Follow the Light

Hikari wo Oikakete
2021 / 104m - Japan
Follow the Light poster

It's not often that I run into a Japanese drama that still knows how to surprise. There are so many of them, and so many of them are alike that it has become pretty similar to watching core genre cinema. And it's not even that Yoichi Narita's Follow the Light [Hikari wo Oikakete] is a real game changer, by and large, it sticks to the conventions of the genre, but there are flashes of absolute genius here that help to set the film apart from its many peers. And best of all, it is free to watch (until the end of September 2023), so for once the lack of availability is not a hurdle.

screencap of Follow the Light [Hikari wo Oikakete]

Japan loves a good drama film, though few people are aware as most of them never make it out of the country. I will admit that for the past fifteen years or so, the genre has turned inwards, with a lot of films following set, predictable patterns. Either you're watching some glossy commercial drama (usually sporting a few idols trying to make it in the film business) or it's prestige dramas geared at Western film festivals. Both are equally unoriginal and there's not much in between. It's a shame, as that middle ground is exactly where the early 00 Japanese dramas used to shine.

Follow the Light puts its focus on the slow decline of rural life in Japan. While idyllic and cinematic for sure, most young people prefer the bustle of city life and they move away from these rural towns, making it difficult for the older generations to survive. It's not a uniquely Japanese phenomenon, it's a recurring theme all over the world, but in combination with the peaceful setting and local culture, these dramas do sport a unique and recognizable vibe. Narita goes one step further by adding some minor genre elements. While not overpowering, it's a major help in differentiating Follow the Light from similar films.

When his parents divorce, Akira moves away from Tokyo and follows his father to his hometown. It's a small village in decline, and Akira has a hard time fitting in. Nothing fun happens until one day a bright light appears in the sky. Akira follows it around and bumps into Maki, an outcast girl who also trailed the mysterious object. They find a crop circle and decide to keep it their little secret. Not everybody is happy that Maki and Akira get along so well, and one of Akira's classmates plans to trap Akira and reveal the location of the crop circle, hoping this will drive Akira back to him.

screencap of Follow the Light [Hikari wo Oikakete]

The cinematography is close to what you'd expect from a film like this, but there are these chosen scenes where Narita ups the game and adds an extra level of polish. The rural setting is a boon and the film makes good use of its natural beauty, but it's the camera work and the way it catches the light, the exquisite framing, and the minute editing that make it extra special. The color work is also worth mentioning, with deep colors that mix warm and cold moods. It's been a while since I've seen a Japanese drama look this good, which is something I didn't really expect from a small indie film.

The soundtrack is perfect company for the visuals. Per usual, the music is pretty stereotypical and if you're familiar with Japanese dramas, you already know it's mostly going to be piano and string tunes that set the tone. Like the visuals, the base quality is solid, but again, there are those stand-out moments when everything is suddenly geared at creating atmosphere and the music does its part in making these scenes shine extra bright. The music and cinematography really come together here to give the film a very stylish and dreamy quality, which is exactly the kind of cinema I'm attracted to.

Tsubasa Nakagawa may technically be the lead, but it's Itsuki Nagasawa who draws all the attention toward herself. Even though she seems relatively young and her part certainly isn't the most straightforward, she has a natural ease with which she glides through the scenes, making everything looks absolutely effortless. She looks truly comfortable in front of the camera, even when it's begging for close-ups, so much it's difficult to imagine her not making it in the business. The rest of the cast is very capable too, with some more familiar faces showing up in secondary parts, but they all pale in comparison.

screencap of Follow the Light [Hikari wo Oikakete]

What starts as a pretty standard drama quickly gains an extra dimension when the light sci-fi elements are added. They're purely there for aesthetic reasons, so don't come in expecting to get your sci-fi fix from this film, but they do make a sizeable difference. They add a dash of mystery, while also providing a layer of symbolism that strengthens and deepens the drama on display here. I usually don't appreciate dramas with added genre elements (just to draw in a broader crowd), but the balance is perfect and I never yearned to get more out of the sci-fi side of the film.

Japanese cinema is in a bit of a slump, but from time to time fresh talent surfaces, even though they may not get the (international) recognition they deserve. Yoichi Narita shows he has a knack for drama with a minor genre twist, serving intriguing characters and a playful plot while offering a stylistic finish that puts more expensive films to shame. Take a chance on this little indie brilliant, the worst that can happen is that you don't really care for it, but you might just discover one of Japan's latest gems, without having to pay a single cent or even having to leave your house.