Lives on the Edge
The Light Shines Only There (Soko nomi nite hikari kagayaku)
Volume 15, Issue 2 (Film review 1 in 2015). First published in ejcjs on 30 August 2015.
Director: Mipo Oh
Actors: Ayano Gō, Ikewaki Chizuru, Suda Masaki, Takahashi Kazuyoshi
Release date: 2014
Run time: 120 minutes
The Light Shines Only There is bathed in sunshine. Unlike two other recent films set in the grim world of small-town Hokkaido, Kumakiri Kazuyoshi’s Sketches of Kaitan City and My Man, Light foregoes bleak winter landscapes for a Hakodate summer. This world is hot and sweaty, with blinding rays of light reflecting off the ocean, the actors’ faces and through the windows of darkened homes and hotel rooms.
The situation, however, is anything but bright. Tatsuo (Ayano Gō) spends his days drunk or playing pachinko, haunted by a workplace accident. One day he meets Takuji (Suda Masaki), a loudmouthed, bleached blond labourer who invites Tatsuo home for lunch. Things aren’t good at home—Takuji’s incapacitated father moans from the next room, while his mother sneers at Tatsuo and asks if he’s a friend ‘from inside.’ But then Tatsuo meets Takuji’s sister Chinatsu, and the attraction is instant and mutual. Their relationship is complicated by Chinatsu’s home life—to support her family, she’s working as a prostitute and maintaining a relationship with a local mafioso named Nakajima (Takahashi Kazuyoshi, in a truly frightening role). Nakajima also employs Takuji and is responsible for writing up his parole reports, which means everyone is stuck in a web of dependence that isn’t easily untangled.
Light is a significant departure in tone for filmmaker Mipo Oh, whose award-winning oeuvre includes family dramas like The Sakais’ Happiness and Here Comes the Bride, My Mom! Though the subject matter is decidedly darker, at its core Light is also a story of family and relationships. The film is based on a 1989 novel by Satō Yasushi, who also wrote the short story collection that Sketches of Kaitan City is based on (and committed suicide shortly before the latter book was published). Like Kaitan City, Light is about the struggle to find and maintain human connections in a world where basic survival is precarious, and where most people have been forced to harden themselves to succeed.
For Chinatsu and Takuji, most remnants of warmth and connection have been replaced by a basic need to survive. Their family may have once been idyllic, but after their father’s stroke cut off the primary source of income they find themselves trapped in a pitiful echo of family life. The father is almost a vegetable, but he has a voracious sex drive that the weary mother feels obligated to satisfy, in a storyline reminiscent of Wakamatsu Koji’s 2010 film Caterpillar, about a severely disabled soldier who returns home from the war with little more than his physical and sexual hunger intact. Chinatsu, for her part, seems to have genuinely loved her father and feels real pain at seeing what he has become.
These characters are all part of Japan’s class of working poor—a long-invisible group without the safety nets of extended family or government services who see little hope or possibility for change in their futures. In Precarious Japan, Anne Allison (2013, p. 6) writes of those who are both financially and emotionally impoverished, feeling that they have no ibasho (home) or place of refuge. Poverty, Allison writes, is “a state of desperation, of panic over debt collectors and rent, a life lived on the edge. And, by this definition, Japan is becoming an impoverished country. A society where hope has turned scarce and the future has become bleak or inconceivable altogether.”
Despite their grim circumstances, hope has not completely deserted Tatsuo and Chinatsu’s family. Faint glimmers of happiness—as fleeting as the light that always seems to be shining just out of reach—are very much present in the film. It’s the very possibility that happiness might be just around the corner which makes the story all the more heartbreaking, since even the smallest attempts to carve out a decent life are thwarted by harsh economic realities and the predatory behaviour of people like Nakajima, who treats Chinatsu and Takuji as things to be used. Chinatsu’s ibasho becomes not a place of refuge but a lead weight—she says that she’s thought about leaving the town many times, but she “couldn’t leave (her) family.”
As Chinatsu, Ikewaki Chizuru glows with a radiance that belies her bitter interior. We meet her in a moment when she seems to have resigned herself to her fate, but Tatsuo awakens a not-quite-extinguished desire for something more. When she smiles, we see hints of who she used to be. When Chinatsu and Tatsuo come together in the middle of the ocean, fiercely swimming toward one another with a desperate need, their merging is utterly joyful and relieved, both of them gasping as they grasp at something they never thought they could attain.
Ayano Gō, for his part, manages to convey layers of personality—a grieving friend, a lovestruck youth, a protective partner, a quasi-father figure to Takuji—sometimes all at once. Drunk in the hostess bar where he encounters Chinatsu, his whole body seems crushed under the weight of his grief. By the end of the film, it’s clear that he still carries that weight, but his relationship with Chinatsu—and maybe even with Takuji—has lifted some of it.
Takahashi Kazuyoshi and Suda Masaki are the wild cards, and their performances are equally memorable. Takahashi has a quiet menace that never leaves his eyes, and yet he’s a slick charmer when he’s not bullying Takuji or abusing Chinatsu. Suda’s over-the-top brashness at first feels grating, but we gradually see that it’s a facade kept in place to cope with his multiple failings in the face of his family’s near-disintegration. When the facade finally comes down, it’s painful to see.
Mipo Oh and cinematographer Kondō Ryūto (who also filmed the Hokkaido landscape in Sketches of Kaitan City and My Man) play with light constantly throughout the film. It penetrates the gloomy corners of Chinatsu and Takuji’s home. Neon and flashing lights reflect off of Chinatsu and Tatsuo’s bodies as they have sex, illuminating them and then hiding them in shadow. In a Hakodate summer, light is everywhere, but for these characters it’s also eternally just out of reach.
Nowhere is this more poignant than in the relationship between Chinatsu and Tatsuo, two people who are clearly aching for some small piece of contentment to heal their many wounds. For all its grimness, Light can’t seem to let go of hope. The light may shine only briefly, and only in a place just out of reach, but it’s there.
Allison, A., 2013. Precarious Japan. Durham: Duke University Press.
Article copyright Lindsay Nelson.