Japan (2017) Dir. Naomi Kawase
Is it possible to have a connection with something you can’t see? Sure, that might describe religion in a nutshell but I’m referring to something we know is actually there but we are unable to see it through impairment. Similarly, there is a tacit psychological application to this, demanding we open more than our eyes to see what is before us.
Misako Ozaki (Ayame Misaki) is a writer of audio descriptions for films for the visually impaired. She is currently working on a profound arthouse drama and reads her scripts at special screenings for a focus group of impaired people to garner their feedback. Misako receives mostly positive and constructive comments except for partially sighted ex-photographer Masaya Nakamori (Masatoshi Nagase).
Nakamori is blunt with his criticisms, accusing Misako of being too subjective which she takes on the chin but isn’t happy with his directness, leading to an uncomfortable verbal showdown. As Misako struggles to find the right balance of approach to her work, Nakamori has to contend with his remaining visibility fading away, finding an unlikely ally in Misako.
French singer F.R David famously sung in his 1983 hit “Words don’t come easy to me”, a problem in more ways than one in this outing by Naomi Kawase. Having made her most accessible film yet with the deeply affecting and effortlessly charming Sweet Bean (An), Kawase returns to the artier roots of her Cannes winning Mourning Forest with a dash of Sweet Bean’s poetic poignancy.
Radiance is a multi-tiered tale that really doesn’t need to be, sadly to its detriment. The main story of Misako trying to put herself into the place of those without vision is more riveting than it sounds, whilst the subplot of Nakamori’s last hurrah as a sighted person is also played out well enough but suffers from one contrivance too many.
Then there is the bookend issue of Misako’s mother Yasuko (Kazuko Shirakawa) back in Misako’s rural home village, suffering from dementia. It is not long after the death of her father and Misako is still hurting, making the impending loss of her mother a tragedy she doesn’t want to occur so soon. Unfortunately, Kawase does little to make this an intrinsic part of Misako’s plight, leaving a good 80 minutes between the two segments dealing with this.
However, the lingering memories of her father are rekindled for Misako via a photobook of Nakamori’s picture, specifically one of a sunset which evokes a happy time for Misako, captured in a grainy photograph she carries in her purse. As much as this was a lifetime ago for Misako, so it also was for Nakamori, his debilitating eyesight robbing him of the one thing he truly loves.
Perhaps it is no surprise Nakamori is grumpy – a simple pleasure and his life’s work taken from him by his own biology, but when it comes to “seeing” the beauty in things, he knows whereof he speaks. Because of his brusque hostile manner, Nakamori is the one Misako wants to accommodate the most seemingly at the expense of the others in the focus group who no feel Misako can’t understand their feelings in needing the right description.
It’s an interesting journey Misako goes on in rectifying this, from the earnest attempts at assimilation by walking the streets with her eyes closed to describing everything in her head. Her pairing with Nakamori leads to a needlessly predictable romance of sorts, but one born out of the mutual experience of loss and not as turgid or lurid as it could have been.
Elsewhere, Misako is taken to task by the director and star of the film she is describing, Kitabayashi (Tatsuya Fuji), for not having the life experience to understand the feelings of his character in the final scene. She obviously can’t win, but through Nakamori, it all becomes clear (excuse the pun given the subject matter) and a new perspective on not just her life but her mother’s too is found.
With Nakamori as the secondary lead character, his story gets a fair bit of screen time to unfold, naturally taking some time for the audience to warm to this almost irascible man. In one scene, Nakamori slips on a pile of vomit in the street to laughter by onlookers, whilst someone known to him steals his camera. The loss of the camera hurts him more than his loss of dignity but it is a wake-up call he must face up to his own mortality.
Most interesting of all is how, either ironically or obtusely given the plot, Kawase has made a very visual film. The photography is consistently stunning, rife with picturesque tableau and living compositions that emphasise light and colour, the textures living up to the film’s title. As well as the esoteric use of close-ups, we are often afforded the sights through Nakamori’s failing eye, an artistic construction in its own right.
Returning to Kawase’s aegis after Sweet Bean, Masatoshi Nagase is rather restrained in his portrayal as Nakamori, in that it is the subtleties of his portrayal and not the overt gestures that define his character. He is angry but not self-pitying, proudly independent but to proud to ask for help. The romance with Misako is unnecessary; a senpai/kohai relationship feels more natural for Nakamori as Nagase plays him.
Speaking of natural, in a turn that should propel her into the spotlight, Ayame Misaki rarely shows signs of acting as Misako, even in dramatic mode. I defy anyone not to be moved as she tries to maintain her polite composure whilst receiving harsh feedback at one of the focus group sessions. It’s one of those simple moments that mean the most, among a series of deftly navigated scenes by Misaki and Kawase.
There is much to recommend about Radiance, yet Kawase, like Misako, doesn’t quite get all of it right with flaccid sub plots bloating an otherwise profound story and possible allegorical confession of Kawase’s own status in cinema.