Radiance (2017)

Misako Ozaki (Ayame Misaki) works as a writer of audio-descriptions for films for the blind and partially sighted. She is working with a test group to write the script for a moving film about dementia and loss. One of the group, Masaya Nakamori (Masatoshi Nagase), was once a famous photographer who is now coming to terms with a  degenerative condition meaning the slow loss of his sight. The two have an uncomfortable relationship, with Masaya frustrated about his loss of sight, and Misako frustrated about her inability to convey the emotional content of the film in words. Slowly the two come to an understanding of one another.

Naomi Kawase writes and directs this touching drama on the subject of loss and understanding. It is great to see a film focussing on the issue of visual impairment and the film is in part about understanding those whose experiences are different from your own. The lead actors do a fantastic job with their characters. Ayame Misaki has a sharp edge beneath her kind-hearted exterior. Frustrated by her inability to accurately describe the film for her test group, and also suffering her own troubles with the slow deterioration of her mother’s dementia, Misako is a relatable and interesting protagonist. Masatoshi Nagase is also excellent as Nakamori. We can feel through his performance that this is a man who has lived a full life before losing his sight and is finding it hard to adjust. Both are somewhat prickly characters, understandably so, and this lack of sentimentality makes the film more enjoyable than a predictable romantic drama. The supporting cast, especially those playing the test subjects for the audio commentary do a great job. Oftentimes those with disabilities are used to gain sympathy, but here they are given time to share their feelings and, to some extent, speak on behalf of the blind community regarding their treatment in society. The only moment I found was undeserved was between Ozaki and Nakamori as they look out over a sunset. It seemed to come from nowhere, but even this can be read as a moment of exasperation rather than a romantic trope. Kawase’s script is lively and well-paced, moving between Misako and Masaya’s stories and using variations on the theme of loss and multiple perspectives to keep things interesting. The direction is intimate and beautiful at times, further emphasising exactly what Masaya has lost.

The film has a lot to say about how people perceive the world. In contrast to many portrayals, the blindness here acts not as a metaphor for ignorance, but rather gives us a gateway to a deeper level of perception. Misako comes to understand that it she is the one who is unable to see things clearly. Her group explain to her that some things, such as emotions, cannot and should not be explained. There are some things that simply cannot be described in words. This may seem obvious and cliched, but the film does a great job of showing this as well as explaining it. In a scene where Misako is walking around describing her actions we are made aware that this is not telling us everything. For example, it tells us nothing about what she is thinking, her emotional state, her history, her background. “Radiance” also acts as a commentary on film and art too, in Misako’s work and Masaya’s photographs. Art is a way for humans to make sense of the world and communicate with one another. It is necessarily imperfect, but it is one of the best ways we have of translating our inner lives to a medium where they can be appreciated, if not fully understood, by others.

The idea of loss is also a defining theme of the film. The loss of sight, the loss of a loved one, and the loss of memories or even of self through dementia. A constant refrain in the film refers to the unbelievable tragedy of something disappearing before you. Again, Kawase approaches the subject in an interesting way, using the visuals of burning photographs and layering the film with several different interpretations of this concept to make the point forcefully. A moving film that rises above simple sentimentality to tell a story that is powerful and timeless.

Street of Joy (1974)

Just before a change in the law is due to prohibit legal prostitution in Japan we follow a group of women working at a brothel. Kimiko (Meika Seri) is recently married and moving on from her life as a prostitute, though she later begins to have second thoughts about her decision. Shimako (Junko Miyashita) is besotted by one of her customers, a gangster to whom she gives all her earnings and who is abusive towards her. Naoko (Naomi Oka) is trying hard to beat the record of seeing 24 customers in a single day. As the film moves between the women and their co-workers, clients and others, we get an insight into their characters and a look at the sex industry in Japan.

The film is directed by Tatsumi Kumashiro, based on a novel by Ikko Shimizu, and shows a reverence for the characters, who are all portrayed sympathetically even if their motivations may be incomprehensible. The film is told in a somewhat erratic fashion, cutting between the various characters, with comic picture-book illustrations and title cards, snatches of exposition and enka songs inserted sporadically. Early in the film this can prove to be a barrier in getting any sense of a cohesive narrative, though later things do become clearer as the characters come into focus. This is partly down to the fantastic performances of the actresses, who embody their characters fully and give a sense of rounded individuals. Though the film does deal with sex it is rarely sordid, and in fact shows it to be as dull and commonplace as it must be for those in these professions. The women sell themselves in the same way that they would sell goods in any other shop and see little correlation between their self-worth and their product. This is a refreshing look at prostitution as it shows the world from their perspective. There is plenty of humour in the movie, with inebriated clients unable to perform and the peculiar trick of squatting over a stove to warm up for a customer. Though it does show certain dangers of the profession in Shimako’s abusive relationship, the film shies away from becoming overly serious. It might be more accurate to say it avoids sensationalism or exploitation, giving an even-handed appreciation of the issues involved.

Street of Joy is a peculiar film in a lot of ways. The storytelling and editing are more akin to a soap-opera than a cohesive film narrative. The various characters seem thrown together and it is hard to grasp any overarching theme or message for the film. However, it does offer a great insight into the operation of such establishments before prohibition. It casts an equivocal eye over prostitution and focusses on the women rather than the customers or those opposed to what they are doing. Too often sex workers are side-lined or used as titillation in films, particularly crime dramas, but here it is their stories that are being told. Kimiko’s dissatisfaction with her husband shows the importance of sex for women, while other characters express the equally important emotional needs. Sex is something that is of vital importance, while at the same time being as innocuous as any other function of life such as eating or sleeping. This nuanced approach makes the film an interesting watch and perhaps a good counterbalance to more extreme portrayals of sex work on screen.

Our Little Sister (2015)

Sochi, Yoshino and Chika are three sisters who live together in a large house in a seaside town. Abandoned by their father 15 years ago after an affair, they have settled into a relaxed existence, when news of their father’s death and impending funeral reach them. On attending the funeral they meet their younger half sister, Suzu, for the first time and invite her to live with them. Suzu decides to move town and live in their house, beginning a new school and new life with her older sisters. The story shows us a little of each of their lives and how they work together to support each other.

Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda (I Wish) the film moves at a relaxed pace with a sense of realism, shying away from melodrama, as we see the everyday trials of the sisters. Their interactions seem perfectly natural, helped by the fantastic acting of all the leads and supporting cast, Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Suzu Hirose and Kaho. The characters are all likeable with distinct personalities. Rather than watching a standard plot unfold, instead it feels as though we are simply spending time with them, as we see them cooking, eating, working or at school, and it is intriguing to see what happens. Each character is given their own arc and the film is paced to give everyone just enough time to develop. The direction is likewise calm and measured, with beautifully composed shots, and the fantastic settings, such as the old house and the seaside town, used to full effect in capturing a sense of place.

A subtle examination of family life and sisterly affection. Amazing direction and acting make this an enjoyable experience.

Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Given the wrong children at birth, two sets of parents are left with the overwhelming decision: to exchange their six year-old sons, Keita and Ryusei, re-uniting them with their biological parents, or to choose the child they have raised for six years. Through this tragic occurrence we are given an insight into the lives of the two young boys and their parents.

Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, this film features many of his trademarks, from the focus on family and parenthood, down to minute details of small-talk about fireworks, a sense of the passing seasons, railway crossings, and an instantly recognizable “clean” directorial style. We are undoubtedly in Koreeda’s world once again, and that means nothing short of brilliance. This is by far one of the most heartbreaking of his films, as we witness the tortuous decision the two sets of parents have to make. Every character, mothers, fathers, and children is put through the emotional wringer. Towards the end you cannot help but be moved by the situation they find themselves unwittingly in. The film offers plenty of food for thought, with both sets of parents (particularly the fathers) being very different, one strict and work-orientated, the other carefree and family-focused. This allows for an exploration of the nature versus nurture debate, the extent to which our lives are pre-destined dependant on our circumstances at birth, as well as many more discussions of parenthood, and in particular fatherhood. The casting and acting is spot-on, and the two young boys do a great job. Needless to say, as with most Koreeda films, the direction and music lead you through the film’s delicately constructed world, leaving little to complain about.

The film does a fine job of giving every character enough time to breath, you feel especially for the mother of Keita, but the real focus is Keita’s father. This hardworking businessman presents a touching portrayal of fatherhood as he struggles to connect with either son. I cannot recommend this film enough. I found it captivating, with believably nuanced characters, poignant story, and fantastic acting.

I Wish (2011)

The story of two brothers separated, one in Kagoshima, one in Fukuoka, after the breakdown of their parents relationship. The elder brother, who lives with his mother and in the shadow of an active volcano that regularly showers the town with ash, wishes for their parents to be re-united, and for their family to live together again. The younger brother, living with his musician father, has no such aspirations, being content with his life.

Hirokazu Koreeda is a master of the family drama, perfectly capturing the subtle complexities of interpersonal relationships, and provoking sympathy without resorting to overt sentimentality. The story, written by Koreeda, hinges around the ‘miracle’ (which is the Japanese title of the film) that occurs when two Shinkansen trains pass one another. It is said that if you witness this and make a wish, it is sure to come true. While this is the only discernible plot, it is clear that it is only a means to an end, providing a motivation for the characters and a reason for following their lives for this short period. Along the way, Koreeda creates such a full, vibrant, and true-to-life world, that the story soon becomes secondary to the characters. This is emphasised by the direction, which takes us to the heart of the drama. One particularly memorable scene is when the children are telling their wishes to each other. It is filmed in the style of an intimate video diary, creating a sense of realism that the rest of the film also strives to capture. The young actors do a fine job, bringing a youthful energy to their roles and the believable hopefulness and naiveté necessary to tell this story. The two brothers are played by real-life brothers, Koki Maeda and Oshiro Maeda. It is said that Koreeda did not complete the script until the actors were cast and this is apparent from the way each of them seem to perfectly embody their characters. I would give equal credit to both the writing and acting in developing rounded characters, who never fall into cliché.

Koreeda films tend to shun typical action and big moments, being less plot-oriented than many others. Instead what he gives you is life itself, without pretence or artifice. Moments of realisation are peppered throughout, just as in life, and his gentle, generally positive outlook on the world is infectious, creating a feel-good film for all. As with other Koreeda films, this feels less like watching characters go through some convoluted plot, but rather it feels like spending time with real people, with their hopes, dreams and fears.