Tatsushi Omori’s films have been pushing boundaries since his 2005 debut “The Whispering of the Gods,” with its story of a young murderer’s return to a Christian community presided over by the priest who abused him as a child.
A similar fascination with the darker impulses of the human heart is found in his latest film, “And Then There Was Light.” Based on a 2008 novel of the same title by Shion Miura, it examines the consequences of a rape and murder on three young lives both at the time of the event and a quarter century after.
Omori, who also wrote the script, interweaves past and present, Eros and Thanatos, love and hatred, with his usual excess, from the slashing, pounding score by Detroit techno pioneer Jeff Mills to sex and violence ranging from the outrageous to the ridiculous.
Meant to divide audiences between lovers and haters, the film left me more bemused than transported or revolted. Strong performances by male leads Arata Iura and the single-named Eita are offset by crude, exploitative bed scenes. Evocative camerawork by Kenji Maki on Toshima — the verdant stand-in for the film’s fictional island of Mihama — is countered by bloodbaths meant to shock, but which are as realistic as kabuki swordfights.
In contrast to Omori’s “The Ravine of Goodbye,” a taut 2013 drama about a youthful crime and its consequences that rightly won a slew of awards, “And Then There Was Light” is a misfire with moments of beauty and brilliance while being the very definition of miserabilism.
The story begins at a lonely mountain shrine on Mihama, where 14-year-old Nobuyuki witnesses his classmate and girlfriend Mika (Gu Ama) being raped by a guest at her family’s bungalow. “Kill him,” she commands, and he complies, as Tasuku (Atsuya Okada), a 10-year-old boy who is Nobuyuki’s constant (and often unwanted) companion looks on. Tasuku also takes a photo of the corpse. Not long after, a tsunami hits the island, killing Nobuyuki’s entire family.
Forward to 25 years later: Nobuyuki (Iura) is a mild-mannered City Hall bureaucrat married to Namiko (Manami Hashimoto), with whom he has a young daughter. This picture of seeming domesticity tranquility is shattered by the intrusion of the impulsive, explosive Tasuku (Eita). Now a welder by trade, he is still haunted by the brutal abuse his alcoholic father (Mitsuru Hirata) inflicted on him as a child — and still in possession of that incriminating photo. Meanwhile, Nobuyuki is still in thrall to Mika (Kyoko Hasegawa), now a famous actress who is sexy on camera, emotionally dead off it.
The ensuing clash of appetites, resentments and hatreds among this threesome unfolds in close, incestuous proximity, with an ancient tree riven by fissures and rooted deep in the Mihama earth serving as a visual metaphor for the life force in all its ambiguous power. Light from above — the hikari of the Japanese title — is swallowed in the darkness of the forest, and the hearts of the island’s cursed inhabitants.
But when one character hits another on the head with a shovel, intending to kill him, and the victim smears his own blood on his face, grinning from ear to ear, artistic provocation gives way to absurdity. Either that or Omori has no understanding of what extreme violence does to actual humans, not his directorial sock puppets.