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)

Erased (僕だけがいない街, Yuichiro Hirakawa, 2016)

erasedErased (僕だけがいない街, Boku Dake ga Inai Machi), a best selling manga by Kai Sanbe, has become this year’s big media spectacle with a 12 episode TV anime adaptation and spin-off novel series all preceding the release of this big budget blockbuster movie. Directed by TV drama stalwart Yuichiro Hirakawa, the live action iteration of the admittedly complicated yet ultimately affecting story of a man who decides to sacrifice himself to ensure his friends’ happiness, acquits itself well enough for the most part but changes two crucial details in its concluding section which unwisely undermine its internal logic and make for an unsatisfying conclusion to the ongoing puzzle.

Beginning in the “present” of 2006, Satoru Fujinuma (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is an aspiring mangaka making ends meet with a part-time job as a pizza delivery guy (a kind of “Hiro Protagonist”, if you will). Aloof and sullen, Satoru has no real friends but does possess an unusual supernatural ability – if a tragedy is about to occur in his general vicinity, he will enter a “Revival” loop in which he temporarily rewinds time, allowing him to figure out the problem and save everyone’s lives. Rescuing a child about to be hit by an out of control lorry, Satoru rides his pizza delivery bike into an oncoming car and winds up in hospital.

When he comes to he finds cheerful co-worker Airi (Kasumi Arimura), who witnessed the accident, waiting for him as well as his mother (Yuriko Ishida) coming in for visit. Reconnecting with his mother and getting closer to Airi (albeit reluctantly) Satoru’s life appears to be brightening up but the good times are short lived as Satoru’s mother is brutally murdered in his apartment leaving him looking like the prime suspect. This time when Revival kicks in it doesn’t just rewind a few minutes but 18 years, back to the winter of 1988 when Satoru’s small town was rocked by a series of child murders and abductions which resulted in the arrest of a local boy (Kento Hayashi) whom Satoru had always believed to be innocent.

Repossessing his childhood body but with a grown man’s mind, the “younger” Satoru is considerably less jaded than his 2006 counterpart, determined to change the future and save his mother’s life. The root causes of her death, he is sure, rest in this unresolved and traumatic period of his childhood. Swapping back and forth between 2006 and 1988 as Satoru makes the best of his opportunity to investigate from both sides, Erased is a tightly controlled time travel puzzle of trial and error in which Satoru must use all of the evidence he can gather to unmask the criminal in order to save both the lives of his friends in 1988 and that of his mother in 2006.

As in many similarly themed franchises, the plot turns on the bonds formed in childhood as the connections between Satoru and his friends become the binding glue in an otherwise fluid time travel dilemma. Older Satoru is better equipped to recognise the trouble one of his friends is in – Kayo, a sad and lonely girl who, in the original timeline, eventually became one of the victims attributed to the serial murders plaguing the town. Trapped in an abusive home environment, Kayo isolates herself for reasons of self preservation, both too afraid and too ashamed to let anyone know what’s going on at home. Managing to befriend her, Satoru does indeed help to change something for the better but only finds himself becoming more deeply entrenched in the central mystery.

It’s at this point that the film begins to diverge from its source material as Satoru is attacked by the murderer and “wakes up” back in 2006 but rather than having been in a coma for 18 years has apparently been leading a much more successful life than his previous incarnation. Within the peculiar laws of the franchise which don’t always match standard time travel logic, Satoru’s central timeline does not change – only his mind moves between bodies, he retains full knowledge of his original timeline as well as the changes he brings about. However, he now seems to magically receive memories of the life he never lived whilst also retaining his previous ones. Now knowing the identity of the real murderer and the probability that they are still out there, Satoru decides to re-team with his old friends but his showdown with the psychotic killer is entirely contrived to engineer a “tragic” ending, oddly more like something that might have befallen the 11yr old Satoru than his older counterpart, further undermining the already shaken sense of internal consistency.

The film’s Japanese title, Boku Dake ga Inai Machi (the town where only I am missing), takes inspiration from the short story which Kayo writes in school. Wishing that she alone could be transported to another life free of abuse and loneliness, Kayo writes herself into a better place. Satoru reimagines a similar scenario with himself in the lead as he makes the decision to sacrifice himself to save his friends. The ending of the original source material both undercuts and reinforces this idea as Satoru’s friends are both extremely proud and grateful for his efforts, but are also keen to point out that the world is a much better place with him in it than without. In removing the opportunity for Satoru’s friends to come to his rescue, the live action version of Erased also removes its most crucial message – that heroes are never “alone”, and Satoru’s salvation lies in that of his friends and family.

Yuichiro Hirakawa mostly opts for a lighter tone than the children investigating a serial killer whilst also trying to rescue their friend from her abusive mother narrative might indicate. There are some nice visual ideas including a switch to POV during the first time skip to 1988, the repeated hero of justice hand gestures, and thoughtful use of manga, but given the obvious problems with internal consistency, the high quality of the performances and cinematography can’t reconcile the various cracks within the film’s structure. Uneven, but strong until its contrived and illogical end point, Erased is a slightly disappointing live action adaptation of its source material in which it might have been (ironically enough) better to have more faith rather than pushing for the predictably melodramatic conclusion.


Original trailer (no subtitles)