It's been a while since I watched a good, gritty, rough and introverted Japanese drama film, not something that's been broadly available the past couple of years. It's nice to see Mipo Oh pick up this type of cinema so elegantly and effortlessly. The Light Shines Only There [Soko Nomi Nite Hikari Kagayaku] is a strong, intriguing and emotional drama that may not always be easy to watch, but is all the better because of it.
The film reminded me a lot of the mid-2000 films of Ryuichi Hiroki, combining edgy drama with frank sexual scenes and a strong female lead. In the case of The Light Shines Only There though, there's an actual woman in the director's seat, securing a very warm and natural atmosphere that runs throughout the entire film, no matter how vile and disturbing the drama becomes.
The Light Shines Only There was chosen to represent Japan at the Oscars this year. Obviously it didn't get a nomination (I wonder if anyone at the Academy even made it to the end), but it did give the film the international exposure it deserves. Based on a 20-year old novel by Yasushi Sato, the film follows 3 people living their secluded lives in the lower society ranks of Hokkaido. Life isn't easy for them, but somehow they find hope and warmth in each other's company, no matter how dire their situation becomes.
It's not so much a film about poverty itself though, instead Oh focuses on the hardships that life has dealt them. Tatsuo is without a job, dealing with the death of a co-worker he was responsible for. One day he runs into Takuji, a former convict who is trying to make ends meet by working for a local criminal. Chinatsu, Takuji's sister, is working as a prostitute in a small bar, financing the care of her dad who is bedridden after having suffered a stroke.
On the visual side of things, Oh doesn't stray away too much from the expected. Most of the scenes come across as very natural and effortless, though there are moments of stylistic excellence. A few nice tracking shots and some amazing jump cuts, coupled with some beautifully shot twilight moments add some shine to the film. All of these are classic elements of Japanese drama cinema, but they're executed quit nicely indeed.
The soundtrack is up to par, a selection of good but rather typical drama songs that get the job done. It's the sound design that provides real added value here, dropping sounds or highlighting them for extra dramatic effect. When used in combination with the sparse visual trickery it makes for some truly stand-out scenes that lift this film far above the status quo.
The acting is not extraordinary, but it's rock solid nonetheless. Go Ayano and Chizuru Ikewaki both put in a tremendous effort, drawing lots of emotional value from their respective characters, even when their motivations can be a little hard to grasp. I did need a while to get used to Masaki Suda, whose performance is a bit more accentuated. In the end though it's his performance that proves to be crucial to the balance between the harsh drama and the characters' positive outlooks.
On paper The Light Shines Only There is a vile and relentless drama. Characters are abused, do things normal people would never want to be associated with and reside in a place with no real perspective of a better future. And yet, they deal with their problems in a very calm and down to earth way, putting aside their pride in return for a little bit of happiness. The ending is warm and hopeful, something I didn't really expect, but it fits the film remarkably well.
The Light Shines Only There is a surprisingly dark film for Mipo Oh (who, up until now, directed much lighter fare), but it's clear she has a knack for handling edgy subjects in a very respectful and natural manner. The result is a strong, remarkable drama with no weak points and a few stand-out scenes that linger long after the end credits have faded from the screen. A very welcome addition to the dwindling Japanese drama cinema.