It started with Alain Resnais and now another French crew has come to contemplate the tragedy of Hiroshima. Of course, Akihiro’s interest makes perfect sense, since he is a Japanese expat working for French television, but the assignment still affects him more than he expected in Jean-Gabriel Périot’s Summer Lights (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.
The interview Akihiro records with Mrs. Takeda is so powerful, Périot lets it play in its entirety as a twenty-minute uninterrupted prologue, before the opening credits roll. In it, she tells how her beloved mother was lost without a trace and her pretty older sister Michiko, a nurse who cared for the sick and dying, eventually succumbed to radiation sickness. Akihiro is so overwhelmed by her testimony, he abruptly leaves his crew to clear his head in Peace Memorial Park.
However, a rather forward woman in traditional dress seems determined to strike up a conversation with him. She is a little odd, but he finds her company inexplicably comforting. Through her, Akihiro will learn more about what the aftermath was really like. Yes, her name also happens to be Michiko, from which you can probably deduce more than Akihiro. Yet, the inevitable revelation and ultimate takeaway are portrayed in such a simple and straightforward manner, they become profoundly beautiful.
What the Takedas endured is truly heart-rending. Of course, what is missing from Lights are the atrocities of the Rape of Nanjing, the Bataan Death March, the terror-bombing of Chongqing, and the systematic enslavement of so-called “Comfort Women,” none of which was likely to end without a profound shock to rigid Imperial military hierarchy. Perhaps it would be awkward for Périot to address such points, but the truth is always more complicated than reductive peace slogans.
Regardless, Akane Tatsukawa is absolutely remarkable as the deceptively light-hearted Michiko. Appropriately, she has a fishing scene, because she reels us in and then clobbers us. Hiroto Ogi’s Akihiro initially comes across as pretty dense, but he sneaks up on the audience and crystallizes the entire film in the third act. Yet, nobody can touch the plain-spoken power and dignity of Mamako Yoneyama’s performance as Mrs. Takeda.