Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Japan Cuts ’18: Radiance

In the case of Naomi Kawase’s films, it would be particularly difficult to write audio descriptions for visually impaired patrons, because of the delicate way she employs light. She probably understands this, because she obviously invites sympathy for Misako Ozaki, who is writing a descriptive script for a slightly less arty but still demanding film coming soon to Japanese theaters. Unfortunately, she has a harsh critic in her focus group, who also happens to be partially sighted. Yet, they will make a connection, at least to some extent, in Kawase’s Radiance (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

Most of Ozaki’s beta testers are supportive, but not Masaya Nakamori. Initially, his criticism stings, but she soon learns he has good reason for his bitterness. Nakamori was an internationally renowned photographer, but his degenerative condition has forced him to give up his passion and vocation. Similarly, Ozaki is not the shallow young thing Nakamori presumes her to be. She is dealing with some pretty heavy issues of her own, including the recent death of her father and her mother’s progressive dementia.

So maybe they can forge something between a friendship and a romance, at least for a short period. In any event, it will not be the Nicolas Sparks style romance the international one-sheets clearly promise. Kawase does not do conventional romance, but issues of communication, perception, and aging are all in her power zone.

Without question, Sweet Bean is and will probably always be Kawase’s most commercial film, by a country mile. Still, Radiance is more accessible than representative works like Still the Waters or Mourning Forest. In many ways, it is a film lover’s film. In fact, it intriguingly suggests Ozaki’s focus group members effectively experience the same film new several times over, because her evolving approach to the descriptive script makes it something different each time. There is something provocative in that notion that we wish Kawase has devoted even more time to flesh out.

Nevertheless, Ayame Misaki, previously best known for franchises like Tokumei Sentai Go-Busters and Attack on Titan, is a genuine revelation as Ozaki. She is exquisitely expressive and sensitive, but also remarkably disciplined. In short, she is perfect for a Kawase film. Masatoshi Nagase (who was so quietly perfect in Sweet Bean) literally rages against the dying of the light as Nakamori, in an acutely human kind of way. Tatsuya Fuji also adds some wry seasoning as the director and lead actor of the film Ozaki is laboring to describe.

Radiance is not for short-attention-span lowest common denominator viewers, but it is a good film, with a heart and a brain. It not only makes us examine how we perceive the world, it also challenges us to reconsider the very act of perceiving. It is hard to put you finger on, but there is something like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle going on in this film. There is also some very emotionally raw drama. Recommended for mature cineastes, Radiance screens tomorrow (7/25) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.