Romaji: Soko nomi nite Hikari Kagayaku
Running Time: 120 mins.
Release Date: April 19th, 2014 (Japan)
Director: Mipo O
Writer: Ryo Takada (Screenplay), Yasushi Sato (Original Novel)
Starring: Gou Ayano, Chizuru Ikewaki, Masaki Suda, Kazuya Takahashi, Shohei Hino, Hiroko Isayama
Fresh from Japan is a wave of young female directors creating deeply interesting dramatic tales of tragedy driven by dark emotional undercurrents that are found in everyday life. The Light Shines Only There (Soko Nomi Nite Hikari Kagayaku) is Mipo Oh’s most recent contribution to this movement. I saw it at the 2014 Raindance Film Festival where the quality of the film blew me away through how well composed and how immersive the atmosphere and darkness of the film is.
The Light Shines Only There is technically flawless which allowed me to experience the story perfectly. Every scene is visually beautifully put together, the august pacing of the film allows the audience to understand the story and characters and this reveals that the writing and acting is focussed and emotive, without fault and all telling a simple but powerful narrative. It does not feature crazy plot twists or outrageous characters, it is rooted in reality and remarkable in how it takes the audience into the world of the characters and lets us glimpse their suffering, despair, and see them discover a glimmer of hope in life.
The film takes place in Hakodate, Hokkaido, a port town where the sun shines brightly on people going about their daily lives as they prepare for a festival and fun.
Not taking part in any of the festivities is Sato (Ayano). When we first meet him we see he is sleeping off a night of heavy drinking and suffering a nightmare. The opening shot of the film pans up his almost naked body sprawled across the floor of his tiny, almost unfurnished apartment. He is unemployed. His days are spent wandering around the streets of the city and visiting pachinko parlours in a fog of melancholy. His nights are spent stumbling from bar to bar in a drunken stupor. We don’t know why he is in this state but fragments of a traumatic dream that keep recurring throughout the film hint at a bloody tragedy that has trapped him in a destructive routine which he uses to blunt his trauma.
One trip to a pachinko parlour sees him meet Takuji (Suda), a boyishly handsome, blonde-haired brazen kid who lolls about in loud clothes and packs a loud mouth. He wears his heart on his sleeve and is good-natured. His puppyish enthusiasm and simplicity sees him break through Sato’s grim exterior and the two start hanging out mostly because they have nothing better to do. Takuji takes Sato to his cramped, shabby home which lies on the edge of a beach, a desolate looking place with patches of sand and scrub grass, where shacks are dotted along the shore and some boats lie listlessly on the ground far from water, their paint peeling in the sun. The view across the bay is a factory spewing out smog. Takuji’s house is full of clutter and there is little in the way of privacy apart from a few plastic sheets. This is where Takuji’s worn-out mother struggles to cope with his father who is suffering the debilitating aftereffects of a stroke and a rampant libido. Also in the house is Takuji’s older sister Chinatsu (Ikewaki).
Chinatsu has just finished cooking rice when Sato and Takuji first enter. Upon her introduction we immediately see she is also worn out by their circumstances but as the boys start eating her freshly cooked meal she shares a glance with Sato who registers mutual attraction by glancing back and a slight energy flickers to life inside the two characters.
They hold off for now but a night getting drunk sees Sato run into Chinatsu at a bar where he discovers she picks up men as a prostitute. Sato makes an ass of himself and gets thrown out by Chinatsu.
Despite Sato’s unfamiliarity with the family he returns to visit them again and again. It is clear he is taken with her and she with him even after their argument at the bar. Those glances the two exchange, the way they hold each other’s gaze and the way they orbit each other even when they hurt each other burns not just with an animal attraction but shared darkness. We know that Sato is damaged from our first glance of him and his brooding air but so is Chinatsu who also has some deep existential self-hatred drawn from her circumstances, the extreme poverty and hopelessness she lives with, and the way she is used by men, especially her violent and jealous married lover Nakamura (Takahashi) who uses his business connection to set Chinatsu and Takuji up in various jobs to control her. Chinatsu’s situation with Nakamura is one she sums up as, “… a rotten relationship.”
If Sato is trapped by his past, Chinatsu is trapped by her present. It’s terribly complicated for both the two. They dream of being together and reveal their passions and what haunts them to each other in frequent meetings, walks on the beach and dalliances in the water. These actions defy an increasingly angry Nakamura and may have repercussion for Chinatsu and Takuji…
For all of the sunlight that shines on Hakkodate, these characters exist in a world of darkness both in terms of their spiritual and mental world and in terms of the lives blighted by poverty that we see on screen and the way people with money and power exploit them.
The darkness has its basis in the original novel that this film is based on. It was written by Yasushi Sato, the award-winning author of the novel (published in 1989) and a native of Hakodate, Hokkaido, the setting of the film. He struggled in life. He was a contemporary of the massively successful Haruki Murakami but he remained pretty much unknown and unsuccessful despite being nominated for the Akutagawa prize and Mishima prize multiple times. His lack of success was compounded by physical problems brought on by autonomic ataxia, a neurological condition that causes all sorts of unwanted physical reactions. He committed suicide at the age 41 in 1990. His works fell out of public consciousness until quite recently. I may be reading too much about the author’s situation but I think his experiences and frustrations have clearly informed the writing of the character’s feelings, their despair, frustrations, and hopelessness and the feeling of being trapped that saturates the film and it is amplified by the director’s skill in exploring the issues affecting the characters and making the emotions almost palpable without getting sidetracked by frivolity or commercial demands.
Mipo Oh’s direction is show-not-tell direction at its finest, her visuals and editing relaying the inertia and emotional problems of the characters, building up and showing the suffering of Sato and Chinatsu and moving at a slow and sticky pace so we feel their struggle out of their bleak physical surroundings and emotional pit of despair in a grimy part of Japanese society that isn’t normally seen on screen.
There is none of the colourful and pretty Japan hype we normally see in tourist literature and anime, none of the cherry blossoms (wrong season), or the geisha (this isn’t Kyoto, this is an industrial town), and no school girls (this is a drama about adults) and certainly none of the weird and wacky characters some expect to see. The film’s locations and setting are every day and relatable with a dive into poverty and despair as seen through the eyes of adults who are lost. Despite the sunlight, stark and harsh for the most part, the colour palette of the film feels like a drab one with the murky browns and greys of the dull areas of the city being predominant in the films visuals. This ensures the film has the muggy atmosphere of a summer choking the characters who loll around in a sticky haze both mental and physical. Their emotional journey feels at one with their physical surroundings.
The pacing is slow as befits a drama about people pushing through a personal emotional morass to find some hope. The script ensures we get involved in an intense present-tense narrative that is enriched by flashbacks to help contextualise why characters act the way they do, helping build nuanced interpretations of them. Throughout the film Mipo Oh’s use of editing skilfully intercuts parallel scenes of self-destruction so we see Sato drinking himself into oblivion and Chinatsu sinking further into self-hatred by selling her body to men in loveless encounters in miserable love hotels and by giving equal screen time to these two characters in parallel spirals of despair we understand that they are both lost and they find salvation in each other and this journey is made even more effective by the acting.
Gou Ayano offers up a picture of confusion and gloom, his lithe frame juddering around uncertainly in a stubborn search for oblivion. He believably portrays a character who finds it hard to communicate his inner turmoil. His halting speech and mood swings speak of pent up emotions giving substance rather than seeming theatrical and the air of despondency that hangs around him gradually builds up into terse and confused confessions as he opens up to his new friends and unlikely saviours Takuji and Chinatsu.
Ikewaki plays Chinatsu as a woman with a tough exterior who takes on the responsibility of her family and refuses to let anyone see what despair she truly feels. She is emotionally opaque in an intriguing way, at once strong despite being a woman continually dragged down by her rotten situation. She refuses to break but she questions what is she living for. With Sato, she finds an answer and she slowly gives in to hope whilst dealing with her violent lover.
Her body, along with Ayano’s, is often central to the scene and they inform us of their character’s developments perfectly through their physicality which is constricted and full of awkward moments, their speech which is a series of terse snatches of dialogue and silences that obscures what they feel and this all reveals the stifled emotions. All of this containment makes us focus on their performances, invites us to peer into their murky characters and so we gain more as they gradually open up to each other the more time they spend together and we see how they find freedom in a loving and mending relationship.
The most notable performance however comes in the shape of Takuji who is played by Masaki Suda as a cheeky kid who has the speech of a ruffian (being able to speak Japanese is a big help in getting just how rough he is) and especially with his grin and energy which radiate a good if unstable nature.
Suda is a revelation. His physicality is the most open of the actors. He slouches about when uncertain and when he finds himself comfortable he flings himself around. There is something charming about the immature guy, the way he rides his small bicycle like a young boy. He forms the lynchpin between Ayano and Ikewaki’s performances, keeping things from getting too grim and also acting as a conduit for the two to feed into one another.
You can feel a bond developing as you watch all three actors and this makes the film compelling as we see if they can escape their poverty together and misery.
The first work of Mipo Oh’s that I saw was a short film that was part of the Quirky Guys and Gals (2010) collection, a slight comedy. With The Light Only There she has created a bleak film that radiates with hope at the very end (the ending is so perfect that I want to put it at the end of this review underneath more pictures so spoiler warning for the things that come after this final paragraph). The events of the story may be easy to predict but the direction and acting make the journey profoundly moving. Cinema can be more than just simple entertainment and this challenging title shows how people can physically, emotionally, and mentally cope with and overcome their struggles and imbibe some hope from the simplest of thing. Mipo Oh is skilful enough to do this. She takes a novel laced with misery and reveals the tenacity of the human spirit through suffering and in its final few moments manages to imbue it with hope.
The film’s climax comes after a lot of drama and after a lot of realism, it is a moment of simple poetic beauty which strikes the heart hard. The central couple are on the beach and the sun rises in the mountains behind Sato. Chinatsu slowly turns to look at him, her battered face registers a smile, Sato, smiles back at her. Amidst all of the tragedy and missed opportunities they have found each other. The only sound we hear as they look at each other is that of the waves lapping up on the shore. On screen text emerges. The Light Shines Only There – the first time we see the title. Brilliant.