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Year: 2014
Language: Japanese
Director: Oh Mipo
Adaptation from:
Novel of the same title by Sato Yasushi
Screenplay: Takada Ryo
Cinematography: Kondo Ryuto
Soundscore: Tanako Takuto
Cast: Ayano Gou, Ikewaki Chizuru, Suda Masaki, Takahashi Kazuya, Hino Shohei, Isayama Hiroko, Tamura Taijiro.
Runtime: 120 min
Distribution: Open Sesame (Tokyo)
Film’s official website: Hikarikagayaku (日本語)

Trailer: A trailer is available, but I’m not linking it here on purpose. I think it’s best to go completely blind into this film – the trailer contains some tiny, spoilerish bits. If you do insist, it’s below the Image Gallery at the end of the post. You might prefer to read this review post-film too.

Special thanks to Raindance for providing me with a screener for this film. The European premiere of Soko nomi nite Hikari Kagayaku, which was recently chosen as Japan’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, will be at the Raindance Film Festival on September 29, 2014. A second screening will take place on September 30. Tickets can be booked here.

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Soko nomi nite Hikari Kagayaku is the sort of film I would like to write two reviews for: one for the people that have seen it and one for those who haven’t. It is the sort of film about which there is, afterwards, much to discuss, but which it is best to go into blind because not knowing is, at least in a first viewing, much of its power.

What we do know from the start is that something is utterly wrong: the camera pans across a messy room, with clothes strewn about and an ashtray full of cigarette stubs. The soles of two feet come into view, naked legs, black underwear, and a back, also naked, follow – a person lies prostrate on a tatami mat. It’s a scene in sharp half-light and with close-up framing, as often throughout the film, bringing viewers intimately into the space of the character but not showing the bigger picture. And so it is here too: there are tiny sweat drops on the neck and heavy breathing, then a sudden cut to a completely different scene and a near-immediate return to another close-up, now of terrified eyes in bright sunlight as the person awakes from the nightmare. What it is that haunts him, we do not yet know.

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The person is Tatsuo (Ayano Gou), a young and troubled man who, unemployed, spends his time between his mostly bare container home and the pachinko parlour. He avoids interaction with others as much as possible, throwing a lighter to a lively youth that wants a smoke but leaving before the guy can return it, indeed, buying a new lighter with his pachinko winnings just to cut any connection. The youngster, Oshiro Takuji (Suda Masaki), however, is not so easily dissuaded and tags onto Tatsuo, convincing him with incessant chatter to join in for a meal at the Oshiro household.

In a shabby home by the Hokodate (Hokkaido) seaside Tatsuo meets Takuji’s apathetic mother (Isayama Hiroko), his stroke-impaired father (hidden away in a dark room, Tamura Taijiro) and Chinatsu (Ikewaki Chizuru), Takuji’s older sister, whom he is instantly drawn to but who, still unbeknownst to him, carries the burden of this family on her shoulders. In these early days, however, Tatsuo is only lost in his own pain and his attraction to Chinatsu – her blouse partially unbuttoned, her shorts too short – is likely driven by nothing more than a bit of lust. And yet, it seems that even from this beginning, some unspoken connection is there, Tatsuo’s own raw pain meeting with Chinatsu’s and binding them.

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While there is no fixed perspective in Soko nomi nite Hikari Kagayaku, Tatsuo’s reality mainly guides the story. We follow him as he meanders around town, changing course whenever something gets in his way or an unwelcome acquaintance (Hino Shohei) from the past reappears. Beneath his slacker exterior, he is utterly broken, tormented by a recent trauma. A single word can throw him off: suddenly hunched over (as if falling into himself) or curling up against the wall on his bed, his anguish is palpable. Although we do not know for a long while what kind of demons he is fighting, seeing him suffering makes it difficult to imagine that there can be any pain worse than his – until, bit by bit, the complex situation of Chinatsu’s family is revealed and, as contradictory as it may sound, Tatsuo’s agony begins to pale in comparison. Tatsuo too becomes aware of this, the realisation drawing him out of his one-man shell as he goes looking for Chinatsu and builds a kind-of friendship with Takuji. He dispenses no judgement on anyone in the Oshiro family – not even when Chinatsu’s worst sacrifice comes out –, his own experience of despair allowing him to look beyond what most would be unable to ignore.

The characters of Soko nomi nite Hikari Kagayaku are people that, on the surface, are easily judged and scorned. They are uneducated good-for-nothings that, unemployed or on parole, waste time and money they barely have in pachinko parlours. They chain-smoke through the day, drink themselves into stupor and seek cheap sex in shady establishments. Chinatsu, devoid of any shame or pride, prostitutes herself, while Takuji essentially sells her body away, seemingly without so much as an ounce of guilt. The mother averts her eyes from it all, too deep in her own misery with a husband whose mind and body can no longer function, only his insatiable virility intact. While we don’t gain much insight into the Oshiro parents, Oh manages to awaken our sympathies for Tatsuo, Chinatsu and Takuji by slowly revealing an absurdity within society: much of what this threesome does is, if considered by ‘normal’ standards, unsavoury and immoral, and some of it even criminal. All their actions, however, are driven by deep despair and come with profound and inescapable consequences – in contrast to others, better placed in society, whose immoral behaviour stems purely from greed and selfishness but, being largely legal, get away unpunished.

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Soko nomi nite Hikari Kagayaku is full of powerful scenes. Sex and violence are ever-present and make for some of the most carefully handled and effective moments in the story, despite difficulties in filming, as Oh revealed:

How much nudity do you show? …  A lot of actresses in Japanese films will not do nude scenes. It’s because Japan is a country of shy people, but you can’t do that kind of scene halfway. If you don’t show nudity you end up with lies in your film. (quote source)

The multiple sex scenes highlight differences of distinct moments of lust, love and hatred between various pairings, as well as reflecting changes in the relationships. The director does not go halfway here: one encounter between Tatsuo and Chinatsu, although shot in near-darkness, is more graphic than what many viewers will feel comfortable with. Showing the actors fully nude, not just kissing and moving suggestively but licking nipples, the camera also lingers, and lingers, and lingers, when you would expect a cut. It’s an uneasy invasion of a private moment but somehow, as we watch, the length of the scene transforms into something meaningful: while still more lustful than tender, it conveys the love between the characters precisely because we stay with them and they fully expose themselves at their most vulnerable.

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The three main actors offer fine performances, especially given they are often not allowed dialogue to provide explanations but much is conveyed implicitly, through body language only. Ayano, whom some fangirls/fanboys may still have filed away in the eye candy category, delivers the same kind of intense, raw acting that we witnessed in his breakdown scene in the dorama「空飛ぶ広報室」(Soratobu Kouhoushitsu, 2013), but now stretched out over 120 minutes. Ayano’s project choices have always been a bit risky, never shying away from dark or deviant – he’s been the villain, the gay guy, the married woman’s lover, the serial cheater. His turn as Tatsuo confirms that in Japan’s entertainment world where many play safe by choosing mainstream films or more easily likeable characters, he is one of those willing to show themselves at their weakest and worst, if a role so demands [one a side note, among his peers, Moriyama Mirai is another that falls into that category – see「苦役列車」(Kueki Ressha/The Drudgery Train, 2012)].

I have watched few of Ikewaki’s projects, but her fearless film choices after「ジョゼと虎と魚たち」(Joze to tora to sakana tachi/Josee, the Tiger and the Fish, Japan, 2003) come as no surprise. Suda Masaki, the youngest and least experienced of the three, meanwhile, had earlier roles mostly in manga adaptations, including some very light ones –「高校デビュー」(Kōkō Debyū/High School Debut, 2011) and「男子高校生の日常」(Danshi Kokosei no Nichijo/Daily Lives of High School Boys, 2013). The much grittier「共喰い」(Tomogui/Backwater, 2013) seemed to divide people’s opinions, although he did win Best Newcomer laurels for it. His character in Soko nomi nite Hikari Kagayuku could easily be dismissed – he is just a baka, an immature and naive kid that fools around –, but in fact shows greater depth than we might first expect, both when he is tending to plants and in the climax of the film.

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Soko nomi nite Hikari Kagayaku is subtly crafted in other ways too. The film features a minimal soundscore, with music playing in few, carefully selected moments. Meanwhile, a cinematography of monotonous tones for one character is contrasted with bright neons for another. As already mentioned, half-light and shadows persists throughout, keeping us in the dark visually, symbolically and narratively until in one moment the blinding sun comes out: the light, we eventually find, shines only there.

Rating: 9/10

Overall verdict:

Bleak and raw, Soko nomi nite Hikari Kagayaku does not make not for easy viewing, but manages stir our sympathies for characters that, living in realities utterly alien to many, are difficult to relate to and easily judged for their inane, immoral and sometimes even criminal actions when, caught in seemingly hopeless situations, they are merely trying to survive.

Bonus bits:

Image Gallery: