Painful love in decaying Hokkaido port town

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

My interview with Mipo Oh, the director of the turbulent new love drama “Soko Nomi Nite Hikari Kagayaku (The Light Shines Only There),” did not begin smoothly.

Through a chain of miscommunications and misunderstandings I was tacked onto the end of her long day of press meetings. Also, instead of making her entrance after I’d stowed my jacket and extracted a recorder — standard operating procedure for these sorts of interviews in Japan — Oh was already waiting for me when I arrived at our tiny meeting room, by the main administrative office of Kokugakuin University in Shibuya, where her film was being screened. I had flashbacks of less-than-pleasant meetings with stern-faced teachers and principals at various stages of my checkered academic career.

Oh’s new film, “The Light Shines Only There” — based on an 1989 novel by Yasushi Sato — is not an easy watch, with its story of two lost souls who find each other in a decaying Hokkaido port, while battling past traumas and present feelings of worthlessness and despair. For Oh, this challenging, uncompromising film marks a departure from some of her earlier, more audience-friendly work. And yet its central couple, Tatsuo (Go Ayano) and Chinatsu (Chizuru Ikewaki), find moments of meaning and connection, however impossible permanent redemption may seem. The “Light” in the film’s title, in other words, is not just a bitter illusion.

Born in 1977 in Mie Prefecture, Oh has spent more than a decade in the film business, entering veteran director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s PSC production company after graduating from Osaka University of Arts. She has since made several award-winning shorts and three feature films.

Oh is a physically small woman in an industry dominated by men with big egos, and she may have been toughened by her various battles, but she’s still gracious enough to politely welcome an erring journalist who is keeping her from a well-deserved dinner.

I make my first question a softball: Why did she film Yasushi Sato’s quarter-century-old novel about a couple with limited prospects and a troubled past as a contemporary story?

“I didn’t see any meaning into looking back 20-some years ago,” she says. “The couple (in the novel) are living in poverty — the reverse of the power and influence Japan had at the time. But in Japan’s current highly stratified society, a lot of people are either unemployed or not getting enough work. I thought the couple’s poverty reflects the conditions now, so I changed the setting to the present.”

Oh did not, however, consider changing the location of the original story: Hakodate, Hokkaido. “I couldn’t have shot in Osaka, no,” she says. “The film ‘Kaitanshi Jokei (Sketches of Kaitan City),’ from 2010, which was also based on Sato’s book, was set in Hakodate too, but it depicts Hakodate exactly as it is in the winter. The original book depicts Hakodate in the summer, so I thought I should show exactly how summer is there.”

She also did not want to present the picture-postcard side of the city found in many of the films shot in Hakodate. “The novel is not set in the more prosperous parts of the city,” she says. “Also, I wanted to shoot images of Hakodate that are not seen in films.”

But Oh did not take a camera into the poorer parts of town and shoot documentary-style. The film, she explains, has a color scheme that reflects the setting and characters.

“The story takes place in the city, by the sea and a bit in the mountains,” she says. “The city, where Tatsuo spends a lot of time, is full of neon, so I wanted to shoot it colorfully. Chinatsu lives by the sea, which is where her heart has become hardened, so I wanted to film the ocean in monotones.”

But while precisely coloring Chinatsu’s world, Oh gave the actress playing her, Ikewaki, relatively free rein. “(She) is a really intelligent actress, with a great sensibility,” Oh explains. “Instead of me telling her (how to play this or that scene), we talked at first about Chinatsu. After that she did as we had discussed. I left the role up to her.”

That role involved many bed scenes, which Oh admits were difficult to film.

“How much nudity do you show?” she asks rhetorically. “A lot of actresses in Japanese films will not do nude scenes. It’s because Japan is a country of shy people, but you can’t do that kind of scene halfway. If you don’t show nudity you end up with lies in your film.”

I ask Oh if being a Zainichi Korean — ethnic Korean residents of Japan, long marginalized in Japanese society — made her feel closer to the inner truths of her outsider characters.

“There’s something to that,” she concedes. “I’m a Zainichi Korean, not a pure Japanese, so that’s been a kind of motivating force for me in doing this job. That is, I’m living in a country not of my own blood. My parents and my grandparents came to Japan and I was born here — that’s my situation. So I’ve thought really hard about what it means to be a Japanese or, to put it another way, what it means to live normally here. I didn’t make this film because I’m Zainichi Korean, but you could say that sort of thinking became a motivating force in how I depicted the characters.”

After congratulating her on “The Light Shines Only There” being selected for the Montreal World Film Festival, I take my leave, a bit awkwardly, since the office is barely big enough to turn around in. I notice that she is already flipping through the emails on her smartphone at a furious rate. Dinner, I think, may have to wait.