Despite having only directed four cinematographical products – Sakai-ke no shiawase (2006) being her first, and a segment in Quirky Guys and Gals (2011), The Light Shines Only There (2014), her third full-length feature, cemented Mipo O’s reputation as one of the most promising directors in Japan. Reason enough for Psycho-cinematography to review this narrative closely from a psychoanalytic perspective and see whether The Light Shines Only There (2014) truly deserves all the recognition it has received.
The Light Shines Only There (2014), which is based on a novel written by Yasushi Sato, is a narrative about troubled souls living at the periphery of a decaying port of Hokuto in Hokkaido. Tatsuo Sato (Gou Ayano) is battling his traumatic past. After quitting his job and wandering around aimlessly, he eventually meets Takuji Oshiro (Masaka Suda) at a pachinko parlor. Inviting him to his home, a run-down shack along the beach, Takuji introduces Tatsuo to his ill father, ambivalent mother, and older sister Chinatsu (Chizuru Ikewaki). A meeting which is not without its effects.
In the beginning, Tatsuo and Chinatsu are just two troubled individuals who cannot but communicate in a failed and defensive way. Both, seemingly stuck on the superficial plane of speech interaction, disallow anyone to venture into their subjectivity. Tatsuo’s speech never concerns himself and only in response to questions short defensive objective facts about himself are served. In Chinatsu’s speech, one feels that she herself is lacking as presence in her sentences. Takuji for that matter indulges in superficial monologues and enthusiastically posing questions.
Overall, conversations evoke distance, awkwardness, detachment, and hesitation, but the narrative evolves. It is apparent that the meeting of Chinatsu and Tatsuo, by way of their eye contact, is of a different order. By showing some interest in each other, failed communication changes in minor conversation, a minor opening towards sharing their subjectivity and to go beyond the defenses in their life. Their first kissing is marked by honest emotions, a truly moving moment underlining their desire to truly meet each other, introducing moments of enjoyment in life and in human connections. Tatsuo, for instance, becomes more conversational, starts to speak for himself and is able to show enjoyment. Still, the quarry accident hangs over him as a shadow, a piece of real: it haunts him and affects his relations with others.
Both Chinatsu and Tatsuo want to go beyond the superficiality of their ego, but, in that process, they often find solace in the defenses of their ego, as to protect their own subjectivity. The light shines only there shows how difficult it is for these troubled minds to let go of those defenses and to let someone in. Nevertheless, the narrative ultimately reveals that beauty and solace are only to be found in human connections.
The light shines only there (2011) is a true character study and this oozes from the cinematography as well. Shots are lengthy in general – as favoured by many Japanese directors, and are focused on underlining and contemplating the various emotions, gestures, interactions, and speech (or lack of these) of Chinatsu, Tatsuo, Takuji, … By way of the lingering camera, the viewer is able to register every detail of their existence in the narrative world. The long shots framing Tatsuo for instance, reveal – especially in the beginning – Tatsuo’s socially secluded position and paint an image of a depressed and emotional unreachable guy – not talkative, use of short sentences, lack of intonation, and lack of eye-contact.
The cinematography has a tendency to take Tatsuo and Chinatsu’s subjective position as its basis (note 1). This is apparent in the mix of fixed, truck, and dolly shots. Mobile shots often focus on objects (or characters) in relation to Chinatsu or Tatsuo and follow – often temporary – an action or movement that either Chinatsu or Tatsuo performs in relation to his/herself or others. In some cases, the movement of the camera coincides with their eye-movement, further underlining their subjectivity in the narrative space (note 2). The cinematography is characterized by a certain crude realism, which grounds the subjective positions strongly in the bleak world that is represented. A shakiness, which can be subtle, often characterizes the framing and seems to underline the vulnerability and the troubled state of Sato and Chinatsu, for example at the beach in accordance with the rushing of the waves or at night. Interiors, for the matter, are almost entirely framed steady, revealing a certain security for both Sato and Chinatsu (note 3).
The presence of the characters is so sensible because the sound design deeply respects the importance of silence. Silence is an empty canvas, as underlined by the ambient sounds (Pachinko, streetlife, sounds of eating and drinking, the sea, kissing,… etc.), where speech is sensibly painted on. It is the often noisy emptiness, as broken by the occasional speech-act, that further exposes the subjective positions of Sato and Chinatsu and grounds them, gives them their presence in the desolate atmosphere that characterizes their world. There is music, often minimalistic, present in the narrative. Scenes of Tatsuo and Chinatsu, for instance, are sometimes accompanied by piano music, underlining a sense of emotion and a connection between them (note 4).
The light shines only there is an amazing character study of two troubled youths try to reach each other beyond their defenses. The well-thought-out cinematography of long shots creates the necessary space to meticulously show interactions, emotions, and gestures. Coupled with the amazing sound design, the intermingling of ambient noises with speech and the occasional line of music, the presence and the subjective positions of Tatsuo, Chinatsu (and Takuji) – fabulously brought to life by the actors, are really able to capture the viewer and pull him into the narrative.
Against the backdrop of the neon-lighted city or the monochrome sea-side, the light shines only there shows powerfully the difficulty as well as the power that is to be found in human relations and underlines, that, in fact, the light shines only there. A powerful message, contained in a carefully crafted narrative. Mipo O truly deserves all the recognition she has received.
Note 1: Takuji should be seen as the third central figure of the narrative, which is evident from the second part of the narrative (See also note 2 and 3).
Note 2: There are various exceptions, where the camera shifts from Tatsuo/Chinatsu to another character (Takuji for instance) or where other characters (Tatsuo, Chinatsu’s lover, …) are framed without Tatsuo and/or Chinatsu present. In the former case, these shifts are used to further underline the subjective position of Tatsuo or Chinatsu in relation to others or interactions that concern him or her. In the latter case, an important narrative context concerning Tatsuo/Chinatsu is introduced.
Note 3: The framing of the noisy, too talkative, and expressive Takuji is more steady and more objective overall, even though some shots do follow him in the narrative space. Furthermore, his framing is often created via the perspective of another character, for example, his boss, who is also Chinatsu’s lover.
Note 3: Between Tatsuo and Takuji a minimalistic accordion is used, evoking the comedic dimension of Takuji. In another instance, a song is used to show that Tatsuo and Chinatsu are both lost.