Venice 2023 review: Following the Sound (Kyoshi Sugita)

Following the Sound is a beautiful film that once again provides evidence of Sugita’s incredible gifts as a filmmaker.”

Many filmmakers have dedicated their careers to the art of looking, the process of observing life without shaping it or changing it to suit a particular narrative. Kyoshi Sugita has emerged as one of the most captivating voices in contemporary Japanese cinema, and over the past few years has crafted some deeply meaningful films that play into his own artistic curiosities. Many of these ideas are embedded right at the heart of Following the Sound (Kanata no uta), in which the director tells the story of some people, divided by profession and generation, who first encountered one another by chance many years before, and are momentarily reunited when their paths cross again. The film focuses on their individual experiences over the course of a few days as they continue to intersect, both physically and emotionally. This is not a film that necessarily intends to be bold or challenging, adhering quite close to conventions, but there is a quiet complexity that drives this story, making it a profoundly moving depiction of the human condition, something that Sugita has made central to his work as a filmmaker. Built on a very simple premise, and focused on the aspects of everyday life that we often disregard as being unimportant, Following the Sound draws our attention to the small splendours that we don’t initially notice, but which often tend to add the most meaning to our daily routines.

We are immediately struck by the structural aspects of Following the Sound, which is drawn to the quieter moments of everyday life. This film has a strong story that is told with vigour and authenticity, but it is primarily driven by the atmosphere more than the plot, which is why it can seem slightly meandering in some parts. This is a deliberate choice on the part of the director, who seems to be employing a stream-of-consciousness approach to exploring the characters and their daily lives. While it may not be entirely plotless, it does tend to focus most of its time on evoking a particular mood, which is executed exceptionally well, the director understanding that such a narrative only works when the right tone is found, from which he can easily build an emotional relationship between the characters, and the audience by extension. The film makes excellent use of sound – the hushed whispers in noisy city streets are contrasted with the poetic silence of a small bookstore, in which we can almost hear the thoughts of these characters as they ponder not only their own lives, but the nature of existence as a whole. We are invited to peer into their daily lives, and the director ensures that we are consistently finding meaning in every interaction and moment of quiet rumination. This allows us to glean some remarkable insights into the minds of these individuals as they drift through life, doing whatever is necessary to make sense of their environment and the various other people who occupy these spaces.

Following the Sound is constructed as an engaging character study, and Sugita is constantly working to develop the characters to be complex, three-dimensional people with whom the viewer can forge a meaningful relationship throughout the film. At a mere 84 minutes, there is not much time for an abundance of detail, so the director makes some economical choices in how he looks at the primary characters, which is a smart decision considering how much of this story depends on the viewer not only being able to relate to them, but understanding that they are meant to represent broader archetypes while still being detailed in their own right. The film’s main thematic undercurrent is the belief that we are all connected in one way or another, and that we don’t need to be familiar with someone to make a change in their life, as simply existing in the same space for a moment or two can have a profound effect. The film focuses on a trio of characters, each distinct from one another, being drawn together by chance. Whether nurturing a new relationship between them or revisiting the past when they previously encountered one another (in one of the most emotionally resonant moments in the film), we see the deep connections that bind these people together. The complexity of these characters is matched by the actors’ performances, with Yûko Nakamura, Hidekazu Mashima and An Ogawa all bringing intensity to the parts that anchor the film and make it deeply captivating and extraordinarily moving.

Simplicity is a virtue that many filmmakers could benefit from when conceiving of their work, since there is something profound about a film that can be challenging and poignant without needing to perpetually search for some innovative way to tell a story. Sugita instead chooses to focus on the smaller details, the intricate elements that underpin such a story, in his effort to construct a film that provides wonderful glimpses into everyday life. As one of the most exciting voices working in Japan at the present moment, Sugita is quickly establishing himself as a major filmmaker. His skill as both a narrative storyteller and visual stylist is reflected exceptionally well in this film, which eventually becomes a quiet, meditative drama that explores and celebrates the smallest details of everyday life, finding poetry in the routines that we all take for granted, as well as drawing our attention to the way our lives often overlap with others. This film evokes that elusive concept known as “sonder”, the realization that every person we encounter, even for the briefest and most fleeting moment, is living their own complex life, and we can never tell if their life will intersect with our own. Poetic and quietly resilient in how it portrays the deepest and most profound details of our shared existence, Following the Sound is a beautiful film that once again provides evidence of Sugita’s incredible gifts as a filmmaker, as well as the importance of telling stories that are smaller and more intimate, since these often reveal far more about life’s deeper questions than the more bombastic efforts that tend to dominate this genre.