Kids shouldn't have to worry about demographic trends, but these classmates are totally getting done-over by them. So many people are moving out of their rural community, their school will be forced to close. Instead of proms and homecomings, the students’ time together will culminate in the closing ceremony. As always, the same old cliquey kid stuff still applies, but there might possibly be aliens out there too in Yoichi Narita’s Follow the Light, which screened during this year’s Fantasia.
After his dad’s acrimonious divorce, Akira moved back with him to his old home town, enrolling in a new school, only to learn he would have to start over once again, after the end of the year. He is understandably shy, but when the class’s queen bee notices his artistic talents, she recruits him for the closing ceremony. However, it is Maki that Akira has stuck in his head. Due to conflicts with classmates and difficulties with her parents, Maki has practically dropped out. She spends most of her days at her Uncle Hideo’s rice farm, standing on the roof, staring off into the horizon.
Then one day, a strange light appears in the sky. Akira and a new friend (who is trying too hard to latch onto him) follow it to Hideo’s farm, finding Maki communing in the crop circle it produced. The resulting bond between Akira and Maki could lead to something real, but it also causes jealousies and resentments.
Follow the Light is admittedly teen melodrama, but it is seriously good teen melodrama. As Akira and Maki, Tsubasa Nakagawa and Itsuki Nagasawa truly look like they are in middle school and their halting romantic chemistry is quite endearing. Sometimes, they are difficult kids to love, because they are such realistic teenagers. Toshiro Yanagiba is craggy, understated, and utterly charming as Uncle Hideo, but it is former j-pop idol Rina Ikoma who will totally surprise viewers with her sensitive turn as the kids’ unhappy homeroom teacher.
The science fiction elements in Follow the Light are quite mild, but Narita and co-writer Yu Sakudo adroitly use them to drive the narrative. Bittersweet and never saccharine, it will resonate nostalgically for most viewers, even though it keenly evokes the rhythms and environment of rural Japan. Very highly recommended, Follow the Light premiered at this year’s Fantasia.