The Sound of Grass (Japan, 2021) [JFTFP 2022]

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 from his mental health troubles via physical exercise while those around him fall by the wayside. It is the latest in Hakodate-based mini theater CINEMA IRIS’s marathon of cinematic adaptations of the works of the late author Yasushi Sato, a Hakodate native, with resurgent interest in his output continuing apace after a period of under-appreciation.

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 beautifully sensual depiction of desperation in The Light Shines Only There (2014), Ryuichi Hiroki’s glossy Over the Fence (2016), and Sho Miyake’s quietly nuanced And Your Bird Can Sing (2018). Despite updating the setting and applying their own style, each filmmaker brought to life Sato’s 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 simple in comparison to the aforementioned films but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Based on a story wherein the late author utilized his own experiences of using jogging as therapy for his autonomic ataxia for 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 that eases painful thoughts. 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. This contrast in emotion leads to an ending where director Hisashi Saito powerfully uses close-ups to magnificent effect as the dramatic limiters come off and the actors look directly at the camera and engage in a searing conversation where honest words deal with the painful nature of dealing of mental health issues. By this point we have internalized the drama of the two characters and watching them try to negotiate this latest hurdle in their relationship hurts. Higashide nails his character’s struggle to articulate his love in the face of mental confusion, while Nao delivers the disillusion in marriage 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. It is worth sitting through all the running and crying to get that feeling of release from the pain they feel, however brief it might be.

The Sound of Grass is showing as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme from February 4 to March 31.