REVIEW: Touching the Sound

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Touching the Sound: The Improbable Journey of Nobuyuki Tsujii screens on Saturday at 1 p.m. and April 23 at 5 p.m. as part of RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem. Director Peter Rosen will be in attendance for both screenings, which take place at Hanesbrands.

by Jordan Green

Touching the Sound
Touching the Sound

The idea of blind people having an extraordinary ability to discern sound to compensate for their lack of sight goes back at least as far as the “Little House on the Prairie” series. That blind people seem predisposed to music is a fact borne out by the careers of Ray Charles, Doc Watson, Stevie Wonder and Ronnie Milsap.

So Touching the Sound, a documentary about the Japanese piano prodigy Nobuyuki Tsujii, holds no great reveal, except perhaps through the epiphany experienced by the boy’s mother. Initially unprepared to raise a blind child, she describes the first months of his life as comparable to being in “dark tunnel.” It’s only when he displays an uncanny ability to play tunes by ear on a toy piano that she suddenly discovers that her son’s life, far from being constrained, holds unlimited potential. Viewers who are moderately sophisticated on the dynamics can experience the wonder of the pianist’s talent through his mother’s vantage point, even if the premise of the story is not particularly novel.

Director Peter Rosen takes viewers through bravura performances, lyrical visits to the beach and nail-biting competitions. Highlights include a triumphant performance at Carnegie Hall in New York City and a touching tour of a tsunami-stricken area of Japan, with a companion performance alongside a children’s choir. The former establishes the virtuosity of the pianist, nicknamed Nobu, while the latter reveals his extraordinary sensitivity. He’s clearly affected by the devastation, described to him in detail by his tour manager — proof again that blindness isn’t a limitation.

Even at 68 minutes, the documentary runs a little long as it recycles a handful of themes, but its most endearing angle might be the cross-cultural truism that disability need not be a liability.

Touching the Sound: The Improbable Journey of Nobuyuki Tsujii, dir. Peter Rosen, 2014, 68 min.

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  • Thank you for your generally positive comments about this most recent documentary by Peter Rosen about pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii.

    Although it is true that “blind people having an extraordinary ability to discern sound to compensate for their lack of sight” is not exactly a revelation, what the film also conveys is the extraordinary accomplishments of Nobu in ***classical piano ***, where playing complex compositions without sight is almost unthinkable.

    Still at a very young age, Nobu is performing at world-class virtuoso level, with an extensive repertoire comparable to top classical pianists. Another thing: he is the first blind pianist that regularly performs with major symphony orchestras, including on extremely challenging works such as Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3.
    This is why some classical music fans react to Nobu’s performance so emotionally, as shown in the film.

    I am glad that you picked up on the support that Nobu receives from his parents. Please allow me to share a quote from the mother, Mrs. Itsuko Tsujii, who recently appeared on a radio program in Japan: “The world of the ‘sightless’ is not the world of complete darkness that we think. I decided that his world can be enriched, little by little.” In Japan, Mrs. Tsujii is a popular speaker about child development.

    As a big fan of Nobuyuki Tsujii, I have had the pleasure of meeting in person the pianist, his mother, Mr. Rosen (film maker) and Mr. Nick Asano (the manager who escorts Nobu on tour, seen quite a bit in this film). I admire them all.