“The more we try to be a family the more we feel like strangers” a husband laments reflecting on the pressures of the contemporary society which seem to have stretched his marriage possibly to breaking point. Starring a cast of non-professional actors, actually a real family living in the suburbs of Tokyo, Fumito Fujikawa’s neorealist drama The Light of Spring (ひかりのどけき, Hikari Nodokeki) examines the effects of familial breakdown largely from the perspective of the couple’s young son Shui (Shui Hirabuki) as he struggles to process the changes in his life and the indefinite absence of one parent or another.
As the film opens, the father (Masana Hirabuki) hugs his infant daughter, Chikasa (Chikasa Hirabuki), while the mother (Yuki Kimura) gets her son, Shui, ready for an outing repeatedly asking him if he is able to do things for himself such as zip up his jacket or put on his mask as if preparing him for an early independence. She puts a backpack on his shoulders and tells him dad is taking him somewhere nice, but when the pair get back she and Chikasa will be gone. Something has obviously gone wrong in the parents’ relationship and the mother is taking Chikasa with her to the grandparents as the couple embark on a trial separation.
The majority of the rest of the film focusses on the boy and his father adjusting to life alone as little Shui attempts to process what’s happening thinking that perhaps his mother has just gone away somewhere temporarily and will return in a few days. Indeed, his father does not tell him concretely that she won’t be coming back, just that he doesn’t really know if or when meanwhile they leave the baby gate in place even though there’s no baby around each of them stepping over it to access the kitchen and the balcony. Dad tries to make it fun, spending additional time with his son, but also discovers the pressures of being a single parent having to rearrange his working life in order to accommodate picking him up from school. Even so as he later admits to him the trial separation is working out in his favour. Without apologising he explains in simple terms that he feels trapped by the responsibility of fatherhood and is coming to believe perhaps it’s better if he and his wife do not continue to live together.
The mother meanwhile is beginning to feel the opposite, asking her own mother if she often fought with her father and getting a fairly typical answer wondering if perhaps they’re overreacting and should try and find a new way through together. Where dad shuts down Shui’s questions, he even wondering at one point if Chikasa is still alive, she is more mindful on the effect on the children returning home when Shui calls her from a public telephone and taking him back to the grandparents only for him to then miss his dad. Dad meanwhile thinks he needs more time to decide, uncomfortably admitting that he likes it better with fewer responsibilities but perhaps in the end also missing his family. “I wonder what a family is supposed to be” mum sighs, “we’re becoming more and more like strangers” as the pressures of the contemporary society along with the pressing anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic distance them ever further from each other. She remains at the table, but the father tells her to go with increasing intensity as if making clear that he no longer wants to have this discussion and means to exile his family from his life continuing to live in the family home marked as it is by a sense of absence while they remain displaced temporarily housed with the grandparents.
Shot in the classic 4:3 of retro home video, Fujikawa’s neorealist drama captures the everyday life of a contemporary family with its trips to the park, museums, and burger bars or just cooking together at home but also hints at the anxieties which come with it exacerbated by the existential anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic. “Nothing’s unbreakable” the father admits, “but I’m sad when they break” the boy complains. “Even if you take good care of things, some things still break” his father goes on to explain in what seems like more of a life lesson than might be expected in a discussion about a worn-out pillow. Even so perhaps they don’t break all the way, as the hopeful conclusion implies set amid the pretty cherry blossom not quite in full bloom in a quiet corner of an otherwise busy city.