by Sam Juliano
And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening. -Paul Simon
An astounding anecdote was reported in the afterward of The Sound of Silence by the author Katrina Goldsaito. One of the cinema’s greatest composers, Toru Takemitsu, lived in the house right next door to her father as he grew up in Tokyo. When Goldsaito’s father asked the famous maestro “What is your favorite sound?” the answer came back that he had two: “the wind through bamboo and the sound of silence.” This latter musical concept, central to Takemitsu’s approach was shared by the great Frenchman Robert Bresson, who likewise understood that silence must be understood and interspersed between the creation of sounds for a truly effective aural embodiment. Goldsaito relates that Takemitsu, in his book Confronting Silence that one day on the crowded Tokyo subway, he realized he must incorporate the sounds of the city into his compositions and that he wanted to give “meaning to the stream of sounds that penetrates the world we live in.” Takemitsu invariably imparted this acoustic cognizance in a prolific career, weaving his inimitable compositions for some of the greatest Japanese cinematic luminaries including, Kurosawa, Oshima, Teshigahara, Shinoda, Ichikawa, Inamura and perhaps most famously for Masaki Kobayashi, and his 1965 ghost story omnibus Kwaidan, where he establishes the first episode’s mood and atmosphere well before a single character is seen onscreen. In an interview Takemitsu declared “I wanted to create an atmosphere of terror. But if the music is constantly saying, “Watch out! Be scared!” then all the tension is lost. It’s like sneaking up behind someone to scare them. First, you have to be silent. Even a single sound can be film music…We used real wood for effects. I’d ask for a cra-a-a-ck sound, and they’d split a plank of wood, or rip it apart, or rend it with a knife. Using all these sounds I assembled the sounds.” In visual terms one could hardly appreciate or understand the luminosity of daylight without the corresponding blackness of the night..
Goldsaito’s mission in The Sound of Silence is to examine in a contemporary setting on the streets of Tokyo the aural holding pattern between sounds, known in the vernacular as Ma, and to depict its elusive quality to a young boy named Yoshio, though as the resplendent tapestries throughout the book showcase by the subtle application of color, this desired quietude is omnipresent. The color employment is a veritable purveyor of mood and an extension of sound decimal. Ma is attained after assimilation is reached. The book’s title of course immediately evokes the venerated mid-60’s song of the same name by Simon and Garfunkle, although the generally accepted meaning of that song -the inability of people to communicate with each other emotionally – is a far cry from what Takemitsu and his devoted adherent Goldsaito have deemed vital in the understanding of sounds, whether they be how they are couched in an art form or deciphered in everyday life. The author’s collaborator is the illustrator Julia Kuo, and the finished product not only confirmed she was up to this rather intricate assignment, but she brought the highest level of pictorial sublimity and thematic mastery to this unique enterprise.
After little Yoshio opens his front door he is regaled by the clamor and dissonance of big city noise related to the maze of transportation. Though Kuo’s rain swept canvas can easily enough be sorted out in audio terms, younger readers are given some effectively applied dual language sound words and store names, which Kuo later relates were drawn from her memorable childhood visits to the steaming metropolis. While Goldsaito writes that the sounds of the city swirled all around him (Yoshio), Tokyo was like a symphony hall. Then a quartet of kids including Yoshio, armed with yellow umbrellas “squish” and “squash” through the puddles in a busy urban intersection that bears some resemblance to Times Square, with Kuo’s electric cityscape painting a congestion of eatery and corporation signs, tree tops, and a swarm of people crisscrossing in all directions. Yet the kids in the forefront transform chaos into exhilaration, drudgery into fun, and reckless pitter patter into musical notes. Kuo’s widescreen panorama gives such a detailed view of frenzied precipitation, that most readers will be able to hear the accompanying sounds echo off the page. Then Yoshio is seen solo, approaching an older woman, a koto player named Sensei who is tuning her instrument. But the boy was smitten by the anomalous sounds -Goldsaito describes them as “low, squeaky and vibrating” though he confesses to the street laughing musician that he never heard them before. Goldsaito closes that charming interlude with a gem of a metaphor:
The koto player laughed, and it sounded like the metal bell that swayed in the wind in Mama’s garden.
Kuo’s beautifully drawn and photo shopped art -is finely textured, colorful and striking in its deft employment of perspective. At the foreground is a young woman with a red umbrella waiting, while others including a man with suit and tie and a cup of coffee and a family that includes two young girls are walking in opposite directions. On the street in the background a bicycle rider, also with red rain protection moves along. Seen mid-range are sushi stands with attendants and customers, and behind Sensei, steps, rails and Japanese square patterned windows. Kuo’s arresting close-up of the weathered Sensei abreast of her koto can be seen as the book’s incarnation of Takemitsu himself, when she responds to a query by Yoshio: “The most beautiful sound is the sound of ‘ma’, of silence. Yoshio’s exasperation mirrors that of the townspeople in Stone Soup when they are told that the best soup can be made from a few ordinary stones. Kuo’s enlargements pictorially befit a crucial moment in the boy’s philosophical understanding and the vivid textures in the koto player’s apparel and the boy’s puddled rain gear render the scene extraordinarily authentic.
With this provocative advice Yoshio races past the Muji building, en route to school, wondering where and how he will find silence, and is reminded of the exceeding difficulty in such a venture by the forceful sounds of his boots crashing on the rain covered pavement. After a school day of unabated noise, Yoshio decides to visit the one place he always regarded as the most tranquil, a bamboo grove beyond a playground. Kuo’s spread, evoking the otherworldly temper of Kyoto’s Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is unquestionably the most magnificent in the book with the visually inherent sense of the unknown, accentuated by the takeh-takeh-takeh of the stalks and the swish-swish-swish of the leaves Goldsaito ascribes to this sensory encounter. The soft pastel green, unencumbered by the polychromatic schemes of the other pages intimates that Yoshio, aside from his distinguishable primary color clothing brand is moving closer to the meaning of the quest initiated by the koto player. Then in a quick reference to the game of hide and seek when the one who searches is told “You are getting warmer” when the pray is closer to discovery Yoshio reaches a frigid stage as he absorbs the deafening sounds of whooshing trains, bus horns and beeping traffic lights in an environment where silence is as alien as loud sounds would be from an audience in an opera house. Yet again this gifted illustrator brings dazzling perspective to the long train platform, and there is even a clue given of a man wearing a fumigation mask, immersed in a book. In an overhead capture of Yoshio’s family noisily eating the young boy is still a long way from hushed nirvana, and things aren’t much better in a bathtub with water droplets annoyingly pervasive.
Staying up late for the nocturnal promise of a soundless epiphany, Yoshio is foiled by an outlying radio sound brought an aural dimension to his dreams, and Kuo’s delicate violet hue wonderfully serves the situation. The arrival of morning was a time of barking dogs strutting their stuff, and his two sisters whizzing by on their bikes, screaming out Yoshio’s name. The boy was nearing the realization that there could never be true silence in a world governed by acoustic mayhem. Kuo’s green scrubbed illustrations are these pages are wholly exquisite as is the deserted red bricked school house that offers the best hope yet for an end to the boisterous impasse.
Yoshio entered the classroom and opened a book and began reading.
Suddenly, in the middle of a page, he heard it. No sounds of footsteps, no people chattering, no radios, no bamboo, no kotos being tuned. In that short moment, Yoshio couldn’t even hear the sound of his own breath.
Then, Goldsaito’s most beautiful writing in The Sound of Silence:
Everything felt still inside him. Peaceful, like the garden after it snowed. Like feather-stuffed futons drying in the sun. Silence had been there all along.
Kuo’s muted beige color scheme underscores the moment of truth – the realization that the privacy and intimacy of reading, which transports the reader into another world renders all else to quiet servitude. Goldsaito parlays her story of those vital elapses on a sound stage to the power of the imagination inherent in the reading experience. It is of course a noble message to those traveling through the pages of The Sound of Silence, but also in a general sense a tribute to a student’s one way to mute the volume and revel in the glory of silence. The author brings together this singular hiatus in the moments when stillness is punctuated by the various activities documented where Yoshio took these abbreviations for granted. Only through the power of reading did he then understand that the silent intervals are what accentuated the the onrush of sound, and the revelation is life changing. In the final double page spread featuring Yoshio sitting alone at his desk reading a book in space between a mass of people from all walks of life, Kuo powerfully isolates sound from silence, and the tapestry has a silent film feel. One may recall King Vidor’s 1925 The Crowd, which depicts a single desk inhabited by James Murray, sitting alone among a full house of office workers. The book’s cover showcasing Yoshio with red cap and blue knapsack holding yellow umbrella in a white expanse between masses of people shown on each side in black line drawings is a wonderful study in contrast. The end papers feature the diagonal direction of rain, which Kuo so effectively incorporated into the book’s earlier panels.
Throughout this soulful picture book, Ma can be found during every step taken by our perplexed protagonist, though of course it will require the backtracking that a second reading would confirm. In the service of this profound story, one inspired by one of the music world’s most revered artists, Ms. Kuo has turned in Caldecott worthy work, using color superbly (and diminishing it) to support the unfolding of the theme, but as a stand alone this is as sumptuous as any picture book released in 2016.
Note: This is the tenth entry in the ongoing 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include at least 30 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 22nd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.