The Light Shines Only There (Soko nomi nite hikari kagayaku)

Japan (2014) Dir. Mipo Oh

Japanese-Korean director Mipo Oh’s shift from quirky comedies to downbeat drama has paid dividends as The Light Shines Only There has not only won international acclaim but has also been selected as Japan’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2015 Oscars. However this rather bleak affair, an adaptation of the 1989 novel by Yasushi Sato (who committed suicide shortly after its publication), contains some themes which frankly are likely to be too dark for the conservative sensitivities of the Oscar voting committee.

Otherwise this is a quietly affecting tale of three people looking for a release from the darkness of their problems, their coming together unwittingly serving to exacerbate the complexities of their issues than offer a path to salvation. Tatsuo Sato (Go Ayano) leaves his quarry job in the mountains after an accident he believes he was responsible for, and hides away in Hakodate city in Hokkaido, drinking the night away and wasting his days in the pachinko parlours. One day Tatsuo lends his lighter to Takuji Oshiro (Masaki Suda), a rather loud young chap who invites Tatsuo back to his home for some food.

Home happens to be a rather squalid little apartment which Takuji shares with his invalid but sex mad father Taiji (Taijirô Tamura), his tired mother Kazuko (Hiroko Isayama) and his older sister Chinatsu (Chizuru Ikewaki). It is the latter who piques Tatsuo’s interest but any thoughts of something happening are quickly extinguished when Tatsuo stumbles into a small bar one night when the owner offers him a girl for some fun – the girl being Chinatsu. In his toxic state Tatsuo insults Chinatsu and she slaps him.

A sober Tatsuo later apologises and he and Chinatsu start again on a more positive note. Meanwhile Takuji is on parole after serving time for stabbing someone and works odd jobs under the sponsorship of Nakajima (Kazuya Takahashi), a small time yakuza who is not only Chinatsu’s boss but also her lover. When Chinatsu wants to make things work with Tatsuo, a jealous Nakajima decides to throw his weight around.

One adjective which could be used to describe this often difficult to watch drama is “earthy”, a reflection on the low key approach to the filming and the organic way in which the central relationships gradually evolve. There are moments where the plot teeters on the brink of turning into a conventional melodrama – mostly the scenes involving Nakajima and Chinatsu – but Mipo Oh deftly pulls the reins back to maintain the overall gritty feel of the film.

With three deeply flawed characters surrounded by a similarly troubled support cast, this film is not a barrel of laughs and lays on the drama pretty thick from the onset, starting with the nightmares of the quarry accident which haunt Tatsuo regularly. The truth is revealed piecemeal with teases from Tatsuo’s old boss Matsumoto (Shohei Hino) making frequent appearances to persuade his erstwhile colleague to return to the mountains, but this does little to lift Tatsuo’s spirits.

Chinatsu feels the burden of being the main breadwinner of the family albeit through questionable employment. When not servicing customers at the bar or in hotel rooms, Chinatsu works part time at Nakajima’s squid factory while her fling with the boss affords a few hours work planting trees for Takuji as well as keeping him out of trouble from the police. The whole Oshiro family appear to be aware of this arrangement but no-one bats an eyelid as long as the money comes in.

I did say that this wasn’t a light movie but we are afforded a couple of moments of guilty black humour sniggers courtesy of the bed ridden libidinous father, who is constantly needing to have his jollies despite recovering from a stroke. However just as this is darkly comical it is also the source of two arguably deviant but heartbreaking scenes to illustrate the unfair pressure this puts on the family and how far one member in particular is prepared to go to keep the status quo regardless of how uncomfortable it may be.

Our three protagonists each have their own individual crosses to bear from which they seek respite and a chance of a possible bright future. Their problems become intertwined and eventually a collective effort is required to reach a resolve yet their personalities remain true to their individuality. As the youngest, Takuji is reckless and reactionary, almost immature in his hasty actions while Tatsuo is more logical and thoughtful in his methods. Chinatsu is the bridge between the two, acting on the whim of her heart while weighing up the consequences first.

This is superbly reflected in the performances of the three leads, each one fully committed to realising the behavioural nuances of their characters. Go Ayano ditches his usual pretty boy persona to play the moody and complex Tatsuo with a quiet conviction while Masaki Suda provides the film with its energy as the misguided tearaway Takuji. Carrying the emotional weight on her shoulders is Chizuru Ikewaki, who is arguably the engine of the whole piece. She may not be glamorous but her confident, raw and sassy essaying of Chinatsu makes her troubled character both sexy and sympathetic.

Mipo Oh’s direction is very assured and while she favours long takes – some of which should have been trimmed down – and superbly composed and shot images courtesy of DP Ryuto Kondo, this film is neither arthouse nor mainstream, containing elements to potentially hook both audiences. It is the unhurried pace and often sparse and drab presentation which will deter the latter but this is reflective of the maturity Oh has found while making this film.

At the risk of appearing negative an Oscar win for The Light Shines Only There is questionable at best (depending on the other films) but that is not a slight against this slow burning and purposely provocative character study of lost souls in search of hope. A tad slow but overall sufficiently effective.