Mio On The Shore (Watashi wa hikari o nigitte iru)
Japan (2019) Dir. Ryutaro Nakagawa
Change is one of the things in life many of us struggle with; some even refuse to accept or embrace it, but it is a necessary occurrence to ensure civilisation, and humanity itself continues to thrive and progress. The biggest threat for the pessimists among us (hello!) as how it affects our place in the world if we fail to adapt to change.
20 year-old Mio (Honoka Matsumoto) runs a small traditional Japanese inn in Nagano with her grandmother and heavily pregnant aunt after the passing of her parents. When the grandmother is taken ill and hospitalised, the aunt shuts the inn and sends Mio to Tokyo to get find work. She arrives at the bathhouse run by Kyosuke (Ken Mitsuishi), an old friend of her late father, who gives her a room.
Struggling to fit into the busy suburban Tokyo life as opposed to the languid serenity of the country, getting a job that satisfies Mio isn’t easy, until Kyosuke eventually lets her work at his bathhouse. However, the bathhouse is old and the shopping district it is in is due for demolition, something Mio is distraught to learn just as she was beginning to get used to the local people and find her feet in Tokyo.
Japan has a knack of making quiet, slow paced, quotidian films which should be dull and tedious, but are innately and endearingly charming through their unaffected depiction of Japanese life beyond Samurai and rampaging atomic giant monsters. Ryutaro Nakagawa is back with another meditation of the vicissitudes life throws of us and how we deal with them in his usual gentle, often oblique manner.
Nakagawa isn’t one for offering answers to any of the questions he raises in his films and Mio On The Shore is no exception, but he does at least end things on a hopeful note and doesn’t just leave audiences hanging like some auteurs would. Nakagawa discusses old vs. new, tradition vs. modern, past vs. future, but with a humane look at the sacrifices made by those forced into change.
It’s not a new story but Nakagawa eschews the usual melodramatic plot line of the small hidebound local business owners trying to stand up to a corporate Godzilla looking to crush them. Actually, this doesn’t become a plot issue until the final act which is a little frustrating, yet spares us the above outlined cliché, allowing Nakagawa room to explore the cast and the community instead.
Despite what one woman says during the film, Mio isn’t so easy to read since she rarely speaks. Even in her place of contentment at the family inn, Mio’s facial expression is at best bewildered, at worst saturnine seldom changing throughout. This is understandable when she first moves to Tokyo, alone and uncertain, and Kyosuke is hardly welcoming either – not rude, just insular and curt.
Kyosuke is also a man of few words, relying too much on booze to get over a busy day. Whatever his problems are, they are not shared, but he clearly has burdens he can’t articulate to anyone, or simply just refuses to. Mio’s arrival doesn’t offer companionship even with the shared bond of her late father, but she does have a positive effect on him by the end.
Playing out like a teen slacker comedy, Mio’s first job is in a supermarket as a part timer but she hopes to go full time and earn more. Yet, even with her hospitality background, Mio is completely lost when it comes to handling complaints about damaged foods; that she is scorned by a schoolgirl colleague is enough to force Mio to quit after one day. Helping out at the bath is a lateral move but right for Mio as she begins to integrate with the locals, opening her eyes to a culture perhaps not so common in the country.
A frank conversation between ex-lovers, one of whom is still married, shocks Mio, yet she finds temporary bliss at an Ethiopian restaurant. But she does befriend local cinema owner and filmmaker Ginji (Daichi Watanabe), whose documentary on the denizens of the shopping district takes us into meta-cinema territory later on with poignant effect, as we see the line up of the smiling senior citizen store owners then later, shots of closed stores thanking customers for their support over numerous years.
The original Japanese title translates to “I’m holding the light in my hands,” a refrain from Mio’s narration during the final act, accompanying a series of images I found a tad arcane narrative wise. For example, Mio walks out into the lakes fully clothed – I wasn’t sure if this symbolised the next step of the story, or was an esoteric way of exploring Mio’s existential plight. That said, the message of the control of our fate being in our hands comes across clear enough and gets a uplifting pay off.
Visually, every frame is composed with catching the moment at its most honest and evocative in mind, telling a story greater than any verbal exposition could. In one scene, Mio tests the bath water with her hand, gently resting it on the still surface then slowly submerges it, disturbing the optical illusion created by the camera angle. It sounds obtuse but I saw this as Mio finally finding her place in life through this simple act.
For Honoka Matsumoto, this affords her a moment of ethereal delicacy and the chance to realise the essence of Mio’s hitherto inscrutable character. The competent support cast are the moths dancing around her inert flame but are not required to relay gravitas; it is a story about life so they live it in front of the camera for our delectation.
Mio On The Shore can be as deep as you want it to be or simply an enigmatic snapshot of Japanese culture. Personally, I felt it needed a little more story and less abstract poetic whimsy, but is still another pleasant slice-of-life entry from Nakagawa.