'The Light Shines Only There': Cairo Review

Courtesy of "The Light Shines Only There" Production Committee/Yasushi Sato


A wrenchingly bleak look at the human condition

An offbeat love story circles around three desperate young losers

The ugliness of life on society’s shadow edges is boldly observed in Japan’s official submission for the Oscars, The Light Shines Only There (Soko nomi nite Hikari Kagayaku), a grim portrait of self-loathing tempered by compassion which might have appealed to Fassbinder. Taking a break from her cheery earlier work (The Sakai’s Happiness and Here Comes the Bride, My Mom!), talented director Mipo Oh plunges into a fierce character study of three young people on the way down. Despite their mega-problems, the trio has a poignant honesty that gets under the viewer's skin and the film has already gathered festival acclaim, winning best international feature at Raindance and best director at Montreal. Adding in some brutal sex scenes, this is far from an easy watch and probably too downbeat for general audiences.

Ryo Takada’s fine screenplay is based on a novel by Yasushi Sato, who committed suicide not long after it was published, and the story-telling reflects a mood of hopeless emotional entanglement. In a desolate seaside town in Hokkaido, moody drifter Tatsuo (Ayano Go) drowns his sorrows in drink. He’s not a sailor but a former quarry worker who lives burdened with guilt over an accident in the mountains, gradually revealed in all its horror. One day in a cheesy pachinko parlor, his path crosses that of Takuji (Masaki Suda), a loud, eccentric boy of sudden enthusiasms. In the hovel he shares with his senile father and exhausted mother, he casually introduces Tatsuo to his sister Chinatsu (Chizuru Ikewaki), who attracts him like a magnet. His fascination survives learning she turns tricks in a bar to keep the family going, and has a violent married lover (Takahashi Kazuya) who’s obsessed with her. The latter is a sort of businessman-gangster who signs Takuji’s parole reports, and so exercises an unbreakable hold on the girl.

The story only gets grimmer as it goes along, sliding towards tragedy without actually going there. As a director, the sure-footed Oh shows her commitment to diving deep into the most sordid human relationships, which include a hair-raising off-screen scene between Chinatsu and her stroke-addled father. Steering clear of cliché, Ikewaki is nothing short of riveting in this punishing role. Her earthy sensuality turns several explicit sex scenes into moments of live-wire tension, while her savvy, down-to-earth talk wins sympathy and understanding. Playing the sullen, surly, drunken and introverted hero, Ayano's Tatsuo is much harder to warm up to until he’s humanized in the last part of the film.

As the crazy goof of a brother, Suda leaves his mark with excesses of vital energy, perking things up with his loud mouth, dyed yellow hair and matching teeth. In a role that could have been pure color, he creates a moving portrait of a none-too-bright outsider struggling against a hostile universe to find his niche. His job planting trees, his sister’s part-time employment in a squid factory and Tatsuo’s in a rock quarry all suggest the healing natural environment they aspire to. Maybe nothing is perfect, but there is something better out there for these wounded characters to find.

The film has a notable visual intensity that shines through the gray and brown scenery, which can be extraordinarily expressive thanks to Ryuto Kondo’s mood-setting cinematography.  Meticulous production and costume design fully recreate a sense of place.

Production company: The Light Shines Only There Production Committee

Cast: Go Ayano, Chizuru Ikewaki, Masaki Suda, Kazuya Takahashi, Shohei Hino, Hiroko Isayama, Tajiro Tamura
Director: Mipo Oh
Ryo Takada based on a novel by Yasushi Sato
Producers: Hideki Hoshino, Maeda Hirotaka
Executive producers:
Mamoru Nagata, Kazuhiro Sugawara
Director of photography: Ryuto Kondo
Editor: Etsuko Kimura
Music: Takuto Tanaka
Sales Agent: Open Sesame Co.

No rating, 120 minutes