Saturday, September 27, 2014

SDFF ’14: Touching the Sound—the Improbable Journey of Nobuyuki Tsujii

Blind since birth, Japanese classical pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii’s admirers even included the late great Van Cliburn, who heard the young musician during the international competition that bears his name. It is therefore probably safe to conclude Tsujii acquitted himself quite well in Fort Worth. Viewers will follow his progress round-by-round and even more importantly watch Tsujii give back to the survivors of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Peter Rosen’s Touching the Sound: the Improbable Journey of Nobuyuki Tsujii (trailer here), which screens today during the 2014 San Diego Film Festival.

We often hear how other senses compensate for lack of sight among the blind. In Tsujii’s case, he developed a Mozart-level musical talent, at an astonishingly young age. It is not just his ear and his mechanics that impress, but also his remarkable memory for long passages of music. Clearly, he was born to play the piano—a fact his supportive mother quickly recognized.

Indeed, Tsujii’s mother is a central and edifying figure in his story. However, it is worth noting the extent to which his fellow students also accepted Tsujii, despite his differences. In fact, Rosen shrewdly recognizes one of the pivotal stories of his early career revolves around his mother’s decision to allow him to attend a class camping trip, rather than force him to practice slavishly for an important competition.

Not surprisingly, Rosen’s nicely constructed and surprisingly intimate documentary has absolutely nothing bad to say about Tsujii. At only twenty-four, he has not had much time to do anything scandalous, especially while living the life of an international prodigy. Perhaps the film’s greatest drama involves the Chopin and Cliburn competitions, but the most emotionally resonant sequences capture his special concerts for tsunami survivors. The healing and rebuilding are far from complete, yet in films like Touching we get a sense of the dignity and resiliency of the Japanese people. Nations that have endured far less have demanded far more, considerably less graciously.

Of course, Rosen also documents the fact Tsujii sure can play. Altogether, he is quite a nice young chap, who is particularly gifted expressing the lyrical beauty of his instrument. Definitely worth spending time with, Touching the Sound screens this today (9/27) as part of this year’s San Diego Film Festival.