“I’ve come to the city and my heart has turned black” sings a monstrously corrupt former opera singer turned bizarre nightclub impresario in hellish Bubble-era Tokyo. A tale of urban “sophistication” versus pastoral innocence, Shinji Somai’s Luminous Woman (光る女, Hikaru Onna) sends a pure-hearted mountain man into the dark heart of the modern day city hoping to rescue the woman he loves who swore she would return to him but instead has been swallowed whole by the neon-lit landscapes of the contemporary capital. 

“Tokyo is lonely place” the hero immediately exclaims on witnessing it from the urban sprawl across the water in the company of an opera singer, Yoshino (Monday Michiru), whom he describes as like a doll without any blood coursing though its body. The incongruity of Sensaku’s (Keiji Muto) presence is immediately signalled by his appearance. Dressed in a bearskin jerkin and baggy trousers, walking with bare feet (all the way from Hokkaido!) and his face mostly beard, he looks every part the frontiersman as if he’d somehow stepped out of the 19th century straight into Bubble-era Japan. As he explains, he’s come looking for his woman, Kuriko (Narumi Yasuda), who travelled to Tokyo to study accounting to help the local farmers manage their businesses when she returned to run a farm with Sensaku. 

The first note of discord arrives when the man travelling with the opera singer, Shiriuchi (Kei Suma), tells him that he knows a woman by that name who also came from the same town in Hokkaido but she now works as a bar hostess. Shiriuchi only agrees to tell Sensaku the rest of what he knows if he makes an appearance at his club in its gladiatorial floor show. Sensaku is used to the primal struggle, he’s a mountain man after all and physically robust. He isn’t afraid of a fight only warning that there’s a chance he may kill his opponent to which Shiriuchi declares so much the better.

This a Tokyo populated by those who are in a sense already dead. Shiriuchi’s floor shows leverage mortal struggle as a means of existential validation, yet his concept of “sophistication” founded in European classicism is directly contrasted with the idealised pastoralism to which Sensaku eventually returns as he and the other villagers plant new crops surrounded by greenery and an incongruous mix of animals including a mischievous racoon. Yoshino, the “bloodless” opera singer has lost her ability to sing seemingly because of her oppression at the hands of Shiriuchi who describes as her as a “commodity”, “precious as a diamond”, but later treats her as a kind of broken toy complaining that if he cannot “enjoy” her body nor exploit her voice she has no further value to him. 

It soon becomes clear that Kuiriko too has fallen under his spell, working at an equally weird nightclub where the pale-faced hostesses wear kimono and sing children’s folksongs. She came to the city for education, but has become a drug user which leaves her vulnerable to Shiriuchi’s manipulation. Several times he is referred to as “master” and there is something Devil-like about him in the influence he seems to wield in these strange spaces of the prosperous city buried somewhere beneath the neon lights and sprawling office blocks. The pinkish tint of Somai’s colour grading along with his characteristically roving camera add to the sense that we already in hell and if Sensaku does not escape from it soon, he too will be consumed like Akanuma (Hide Demon) before him who came to look for a woman only to discover that she had already found happiness with someone else. 

Mountain man Sensaku’s identification with fisherman Akunuma is only further deepened by the sensation that he too is “burning” in the literal flames which lend a hellish glow to the empty swimming pool where he consummates his relationship with Yoshino who subsequently regains the ability to sing. They are both in a sense pure-hearted men out of place in the emotional austerity of a modern capitalist society, a pair of Orpheuses descending into hell in search of lost love but finding only disappointment and ruination. Sensaku is finally able to escape in accepting that he cannot rescue Kuriko in part because she has no desire to be rescued, while Yoshino may still come with him if she too chooses to leave. Somai’s characteristically long takes add an edge of eerie oscillation to his often theatrical composition which culminates in the scene of two women connected via telephone call seemingly sharing the same space even as one is surrounded by a spiderweb of laser-like red string. Dreamlike and often surreal, Somai’s etherial fable casts the Bubble-era society as a hellish underworld of broken dreams and human cruelty but finally takes refuge in a scene of pastoral restoration neatly mirroring the trash-heap paradise of its opening.

Luminous Woman screens at Japan Society New York on May 5 & 13 as part of Rites of Passage: The Films of Shinji Somai

Teaser trailer (no subtitles)

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