Trains and Cicadas

How directors Yasujirō Ozu and Hou Hsiao-Hsien imagine a Japanese soundscape

by Conrado Alcantara

Imagine the sound of summer: waves lapping on the beach, the rustling of leaves, the chirping of summer birds—in short, the sounds of nature. Unless you live in America, where you might want to add Independence Day Fireworks. What, then, are sounds of different countries and cultures, like, say Japan.  In the eyes—or rather, ears—of the Hong Kong New Wave director Hou Hsiao-Hsien and one of his idols, the famous Japanese director Yasujirō Ozu (1903-60), it is the quiet, sizzling sounds of cicadas. Now imagine the sound of city life: traffic noise, ever-changing surroundings, turbulence—a drastic antithesis to the Japanese countryside. Yet both the sounds of nature and modern civilization create the same sense of nostalgia, belonging, and identity. For Hsiao-Hsien and Ozu, these sound memories co-exist with one another and are central to their films, particularly in those centering on Japan, by examining the symbolism, context, and methodology that shape their soundscapes. Giving a glance into the theme of modernity and if the perception of this concept has changed over time through the manipulation of sound memories.  Let’s take a look, or rather, a listen.

I’ll start with Hsiao-Hsien’s 2003 Cafe Lumiere because it not only narrates the erosion of the family but does so by paying homage to Ozu’s classic Tokyo Story (1953). Both films are vastly different yet they both start and end with shots of trains, not meant to be seen but heard. In Cafe Lumiere, Hsiao-Hsien follows Yōko, a young Japanese woman researching Jiang Wen-Ye as she deals with her own pregnancy in the pursuit of this knowledge. In Tokyo Story, Ozu focuses on parents: Shūkichi and Tomi who visit their children in Tokyo journeying from Onomichi. But why do both these directors pay so much attention to trains and cicadas? 

The answer: both sounds are simple and remain as fixtures in their own soundscapes, invested with the significance of the bodies and lives that ricochet through their social time and space. It encourages the use of reduced listening, which focuses on the traits of a sound independent of its cause and meaning. Cicadas are reminiscent of a summer’s day, frequent in the countryside and often associated with memories of childhood nostalgia. In contrast, a train’s rhythm is fast and descending, turning the cogs to industrialize society in an urban landscape. These two sounds are staples in what can be called a Japanese soundscape. Their simplicity makes it easy for viewers to disregard these sounds as mere background noise, but they ultimately ground the film by establishing a motif. More specifically, both sounds evoke an auditory space that corresponded to a particular notion of territoriality, one obsessed with mutual exclusivity. If we consider the usage of these dichotomous sounds throughout the film, how often do they appear and what does it aim to accomplish?

Hsiao-Hsien is a Taiwanese director, elected to create a film whose dialogue is in Japanese with direct homage to the legendary filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. However, Hou’s take on Tokyo is similar to his view of Taipei: both are sprawling and anonymous cities with a lack of identity. Thus, Cafe Lumiere is an unconventional twist to the standard notion of a Japanese film.  He includes aspects of his own experiences and environments through the contrasts presented through music. The main narrative point is that Yōko struggles with the choice to move back to Taiwan (with her Taiwanese boyfriend and child) or to stay in Japan. Hsiao-Hisen presents this conflict through music, particularly through Jiang Wen-ye, a Taiwanese composer on which Yōko researches. Used as diegetic sound, the piano pieces from Jiang is the background score for the film. Through the background score of Taiwanese origin and the presence of trains, Hsiao-Hsien uses the character of Hajime to represent this dichotomy.

Furthermore, Hsia-Hsien shows Yōko and Hajime on commuter trains, in a constant mode of transportation. Hajime is a trainspotter and has a fixation on recording the sound of trains because they represent identity. The citizens constantly pass through this environment without ever interacting with the sight and sound it represents, which makes it an apt symbol for the lack of identity in modern society. Hsiao-Hsien chooses to end Cafe Lumiere with this dichotomy. The rhythm of the train is the only audible sound and it implies the thoughts and identities of characters. By doing so, Hsiao-Hsien subtly showcases Yōko’s choice to remain in Japan. While influenced by Ozu, Hsiao-Hsien includes intertextuality as both directors illustrate how the effects of modernization have a costly human toll. 

This is apparent through the symbolism throughout the film. Trains are symbols that are constantly in motion and increase productivity through efficiency. Tokyo, in its historical context, was a progenitor for the production of trains and to this deal remains increasingly invested in them. Suffice to say, without trains, Tokyo in its modern age cannot function. Likewise, trains are a symbol of modernity, especially after the events of World War II.  The history of trains may also be construed as an invitation to become a tourist of emotions. In contrast to the prevalence of trains in both these films, the presence of cicadas remains an unseen force. Even in day-to-day life, cicadas are typically unseen and the boundary between diegetic and non-diegetic sound remains ambiguous. This disembodied voice makes the sound of cicadas acoustmêtre. Moreover, the cicadas’ song is shrill and noticeable, yet it contains themes and images that are often associated with a summer’s day. They evoke childhood nostalgia and their inclusion in these films is peaceful and monophonic. The ingredients for the soundscape of both of these films instill a simple, elemental quality that contrasts the natural to the artificial. 

In Tokyo Story, cicadas and trains only appear thrice. But in the scenes in which they appear, their monophonic sounds emerge against their surroundings, absent of dialogue and score. These sounds of the Japanese soundscape have referential meanings that are often associated with acoustic symbols in comparison to Cafe Lumiere. Likewise, the images presented synergize with the sound, creating added value. In Tokyo Story, Ozu uses “pillow shots,” which stem from the idea of pillow words in Japanese poetry that evoke feeling with evocative images from everyday life. These shots are naturalistic which creates a tone of serenity along with the silence. Ozu’s train shots elicit this old Japanese tradition and Hsiao-Hsien continues to emulate this. At the end of Tokyo Story, the train enters the town of Onomichi and Ozu ends the film by showcasing the effect of modernity as it permeates the countryside. This encourages the audience to feel the emotional impact of the film’s narrative and the ellipsis only strengthens its magnitude. 

The way both films conclude is indicative of how soundscapes are invested with cultural significance. As the ambient noise of the modern city crescendos through the rhythm of trains, the acoustic foreground of the cicadas recedes. These two sound events are crucial ingredients that compose the identity of what both directors believe Japan to be in their individual eras. The balance of sound through trains and cicadas highlights the growing reach of urbanization in Japan and ultimately, the ache of modernism—filled with an emptiness at the heart of modern society.