Remember in the 80s and 90s when Dick Gephart and Pat Choate were warning us the Japanese were going to buy everything in America worth having? Their demagoguery seems ridiculous after two or three Japanese financial crises. In fact, the shoe is on the other foot for residents of Rokujo, who have been forced to sell their land to foreign developers. Noboru Ueda is the broker who has facilitated those transactions. His relationship to the people of the community runs deeper and darker than even they realize, but he will reveal everything to his daughter Nana in Thunder Sawada’s Dream of Illumination (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.
Ueda will soon transfer back to Tokyo, because he is about to package the last really choice parcel of Rokujo land. However, his daughter Nana has decided to stay on her own to finish her senior year of high school. Ueda is further prompted to reflect on the past when he picks up a former client from the train station. Michiko Kajimoto and her husband gave Ueda his first important sale, but they divorced shortly after they left town. She has now returned to observe an important anniversary with the help of her friend Yuko Ikuda and the former mayor, Tomoharu Miyoshi, both of whom think Ueda is lower than pond scum.
Dream is a quiet, moody film, but Sawada keeps it sharply focused. Each relationship has specific meaning within the context of the narrative. There is a real point to it all, but Sawada reveals it with agonizing deliberation. Still, this is not a shallow Rondo-like attempt to show our inter-connectedness. It is an acutely humanistic examination of modern life, in which good people and decent behavior do not always prosper.
Sara Shida is maybe a year or two older than Nana Ueda would be in this film, but she invests the character with maturity well beyond her years. Frankly it is fascinating to watch her work opposite Yuya Takagawa as her world-weary father. Noboru Ueda is not exactly wracked with guilt, but he carries some heavy, exhausting secrets. It is an artfully nuance performance that invites sympathy for the devil. Maho Yamada is absolutely devastating as Kajimoto, but Elen might just be the real discovery of the film as the forceful but sensitive Ikuda.
Although the predatory land development theme is sure to appeal to a lot of critics’ and distributors’ biases, Dream is too subtle and Spartan to suit their aesthetic tastes. Still, those who appreciate film as an artform should definitely be impressed with Mizuki Nishida’s arresting black-and-white cinematography. Thoughtful cineastes had better see it tomorrow, because it is not the kind of film that will come back around many more times. Recommended accordingly, Dream of Illumination screens Saturday afternoon (7/21) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.