Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Together, dissolution, death, and decay constitute an important theme of The Sound of the Mountain. Edging toward the precipice, Shingo continually ponders the series of deaths of old acquaintances. For Shingo, a student of nature, images of budding, blossoming, wilting, death, and decay abound. They symbolize the passing of the seasons and keep him in touch with the rhythmic cycle of life and death. The utter predictability and regularity of this cycle lend a static dimension as well, which is rendered sensible by the novel’s static, painterly prose.

As Shingo’s circumstances increasingly require him to face the fact of his own mortality, he is comforted by evidence of immortality, wherever he may find it. After learning of the discovery of two-thousand-year-old lotus seeds and their subsequent sprouting, he seizes upon this fact as if it were his own personal victory. Too tired to live but too afraid to die, Shingo often expresses the desire to be put in a kind of suspended animation. Yet he knows that all such attempts are doomed. Once, a friend who was obsessed with the idea of getting rid of his gray hair pulled out every such strand as it appeared. When his head of dark brown hair was fully restored, he died suddenly; the act of rejuvenation was revealed to be a sham.

The evanescent but self-renewing beauty of nature is the other important theme of the novel. Shingo, who has witnessed many comings and goings in his life, perceives in even the most perfect flower the telltale signs of death and decay. The mountain which towers over his garden is an inexhaustible source of beauty, but also emits eerie sounds from the underworld and is the harbinger of death.

A subsidiary theme of the novel might be the encroaching influence of the West and the clash of things Oriental and Occidental. There are several references to changes in Japanese society which can be attributed to Western influence, from the new basic family unit (formed now by husband and wife, not by parent and child, as before) to the new way of measuring time in the long term. Even the small differences between Oriental and Occidental methods are significant to Shingo, who obsessively mulls over matters such as relative age. He always carries two timepieces, a pocket watch and a wristwatch, and neither one ever agrees with the other.