“While Ugana understands the power of cinematography and brings interesting ideas on the table (…) , he has not yet found the way to bring his vision in a way that touches the spectator.”
With a new year, a new wave of Japanese indie narratives are upon us. Last year, we saw such beautiful indie narratives like Matsumoto’s Love, Goodbye and Hawaii, Jun Tanaka’s Bamy and Koij Segawa’s Swaying Mariko. Is 2018 going to be equally enlightening of new talent? First in line to be reviewed is Kenichi Ugana’s Good-bye Silence.
30 Years have passed since the ‘pleasure law’ is in effect. All music, movies, novels are forbidden and creating such cultural products is deemed as an adominable practice. Nevertheless, some people still enjoy these products secretly. These individuals are denominated as “noise” and, if they are caught, severe punishment awaits them.
Mizuto (Kaito Yoshimura) and Tokio (Ryuya Wakaba) lead a boring and repetitive life. To add some temporary excitement and enjoyment in their otherwise empty lives, they occasionally break into homes. One day, they break into a house and discover an abundance of material related to music and – even more peculiar – a flyer of ‘Son of a Noise’, a secret music event. Moreover, they also find the remains of the owner, the father of Hikari (Sumire), who was killed in cold blood by Sugimura (Takumi Saito), a violent law-enforcer out to punish everybody that transgresses the law (Narra-note 1, General-note 1).
Good-bye Silence is a youth-narrative set in a dystopian future, where cultural products – music in particular – and technology are forbidden (Narra-note 2). Surprisingly, the narrative is not concerned with investigating the difference between young people who never knew the pleasure of those products and those people who knew that pleasure from the past. Instead, the youths – i.e. Mizuto and Tokio – in the narrative miss enjoyment, are caught within a state of depression and boredom, because they lack something (e.g. music) that they never really knew they lacked.
By presenting youths in this way Kenichi Ugana reveals, intentionally or unintentionally, how subjects – he himself included – are shaped by a society structured by the neo-liberal discourse. The starting-point of the narrative is based on the ‘impossibility’ of imagining a reality without contemporary cultural products – even though such reality more or less existed in the past – and without technology, as the narrative space is devoid of mobile phones, computers and even internet. The neo-liberal ‘reality’ Kenichi Ugana evokes is that ‘reality’ in which technology is intrinsically linked with providing enjoyment. For instance, the failure of masturbation, as framed in the narrative, points to the irreducibility of porn for male enjoyment and the lack of imagination in contemporary youth.
The link between cultural products and enjoyment and subjective well-being is, of course, an obvious given and finds its reflection in the central theme of Good-Bye Silence. The narrative aims to be a celebration of the beauty of noise/music and to underline the enjoyment one can find in listening to music, recording sounds and ultimately creating music. One could even say that this narrative is but a vehicle for Ugana to share his love for (this particular kind of) music.
There is some slightly confronting violence present in the narrative, as Sugimura, a law enforcer, tries to maintain the silence of the narrative space in a rather violent (and often noisy) way. The excess of Sugimura’s violence reveals, in our view, nothing other than his personal way to attain enjoyment – his way to make up for the lack the entertainment law has caused in his life. While Sugimura is the narrative’s most interesting character, the lack of a broader narrative context fails to give him an ‘official’ place within the repressive nature of this dystopian society Ugana wants to paint. In other words, it is difficult to experience Sugimura as part of the establishment as the establishment is absent from the narrative space.
While there is enough drama in the grim and dark narrative, the moments of emotion – in contrast with the confronting violence – should have been more sensible. This is caused by the fact, as already said above, that the true focus of Good-Bye Silence is the love for music. In other words, the development of the narrative is more focused on expressing this love for music, than on developing its characters. Moreover, the existing character development is only used to support the narrative as homage to the beauty of music and the necessity of music for subjective well-being (Narra-note 2, Acting-note 1).
Another problem we already touched upon concerns the narrative space as such: the narrative doesn’t show – and this might well be caused by its limited budget – enough of the world without music and technology. The dystopian and repressive nature of the narrative space, while painted in subdued colours, is not sensible enough, which hurts the development of characters as well as the message the narrative wants to express. In other words, with more thoughtful character-development and broader exploration of the narrative space, this narrative-homage, this homage to the healing and liberating power of music, could have been more powerful and cathartic (General-note 2).
It is the cinematography, while not without faults, that reveals Ugana’s promise as a director the most (cine-note 1, Cine-note 2). It is apparent from the cinematography – a dynamic mix of fixed and moving shots – that Ugana, even though he is still searching for the best way to frame his vision, understands the communicative power of cinematography and has a sense for shot-composition. One can easily see how Ugana uses the cinematography to underline the beauty of noise/music – and in one particular scene the beauty of discovering the musical versatility of the guitar (Cine-note 3). The thoughtfulness towards cinematography is also present in his way of using movement. While fluid shot movement, movement that is generally in accordance with movement of characters, is applied for more cinematographical diversity, the rougher movement have additional narrative functions. In the case of Tokio, Mizuto and Hikari, this shakiness is often used to evoke the tension of trespassing, escaping from the police, or to underline the excitement of discovering music. In the case of Sugimura and some other characters, shakiness evokes a tension related to the ever present possibility of a sudden burst of violence. While this is also true for later scenes featuring Sugimura, this dynamism is most accomplished in the opening scene of killing Hikari’s father. This dynamism, paired with the use of the cut, allows Ugana to emphasize the suddenness of certain, often violent, movements. In this respect, one could even say that the shakiness has a sort of anticipatory function, of the excess of violence.
As the title suggest, sound and music are integral to the framing of the narrative. There is a silence that lingers throughout the narrative, enabling Ugana to play with this audible silence – a canvas of silence underlining the lack of “sound” – and the noise that – sometimes subtly, sometimes more brutal – comes to disturb this peaceful equilibrium of silence (Sound-note 1). The use of ‘noise’ is most sensible in the role it plays in framing bodily enjoyment and enthusiasm. Tokio’s and Mizuto’s discovery of music shows, on a auditory level, that music is inherently linked with enjoyment and that music has the power to touch the body and arouse enjoyment, arouse a goodbye to silence. But – and this is unfortunate, due to Ugana’s cinematographical choices, the liberating impact of music is not communicated in the way it should have been – the homage is not “punk” enough (Sound-note 2).
Good-Bye Silence is, in every way, a youthful narrative, one that shows that Ugana needs more maturation. While Ugana understands the power of cinematography and brings interesting ideas on the table – he shows potential, he has not yet found the way to bring his vision in a way that touches the spectator. With time and space – and maybe with a mentor, we are sure Ugana will evolve into a director able to express his vision and the many ideas he has in a more concise, cohesive and, ultimately, palpable way.
General note 1: At one point in the narrative Hikari steals snacks. The snack that attracts her attention is called Uganagumi. Part of this signifier – and not the gumi part – is the last name of the director.
General-note 2: While Ugana’s idea of contrasting silence and noise is daring and inventive, one could even argument that the way silence is used hurts the message of the narrative.
Narra-note 1: It is strange – and this can be seen as a narrative flaw – that the law-enforcers kill the father, but do not confiscate his entire collection. While it is understandable for narrative purposes, it is logical that forbidden goods are to be confiscated.
Narra-note 2: The reason why culture and technology is forbidden is never explained. In face of creating a broader narrative space, this is a missed chance.
Narra-note 3: The use of bored-to-death depressed youths is a very difficult given to frame in a successful way – partially because it is difficult for the spectator to feel sympathetic with such kind of characters.
Cine-note 1: One aspect that reveals Ugana’s cinematographical youthfulness is his use of an old-film overlay at the very beginning of Good- bye Silence. Despite the understandable reason for its usage, this overlay feels amateurish, leaving us wondering if Kenichi Ugana could not think of a better cinematographical solution to attain the same effect.
Cine-note 2: Ugana often uses jump-cuts and, at some times, even slow-motion.
Cine-Note 3: The emphasis on music/noise or the act of creating noise/music is revealed in the subtle lengthening of the duration of shots. Of course, while this is a thoughtful choice, this lengthening does not really empower the joy of experiencing music.
Acting-note 1: Takumi Saito gives by far the best performance in this narrative. In our view, Ugana is not able to exploit the potential of the young actors because of the way he approached character-development and because of the lack of building a broader narrative space.
Sound-note 1: Speech as such is the most subtle disturbance of the equilibrium of silence. Note that the peacefulness of silence is most sensible at the moment a noise disturbs it. One could say that the presence of the silent canvas reverberates, due to the contrast between the audible silence and the noise that comes to disturb it.
Sound-note 2: Our commentary on the sound is based on the current sound in the screener we received. In this version, the sound is not yet completed.