The 1964 tune “The Sound of Silence” by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel is a bona fide classic, but it never really identifies just what this “sound of silence” is. That task instead falls to “In Pursuit of Silence,” the documentary about this surprisingly hard-to-pin-down aural quality and why it’s worth pursuing.

One thing quickly becomes clear: Silence is not simply a measure of decibels. Through a series of new and archival interviews with authors, scientists, musicians (most notably the composer John Cage, he of the famous “4’33″”), Zen practitioners, etc., we learn the definition of silence can sometimes get downright spiritual. One historian makes the compelling case that the occasional retreat into quiet and solitude was once an essential part of the human experience — one that has been eroded by a modern society obsessed with constant visual and aural stimulation.

The second half of the film documents some of the tolls of our noisy modern life. Take a school in New York next to a train track, for instance, where students are falling behind their peers due to the interruptions (my mind immediately went to Okinawa, where jets flying overhead have caused similar problems) — or loud hospital emergency rooms, where garbled communication can literally lead to death.

In Pursuit of Silence (Seijaku o Motomete: Iyashi no Sairensu)
Run Time 81 mins.
Language English, JAPANESE
Opens SEPT. 22

More generally, the film argues, noise has reduced our capacity for reflective thought and seriously stressed us out as a species whose DNA is still built for the quieter environments of our ancestors.

“Silence” is filled with examples from all over the world, and a significant portion was shot in Japan. On one hand, Japan is shown to be a friend of silence, both historically (as in the practice of Zen, for example) and more recently, with scientists here at the forefront of research into so-called forest therapy.

It’s not all peace and quiet in Japan, though, as the dwellers of cities like Tokyo and Osaka are well aware. Shibuya makes several appearances in the film, with overhead advertisements, sound trucks and the general human din pushing the decibel level into the mid-80s, enough to cause permanent hearing damage.

It’s not all bad news for our eardrums, though. The final third of “Silence” focuses on ideas to turn down the volume, including manufacturers of noisy products like vacuum cleaners who are working on producing quieter versions. It also illustrates how, in some ways, we’ve come to have a greater appreciation of the quiet. Take the initial response to Cage’s “4’33″” in 1952 — bewilderment and anger — versus standing ovations in recent years.

The interviewees featured in “Silence” are compelling in their own right, but the film’s most persuasive feature may be its sound design — the way it contrasts the soothing ambience of a forest, for example, with the roar of the city, which feels almost painful in comparison. Contradictory as it may sound (pun intended), this documentary about silence is probably best viewed with a nice loud set of speakers.

In the end, “In Pursuit of Silence” may not provide an easy, one-sentence definition of silence, but it does make a compelling case for why it’s a state that’s worth pursuing. I generally consider myself a happy city dweller, but by the end of the film, I was thinking about when to make my next weekend retreat — and leave my phone and earphones behind.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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