Japan’s image overseas might have a funhouse aspect, but even many outlanders who live here only get a selective view of the place, since their Japanese colleagues and friends mostly come from the educated, middle-class stratum of society and live more or less stable, law-abiding lives.
Mipo Oh’s third feature, “Soko Nomi Nite Hikari Kagayaku (The Light Shines Only There),” shows a different stratum, one made up of an underclass living close to the edge — or over it. But has the talented Oh gone over the line herself this time? Filmed in the grittier parts of Hokkaido, in shades of pollution-haze brown and dirty-window gray, “Soko Nomi Nite Hikari Kagayaku” is relentlessly dorodoro, a hard-to-translate if perfectly apt word that signifies a dark, endless swamp of emotional turmoil. From beginning to end, the film is replete with lonely alcoholic binges and loveless, even brutal sex, while family life is portrayed as a pit of grinding poverty, hopeless illness and crazy-making despair.
Yasushi Sato, the author of the 1989 novel on which the film is based, committed suicide at age 41 in 1990. Was his “light that shines only there” not of this life, but the next?
The film lives up to its title by justifying the agony of the central couple and giving their pain meaning. But the experience of viewing it is somewhat like enduring a long, painful illness and, after recovering, seeing things everyone takes for granted — a bird in flight, a walk on the beach — as blissful miracles.
The film’s first shot travels slowly up the scarred, sweaty body of the hero, Tatsuo Sato (Go Ayano). He has passed out drunk on the floor and is having a nightmare about discovering a dead body under rocky rubble.
Next we see him in his daily refuge from the reality of a jobless, aimless life — a pachinko parlor. There he meets Takuji (Masaki Suda), a brash kid whose cheeky friendliness breaks through his shell. Exiting the parlor, Takuji takes his new pal to the ramshackle house he shares with his bedridden father, careworn mother and wary older sister Chinatsu (Chizuru Ikewaki). While Takuji devours her fried rice like a hungry animal, a current of attraction passes between Tatsuo and Chinatsu.
But Chinatsu’s past experiences with men, including her volatile married lover Nakamura (Kazuya Takahashi) and the faceless clients at the bar where she works as a hooker, have destroyed whatever illusions she had about men.
A romp in the surf dissolves her reserves, though, and soon Tatsuo and Chinatsu are making love in Tatsuo’s mess of a room.
This surf-to-sex transition is a big cliche in Japanese films, right up there with soulful talks on school rooftops, but Tatsuo and Chinatsu’s relationship has nothing of the standard romantic drama about it.
Both carry wounds that defy healing — sexual or otherwise. Tatsuo’s searing guilt inspires his drinking, moodiness and sudden rages. Meanwhile, Chinatsu bears a crushing burden of responsibility for her dysfunctional family, while feeling defective as a woman and a person. She affects a hard shell at work to keep others from peering inside, though Tatsuo — who first encounters her cooking that fried rice — sees her in a softer, more intimate light.
The brash Takuji, with his uncombed blonde hair and unbrushed brown teeth, keeps intruding into the frame like a hyperactive, out-of-control kid. Why, I started to wonder, is this character getting so much screen time?
But Takuji’s fizzy energy counterbalances Tatsuo’s intense inwardness. And this ticking human time bomb who desperately wants love, but might first explode, gives the dorodoro story a needed charge.
With his moody, hangdog air, Ayano’s Tatsuo is not always easy to like, though his frank talks with his understanding former boss (Shohei Hino), as well as flashbacks to his former life as dynamiter at a local quarry, give us glimpses of a better man who once had self-respect.
As Chinatsu, Ikewaki’s performance is at once complex and transparent, drilling down into the essence of her character’s longing and self-loathing, her capacity for love and her longing for oblivion.
Salvation, as the title implies, is not hers or anyone’s for the asking. Sometimes you just have to be with the right person in the right place at the right time to find “the light that shines only there.” Just call it grace.