building. The dangers of overreaching censorship and state power stripping entertainment from life is visibly made but even more powerfully depicted is the human desire to create art, to share it with others, to express oneself. This will always win out over repression and so the microphones, amps, CDs, and cassette tapes become the tools of the resistance.