Yotsuya: Wisdom on the hill 山の上の上智 (1955, 2013)

A traditional Japanese house nestled in the hills of Kamakura provides a tranquil setting for Sound of the Mountain 山の音 (Yama no Oto), a 1954 family drama directed by Mikio Naruse 成瀬 巳喜男. Like the house, the elderly mother and father are slowly and steadily aging, following routines established over the course of years. Living with them is their philandering son and his quietly suffering wife, whom the father cherishes more than his own daughter. The son, played by Ken Uehara 上原謙, is cold and cruel, both to his wife and to his mistress. Uehara’s face, voice, and demeanor convey a narcissistic intensity surprising for a film from this era. Sound of the Mountain is consistent with Naruse’s reputation as a somewhat bleak filmmaker, yet it has a buoyant heart and moments of black comedy. After reading a newspaper article about an old couple who commit suicide, she remarks, casually, almost gleefully, “Father was just saying what sort of will we would write if he and I were to commit a double suicide.”

In one scene, two of the characters (played by Setsuko Hara 原 節子 and Sō Yamamura 山村聰) ride in a taxi on an excursion to Tokyo. One is lost in thoughts, the other is asleep. They aren’t looking out the window, but I am. Look, a white tower on top of a hill. What an unusual building for Japan. And is that a cross? It must be a Christian church. Perhaps it’s related to one of the several schools in Tokyo that were established by Christian missionaries in the early 20th century. Judging from its elevation and the gully between the road and the hill it could be…yes, it is Sophia University 上智大学 in Yotsuya, on the east side of Yotsuya Station 四ツ谷駅 (map).

Trust, but verify. It isn’t actually Sophia University, but rather the Church of St. Ignatius 聖イグナチオ教会 (aka Kojimachi Catholic Church, which is located at the northern end of Sophia and is also administered by the Society of Jesus (aka the Jesuits). The church, constructed in 1949, is seen below in two photos from the same era. The first, from 1959, shows a train heading north into Yotsuya Station, with the church on the hill to the east. The second, from 1955, is an aerial shot facing southwest. In the distance, just to the left of the church tower, is Akasaka Palace 赤坂離宮 (aka the State Guest House 迎賓館)

The old St. Ignatius Church seen above has since been replaced by a decidedly modern, and arguably less uninspiring, edifice. Yet the Akasaka Palace remains old, and grand, as ever:

Unless you’re a visiting dignitary, you probably won’t find yourself in the palace anytime soon. But if you want to explore this area, let’s look back at the photos of the church on the hill. Oh, that hill. I’ve been there a hundred times and never tire of going back. This hill, with its elevated dirt path, is a place I know well.

My normal running route places me on this path and I always slow down to walk. Not because I’m tired, but because I love sliding my feet across the soft dirt and ducking under the trees so old they need crutches. I like the sound of the Maranouchi line and Chuo line that run below. I feel awe when I look west towards the semi-distant lights of the Shinjuku skyscrapers. When I’m on that path, in the middle of a run, at night, warm, sweaty, knowing no obligations or worries…that’s when I feel I’ve got life all figured out. I walk, slowly, knowing that at the end of the path I will return to a pace of life that often feels too fast. When the path ends, I descend the stairs, turn a corner, and find myself rudely deposited into the real world.

See also:

The Church of St. Ignatius 聖イグナチオ教会, and the “gully between the road and the hill” is also visible in the opening of Oshima’s fascinating, unnerving, Sing a song of sex (A Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs) 日本春歌考:

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4 comments

    • Indeed, Japan is an interesting mix of cultures. There is a strong sense of the past, and tradition, but there is also a reverence for youth and things that are new. I suppose this is true of many cultures, but it may be easier to identify these contrasts in Japan, and particularly Tokyo because there are tens of millions of people living in a condensed space.

      Another thought is that in America, there are dozens if not hundreds of distinct cultures and subcultures (e.g. African American, GLBT, Jewish, Latino, Italian, Chinese, Southern, etc…) we do not necessarily expect there to be consistency across American culture as a whole. But, as a visitor or newcomer to Japan, we may notice the relative homogeneity of Japanese culture (in contrast to American) and subsequently be surprised when inconsistencies and contradictions are revealed.

      This is a long way of saying, you’re right! And thanks for the comment.

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