Backlight (逆光, Ren Sudo, 2021)

©2021 『逆光』 FILM
©2021 『逆光』 FILM

An aloof young man brings a friend back from college but struggles to convey to him his true feelings in the Onomichi of the 1970s in actor Ren Sudo’s directorial debut, Backlight (逆光, Gyakko). This may partly be because he himself is uncomfortable in his childhood home while the object of his affection seemingly takes to it though as someone else later hints perhaps in the end he is only toying with him as a pleasant summer diversion that will eventually draw to a close. 

Sudo opens the film with a series of black and white slides of Onomichi in the 70s accompanied by a cheerful voiceover in opposition to the film’s subsequent gloominess describing the area for tourists and in particular its cable car. Finally the slides give way to clumsy shots of Yoshioka (Haya Nakazaki), university friend of Akira (Ren Sudo), and a copy of Yukio Mishima’s College of Unchasteness. Akira has invited Yoshioka to stay with him at his family home in Onomichi for a week over the summer, but it’s fairly odd behaviour to invite someone somewhere and then spend the whole time telling them how awful it is and that you can’t wait to leave. 

Evidently the son of wealthy parents who for whatever reason are not around, Akira is a fairly unsympathetic figure who seems to have been harbouring resentment towards Onomichi ever since his family moved to the area from Tokyo when he as a child. He views it as dull and backward and seems to have only contempt for those who live there such as childhood friend Fumie (Eriko Tomiyama) whom he blanks in the street as like the cable cars of the opening he passes her in the company of Yoshioka. Realising he is back, she arrives at his home to return some books he’d lent her but even on encountering her there Akira treats Fumie disdainfully and is quite embarrassingly rude in front of his new friend explaining that he lent the books so that a simple country girl like her wouldn’t fall behind the times while contemptuously assuming that she won’t actually have read them. 

These misogynistic attitudes seem prevalent in the local community which is in any case unusually obsessed with Mishima. Another local intellectual describes College of Unchasteness, which Akira has not actually read, as “silly prose for women” a phrase Akira later echoes, while making a cynical comment as to its content suggesting that a woman’s ultimate pleasure lies in being murdered by a man she may have been manipulating. Unable to voice their desires directly there may be a degree of manipulation going on, Akira silently courting Yoshioka who may indeed be toying with him in the way that he may have been toying with Fumie who has since come to know of his sexuality. In any case he seems to be uncertain of Yoshioka’s receptiveness, crassly suggesting Fumie invite another girl, Miko (Akira Kikoshi), who seems strange and otherworldly, with the rationale that it would be a problem if she were too pretty and by implication insulting Fumie too in the process. Miko meanwhile is evidently upset by the lewd conversation while later prompted to leave the party after a political debate breaks out about nuclear arms. Perhaps it’s not surprising for a party that seems to be populated by Mishima devotees but even if their support for re-armament is a facet of their anti-Americanism it is curiously at odds with the times again upsetting Miko whose mother is a survivor of the atomic bomb having lost all her family. 

Even so the closing scenes turn back to Mishima and doomed romance in a description of love as a political act in which love that does not transgress, is not considered shameful or taboo, is not really love at all. Akira may have found the courage to overcome his fear of rejection, but it seems has not been altogether successful in love. Playing with the light, the brightness of the beaches, murkiness of the room occupied by Yoshioka, and that of the fire ominously reflected on Akira’s face, Sudo adds a note of wistful nostalgia expressed in the song sung by Miko that perhaps presents this “heartbreaking” summer with a sentimentality it does not quite appear to have even as Akira seems to come to an accommodation with himself, Fumie, and Onomichi amid the confusing summer heat. 


Backlight streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Images: ©2021 『逆光』 FILM

One Day, You Will Reach the Sea (やがて海へと届く, Ryutaro Nakagawa, 2022)

“We only see one half of this world” according to the absent heroine of Ryutaro Nakagawa’s moving mediation on loss and the eternally unanswered questions we leave behind when we die, One Day You Will Reach the Sea (やがて海へと届く, Yagate umi e to todoku). Taking its name from a plaintive folk song about a wife waiting for the return of a husband lost at sea, Nakagawa’s indie drama finds its melancholy heroine struggling to move on while plagued by a sense of regret in the absence of an ending. 

Mana (Yukino Kishii) first bonded with Sumire (Minami Hamabe) in the early days of university when she helped her navigate the tricky social rituals of freshers week, eventually moving in to her apartment but then moving out again to live with uni boyfriend Tono (Yosuke Sugino). It’s Tono who in one sense brings the reality of Sumire’s absence back to her more than a decade later as he decides it’s time let go. Letting go is however something Mana struggles to do, not least because Sumire disappeared during the 2011 tsunami and as her body was never found there’s still a part of her that refuses to believe she will never be coming back.  

Tono criticises Mana for wanting to keep Sumire stuck in the same place forever yet it is she who is somehow stuck, still living her admittedly stunning apartment as if afraid to move in case Sumire should return and find her gone. She had once told her that she wanted to work for a furniture company in Kyoto but is currently working as a head waiter at an upscale restaurant where she has developed a paternal relationship with the manager, Mr Narahara (Ken Mitsuishi), only to discover that perhaps she didn’t really know him either or that she only knew the part of him he wished for her to see. Her resentment towards Tono is in part that he knew a different side of Sumire that remained unknown to her, though equally neither of them can be said to have known her entirely. 

The relationship between the two women remains frustratingly ill-defined but what’s clear is that they represented something one to the other as two halves of one whole. They made each other feel at ease, but if romance is what it was it remains unresolved. Despite having claimed that she wanted nothing more than to stay in Mana’s apartment, Sumire eventually leaves explaining to Tono that she cannot say cannot stay with her forever giving him a look that perhaps he should know when he quite reasonably asks why. Then again perhaps she just thinks she’s holding her back, that if it were not for her Mana would long ago have moved on finding new and more fulfilling directions in life. She urges Mana to interact more, hoping that she’ll find someone to tease out the “real” her though she of course already has.

A perspective shift late in the film fills in some of those details from the other half of the world that we don’t get to see, laying bare Sumire’s own distress and vulnerability as it becomes clear that she has something she wants to say to Mana but is always frustrated and finally never does. When someone is gone, you can no longer ask them what they meant or solve the riddles of their life even if you can patch back together a vague picture composed of the memories of those who knew them. “I didn’t want her to be found but I felt I had to find her” Mana explains of her early attempts to look for Sumire after the tsunami wanting answers while simultaneously afraid to get them. Burdened by another sudden and unexpected loss, she takes a road trip to Tohoku and witnesses testimony taped by a local woman from tsunami survivors eventually receiving her own epiphany in an animated dream sequence that links back to those which bookend the film. Watching footage from Sumire’s ever present videocamera fills in a few more details, but what she comes to is less a point of moving on that an accommodation with loss that suggests Sumire has in a sense returned and will always be with her as sure as the sea. What we mourn is not only an unresolved past with all its concurrent regrets, but the other half of the world we’ll never see in all the unlived futures that never got to be. 


One Day, You Will Reach the Sea streamed as part of this year’s Nippon Connection.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Murders of Oiso (ある殺人、落葉のころに, Takuya Misawa, 2019)

(C) Wong Fei Pang & Takuya Misawa

The dark heart of wholesome small-town Japan is fully illuminated in Takuya Misawa’s second feature, The Murders of Oiso (ある殺人、落葉のころに, Aru Satsujin, Rakuyo no Koro ni). Then again, depending on your point of view, there might not be any “murders” in this murder story only a series of admittedly strange deaths, but even if you choose to exclude the idea that these unfortunate victims were done in by their society, there would be several possible explanations and a variety of suspects on offer. Employing a bold non-linear structure across several levels of thematic complexity, Misawa plays with the unreliability not only of memory but of narrative in leaving us to contemplate the subjective truths of our own perception as we search for connection to make sense of the fragmentary evidence presented to us. 

As far as certainties go, Misawa sets his tale in the small coastal town of Oiso, its faded grandeur perfectly matching the defeated hopes of our four protagonists: former high school buddies Kazuya (Yusaku Mori), Tomoki (Haya Nakazaki), Eita (Shugo Nagashima), and Shun (Koji Moriya). Now in their early 20s, the boys are all working construction jobs at the company owned by Kazuya’s family thanks in part to his uncle, Hiroki, who was their basketball coach at school. When Hiroki is found dead in a freak gardening accident, their lives are turned upside down not only in the sudden loss of their primary figure of authority but in a series of unexpected reversals which directly threaten their way of life. 

Even before that, however, we get the impression that these “friends” don’t actually like each other very much and are only together out of a combination of fear, habit, and lack of other options. Kazuya, the thuggish leader, never misses an opportunity to remind the guys they have (and keep) their jobs only because of his largesse while quietly resentful of Eita’s relationship with his girlfriend Saki (Ena Koshino) who is, in actuality, the narrator of this complicated tale of small-town pettiness. Like Kazuya, Tomoki (a classic underling) fears the fracturing of the group, alarmed by news from Shun that he’s thinking of quitting his job and moving away, and goes to great lengths to protect it. 

Hiroki’s death, however, presents a series of problems besides its suspicious quality in that he had apparently remarried in secret, keeping the existence of his much younger wife Chisato (Natsuko Hori) even from his closest family which of course includes Kazuya something which causes him a degree of embarrassment on top of his anxiety. As the only son, Kazuya is perhaps overburdened by filial responsibilities in needing to take over the family firm whether he wants to or not. His thuggishness is in essence a rebellion against his lack of agency, but he’s also unaware that his father seems to be in debt and mixed up with loanshark gangsters who frequently need stuff dumped on the sly. If they were hoping that Hiroki’s death would result in a windfall, the existence of a wife is a major inconvenience as is her quite reasonable eying up of the funerary donations and hope that the inheritance will come through as quickly as possible. 

According to the narrator, the town is much more scandalised by Chisato’s existence than they are by Hiroki’s death. Small-town life is still fiercely patriarchal and socially conservative. Immature, Kazuya has outlawed women in the “workplace” (a den where the boys hang out playing cards, smoking, and drinking) and resents Eita’s girlfriend for weakening his ties to the group. With Hiroki, the authority figure, gone, an emboldened Kazuya makes a pass at his friend’s girlfriend which she manages to dodge while Eita does nothing more than watch from outside. He confronts Kazuya on realising that Saki is upset enough to mention the police, but Kazuya brushes it off, claiming that she was drunk and is mistaken before instructing Eita to fix his girlfriend’s “funny” dress sense. Tomoki chimes in too, laughing that he doesn’t see why Saki is outraged because it’s not as if Kazuya succeeded in raping her and in his view it’s disproportionate to be so upset about “touching”. He also points out that Saki’s attitude is a threat to their group and to Eita’s employment prospects (eventually going so far as threatening Saki at her place of work), leaving him with a clear choice and, it seems, he chooses Kazuya making no attempt whatsoever to defend his future wife or dare to criticise his friend’s bad behaviour. 

Kazuya may be resentful at his lack of agency, but the other guys seems to have internalised a sense of futility and hitched their carts to his wagon no matter how much they hate him or themselves. Only Shun seems to be conflicted, turning away while Kazuya mugs an old high school friend in a local subway tunnel, later joking about his weakness for handing over the money right away. Misawa adds to the sense of Lynchian dread through noirish composition, all empty streets and canted angles, along with a moody jazz score to find the menace lurking round every corner in this strangely violent town apparently ruled by corruption and nepotism while breaking off into Ozu-esque pillow shots of vacant hallways and urban decay alternating with nature at the turn of autumn. Frequent shots of the director himself apparently writing the female narration we are hearing further add to the sense of unreality as we meditate on the single phase “I remember” while hearing the narrator mislead and contradict herself. Were there murders in Oiso, or is this all a dream from the mind of a frustrated young man realising he’s hit a dead end and teenage friendship can’t last forever? That’s one mystery (among many others) you’ll have to solve for yourself. 


The Murders of Oiso is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)