Follow the Light (光を追いかけて, Yoichi Narita, 2021) [Fantasia 2021]

“We all want to run, but still we’re holding on” insists the hero of Yoichi Narita’s rural coming-of-age tale, Follow the Light (光を追いかけて, Hikari wo Oikakete). Not perhaps as its title implies a religious treatise, Narita’s gentle drama nevertheless chases faith in the future while exploring the effects of rural depopulation, economic stagnation, and familial fragmentation on the lives of the young but eventually rediscovers a sense of security, not to mention wonder, in the natural world along with the importance of community in creating a feeling of emotional rootedness. 

Teenager Akira (Tsubasa Nakagawa) has just moved back to his dad’s hometown following the divorce of his parents, his mother presumably having left the family. As one might expect he is sullen and resentful, wishing a meteor storm would destroy his new home and drawing violent comic books to that effect. He ignores everyone at school and is uninterested in making friends, continuing to view himself as an outsider who is not destined to stay. This feeling is compounded by the fact that the school itself is about to close down due to the declining numbers of children in the local area as a result of rural depopulation. 

Akira’s interest is piqued, however, on witnessing a mysterious girl standing atop the roof of a farm house and surveying all below. Accidentally making friends with a bullied boy, Shota, Akira discovers the girl’s name is Maki (Itsuki Nagasawa) but is warned off her on the grounds that she is “crazy” and potentially violent. Akira ignores the warning, but is in any case guided towards the ostracised young woman by a mysterious light said to be caused by a UFO which leads him towards a crop circle in a rice paddy in the middle of which Maki is currently lying.

As Akira discovers, Maki has problems of her own in that her parents are in the middle of a debt crisis and about to lose the small petrol station they’ve been running as a family business. They are in fact just one of many casualties in the faltering local economy which is in a constant state of recession given that the young people all leave for the cities and there’s precious little money to be made in farming anymore. Akira’s father Ryota (Taro Suruga) went to Tokyo to be a musician, an ambition which obviously did not work out, and now he’s come back works for an organisation attempting to find solutions for the future of agriculture in an effort to bring prosperity back to the countryside. Akira’s teacher, Michiru (Rina Ikoma), by contrast who will soon be out of a job is disinterested in her work partly because she left to go to uni in Tokyo but was dragged back by parental pressure and remains intensely resentful trapped in a backwater provincial life quite clearly not of her choosing. 

It wasn’t of Akira’s choosing either and on top of dealing with the disruption of his parents’ separation he feels himself displaced as a city kid unused to the gentle rhythms of country life while struggling to understand the impenetrable local dialect. He originally does nothing on witnessing Shota’s bullying but later befriends him only for their friendship to be derailed by petty jealously in Shota’s resentment towards his growing interest in Maki. Maki, meanwhile, is also struggling with a sense of abandonment largely cared for by her down-to-earth farmer uncle in the wake of parental failure. Akira may originally feel the same way about his boomerang dad, returning home to live with grandma having failed in the city, but later perhaps comes to understand that return is not necessarily defeat while gradually warming to the joys of the country life with its wide-open vistas and kindhearted locals. 

Even so there’s a sense of desperation in these young lives as they watch their world dismantled in front of them as symbolised in the imminent closure of their school. Guided by lights they decide to look towards the future, positing a new sense of community open to anyone willing to be a part of it. As if echoing the sound of the Earth, Maki accepts her parental legacy in continuing to sing a traditional rural folksong once sung by her mother while Akira discovers a new sense of belonging in his father’s latent love for his old hometown. A hymn to a disappearing small-town Japan, Follow the Light is less lament than resurgent hope that something can be saved if only in change.


Follow the Light streamed as part of the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Jam (SABU, 2018)

PrintSABU began his directorial career with a reputation for shooting on the run. Time may have caught up with him, in that relaxed contemplation has begun to replace frenetic action in the more recent stages of his career, but it’s to his first feature, Dangan Runner, that he (after a fashion) returns in the similarly structured Jam. Random circumstance conspires once again to send three fugitive guys on a zany collision course, but this time the crash offers each of them something a little more positive (to a point, at least) than a grudging acceptance of life’s impossibilities.

The first of our three heroes, Hiroshi (Sho Aoyagi), is a cheesy enka singer with an army of middle-aged female fans whom he is perfectly aware of exploiting. Despite his “star status” with the ladies who crowd out his meet and greets, Hiroshi’s big concert is at the Civic Centre in Kitakyushu which is not exactly the Budokan, but it’ll do for the minute. Trouble brews when the wealthiest of his fans, Mrs. Sakata, suggests a change to the setlist only for a backbencher to leap to Hiroshi’s defence with slightly embarrassing fervour. Masako’s (Mariko Tsutsui) crazed fan aesthetic is later brought to its zenith when she gets Hiroshi to chug down some home made soup which is laced with some kind of knock out drug.

Meanwhile, all round good guy Takeru (Keita Machida) is driving around in a not quite classic car and looking for people to help because a Buddha appeared to him and told him if he did three good deeds a day his girlfriend would wake up from her coma, and ex-con Tetsuo (Nobuyuki Suzuki) is patiently pushing his grandma round town in a wheelchair and taking revenge on the gangsters who have betrayed him every time her back is turned.

“Pay back is scary as hell” one of the gangsters affirms as he laments potentially mixing up a thoroughly good guy like Takeru in their nasty yakuza business. As the other had earlier outlined, this is a world very much defined by karma – you do good and good comes back to you, but do something bad and you’re in for more of the same. The logic is sound, and yet it doesn’t quite work the way you’d expect it to. Takeru is nothing but good, too good as it turns out, but constantly suffers precisely because of his goodness. Not only is his girlfriend gunned down in front of him during an act of random street violence, but he eventually finds himself tricked into helping the exact same thugs commit further crime only to attempt heroics and see that massively backfire too. Even so, he keeps on trying to be good and perhaps it really will pay off in the end.

Meanwhile, Hiroshi seems to be leading something of a charmed life though perhaps through a prism of self-loathing. He knows he is a cheesy lounge singer and one step up from gigalo in the way he accommodates himself to these older ladies in whom his only interest is their money. This is perhaps why he finds himself desperately playing along when kidnapped by Masako in the hope he will write a song just for her (that’ll show the snooty Mrs. Sakata), but finally betraying her in the final moment as if attempting to reassert his artistic autonomy. Masako eventually makes a sacrifice of her own which sends Hiroshi running for the hills only to finally acknowledge a sense of responsibility for his willing misuse of her loneliness and disappointment in selling her an impossible dream of connection.

As for Tetsuo, pushing granny round the city by night, the yakuza lurk round every corner proving the past really is impossible to escape. As expected, the paths of the three men eventually intersect in strange and various ways though each is bound for a different destination and an individual epiphany. Another boy band odyssey from SABU, this time in collaboration with studio LDH and the members of EXILE, Jam takes a fairly ironic view of the idol business if thinly disguised in Hiroshi’s depressing business plan of self-debasement and fansploitation while simultaneously asking if you really do reap what you sow when it comes to cosmic karma in an increasingly surreal existence.


Jam was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)