Loss is a frequent theme for Naomi Kawase, beginning with her early documentaries based around her own unusual upbringing: Left by her divorced parents to be raised by a great-aunt, she lost a conventional family life.
Facing the middle-aged photographer hero of her new film “Radiance” (“Hikari”) is a loss of an intimately physical, professionally devastating kind: He is going blind.
The film’s initial focus, however, is Misako (Ayame Misaki), a young woman who is writing the script for an audio guide that will help the visually impaired enjoy an coming movie in the theater. When the photographer, Masaya (Masatoshi Nagase), harshly criticizes her script during a prerelease screening for a panel of the visually impaired, Misako is both hurt and angered. Naturally, “Radiance,” which was awarded the Ecumenical Prize at the 89th Cannes Film Festival, is being promoted as a love story, with Misako and Masaya as its two principals.
But Kawase, who also wrote the script, has more on her mind than getting her age-inappropriate pair into a clinch. Instead of romantic feelings, Masaya and Misako are struggling with inexorable change: Masaya is about to lose his reason for being, while Misako, as we see in fraught visits to her countryside home, is still mourning her dead father and watching her mother slip into dementia.
Kawase, with photographer Arata Dodo as her cinematographer (his father, Shunji Dodo, was Kawase’s teacher) captures every emotional tremor of these struggles in close-up after close-up, often with a handheld camera following the character’s every move.
A common aim of this in-your-face approach is shouty melodrama, and the volatile Masaya does flare into anger and even violence. But in “Radiance,” the camera expresses not only Masaya’s visual world, which is steadily becoming dimmer, but also the glory of light, shown in everything from the sun glinting through the trees to Masaya’s photo of a heavenly dusk. Entranced by this image, Misako becomes obsessed with finding the beach where he took it.
In previous films Kawase has used this sort of contrast between human suffering and natural beauty to deliver New Age-y epigrams — and “Radiance” is not totally free of them. But she has also pared her story to the bone, while conveying more of her message through shimmery images and meaningful glances than portentous dialogue.
And what is that message? Acceptance trumps bitter resentment; love beats lonely isolation. Some may call this simplistic, but in Masaya’s world even a sliver of light or glimpse of a face are precious. And basics matter more.
Masatoshi Nagase, who also starred in Kawase’s 2015 “Sweet Bean” (“An”), plays Masaya as a soul in crisis still clutching at shards of his old life, while hating his fate. Yes, Nagase over-fondles an antique Rolleiflex camera — the symbol of that life — but he also brings a wounded dignity to the role.
Ayame Misaki is solid as Misako — and refreshingly testy. After listening to Masaya trash her script, she snaps back, “You have no imagination.” In a film full of gauzy beauty shots suggesting eternity, this is a rare down-to-earth moment.
And just maybe it’s Kawase, who has been handled roughly by Cannes reviewers, giving them a backhanded slap.