Follow The Light (2021) review [Fantasia Festival 2021]

Introduction

While Yoichi Narita has a lot of experience in directing promotional videos and television commercials, he is rather new to directing full feature films. Follow The Light, his first feature film, utilizes an event that happened in 1991 in his hometown, i.e. the appearance of a green light and a crop circle, to create a narrative about growing-up and finding a light to guide the subject to his future as adult. 

Fantasia Film Festival 2021

Review

One day, on his way back home, Akira Nakajima (Tsubasa Nakagawa) sees a young girl, Maki Okamoto (Itsuki Nagasawa), standing on the roof of a house. This female appearance in the roof puzzles him, but he soon continues riding home.  

The next day at school, Shota (-), a bullied boy, approaches Akira and, upon seeing his drawing of Maki, warns him that she is nuts. Not much later, three girls suddenly circle around his desk, asking if he can help them out by drawing an eagle for the school closing-festival. That evening, Akira and Shota see a strange satellite in the sky and discover, by trying to follow this strange appearance, a crop circle and, lying in the middle of it, Maki. 

Follow The Light (2021) by Yoichi Narita.

          

Follow the Light is, in short, a narrative that explores the importance of social bonds for the mental well-being for the subject. Narita emphasizes this via the trajectory of its main character, Akira. At the start of the narrative, Narita is caught within the claws of a solitary depression. This ‘depression’ is emphasized by his violent fantasy of a meteor obliterating the earth. The source of this fantasy is not the divorce of his parents as such, but the disillusionment with the fickly thing called romance and his father Ryota (Taro Suruga). The divorce, as is made evident early in the narrative, caused Ryota to distance himself from his failed father.  

Akira’s depressed position subtly starts to change when he befriends Shota and accepts the girls’ invitation to draw the eagle for the school-closing festival. Why? Because his acts of acceptance enable social bonds, be it minimal, to be formed. Whereas, at first, he isolated himself from the others and refused to partake in their social field, his acceptance of the others’ invitations evaporates his position as a solitary outsider. From now on, Akira has entered the web of social interactions, a position that enables him to impact, through his signifiers and his acts, other subjects and alter, be it minimal, the social web and dynamics they support.  

Akira’s encounter with Maki in the crop-circle is not without any subjective effects. He underlines this when he explains his design for the school-mural to his classmates. Even though Akira states that the crop circle is an inspiration for the future, the fleeting and evocative memory of Maki in the crop circle that precedes his statement reveals that Maki, for him, is a romantic inspiration for his subjective future. He falls, in other words, in love. Yet, for Shota, Akira’s romantic interest in Maki and desire to spend time with her forms a danger for the first friendship he made in junior high.

Follow The Light (2021) by Yoichi Narita.

Follow The Light also touches upon two other social dynamics, yet without developing them that deeply. These social dynamics are, in truth, not the focus of the narrative, but contextual elements to strengthen the main message of the narrative – i.e. social bonds enliven the subject and his libidinal energy.

The first dynamic is an interpersonal one and concerns the bullying of Shota by three of his classmates. These violent acts are, simply speaking, driven by the ease by which one, by exploiting a passive subject, can get a shot of fleeting pleasure and the enjoyment the violator gains by satisfying his accomplices with his tormenting actions (Psycho-note 1). 

While it remains unclear why Shota became the victim of this ‘joyful’ exploitation, Narita does vividly underline the ‘unwillingness’ of certain teachers to intervene and prevent further bullying. Yet, the refusal of Miharu (-), their young classroom teacher, does not seem to be a conscious unwillingness, but a reluctance caused by a lack of desire, a lingering fear of the Other (subject), and a perceived inability to assume a position of authority. In truth, it is the lack of desire – her parents forced her to take the job – that problematizes her position as teacher. If she could find her own desire, it would destroy the fear she feels and allow her to perform acts that would give her the chance to gain some authority in the eyes of her students.   

The second dynamic is social in nature: the depopulation of rural areas and the social destruction and familial tragedies such depopulation causes. The closing of the Washiya Junior high is, in this respect, not only an effect due to this decline of locals, but also becomes a new element that will further accelerate the bleeding-out of the small agricultural community. The tragic effect such rural depopulation can have is most clearly evoked in Maki’s subjective situation. It does not take long for the spectator to link the mystery that surrounds Maki, a mystery not only caused by her eccentric hobby of roof-standing, but also due to her absence from school and from her parental home, with the impact the rural bleeding-out has on her familial situation.

Follow The Light (2021) by Yoichi Narita.

The composition of Follow The Light stands out due to three cinematographical elements. First, the pleasant floating dynamism that gives the unfolding narrative its pleasing flow. Yet, this dynamism is most visually satisfying when Narita, to evocatively highlight the emotional import of certain moments, combines this dynamism with cinematographic decorations like slow-motion, a play with depth-of-field, a thoughtful use of the camera lens flare, and a shaky framing.

The second element concerns Narita’s use of tracking-shots. These tracking-shots are not only aesthetically pleasing, but also reveals the beauty of this Japanese rural environment to the spectator. The last element that heightens the visual pleasure is the shot-composition. Narita thoughtfully exploits the geometrical dimension to not only create naturalistic visual moments but also moments that, due to his artful compositional sensibility, are visually pleasing. 

The musical accompaniment does not only give the film’s atmosphere a flavour of mystery, a mystery related to the beauty of falling in love, but also enhances the cinematographical flow of Narita’s composition.  

Follow The Light is a bittersweet and evocative narrative about the importance of social bonds for the well-being for the subject, by it bonds of friendship or bonds pregnant of romance. While Narita’s narrative does not offer anything new at a thematical level, he ensures that his narrative stands out due to his refusal to spell things out and, instead, imply certain subjective truths via elegant and naturalistic poetic moments.       

Notes

Psycho-note 1: What remains undeveloped is which kind of frustration drives our bullies, a frustration pushing them to find easy pleasure in hurting the other physically as well as mentally.

Society-note 1: The complaints by one vocal teacher about the passivity of the local government beautifully echoes the common but problematic ideas about revitalization. Successfully revitalizing a local area is not, as he assumes, merely function of the efforts of the local government, but also of the desire of the locals themselves.

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