In recent years, more and more queer narratives are made in Japan. Rikiya Imaizumi, for instance, explored homosexual love and the struggle that accompanies such love within Japanese society in His (2020). Indie queer director Shuichi Kawanobe delivered a highly insightful exploration of queer diversity in Our House Party (2022). Ren Sudo adds another queer narrative to the list with his directorial debut Backlight (2021).
Akira (Ren Sudo) takes fellow student Yoshioka (Haya Nakazaki) to Onomichi to spend one week together. Akira wants to express his romantic feelings for him, but the repeated encounters with his high-school friends Fumie (Eriko Tomiyama), whose harbors her own feelings for Akira, and the childish and dense Mieko (Aki Kigoshi), make things complicated.
Backlight is a narrative that does not simply explores the subjective fear to be rejected by one’s beloved other, but how such fear gives moments of silence – the gaps between signifiers – a subjective weight and tension. Much of the emotional impact of Backlight is function of Sudo’s thoughtful exploitation of these silent gaps. Sudo makes these silent gaps impactful either by highlighting facial expressions or certain retrained body-movements or by allowing signifiers (and the unsaid they suppress) to resound in the subsequent silent moment (Acting-note 1).
In Backlight, Sudo explores the spectre of what remains unsaid between Fumie and Akira as well as between Akira and Yoshiaki. In both relations, what remains unsaid concerns love and desire. Fumie is frustrated with Akira not only because he readily expresses his disdain for her rural upbringing but also because of her unresolved feelings for him and his blindness to her past ‘romantic’ invitations (i.e. lending books from him) (Narra-note 1 (spoiler)). In the case of Akira and Yoshiaki, the gaps between their interactions are fuelled with Akira’s unvocalized desire for Yoshiaki and a reluctance to perform acts that would reveal his feelings. The main question that drives Backlight can be formulated as follow: Can Akira overcome his inhibiting fear of rejection and perform an act that reveals, due to its intimacy, his desire?
Some spectators might wonder why Tomi-san (-) calls Akira Botchan – something left untranslated in the subtitles. This signifier refers to Natsume Soseki’s beloved book Botchan. In this novel, an English teacher from Tokyo starts teaching in Matsuyama, Ehime. The civilized Botchan complains continuously about how provincial everything is – e.g. the atmosphere, the backwards way of thinking, … etc. His complaints are, as should be evident, simply a sign of his desire to return to civilization. So, by calling him Botchan, she simply emphasizes that he resembles the main character of Soseki’s novel at the level of his desire and his dissatisfaction.
Akira’s interest in the well-known but still controversial novelist Yukio Mishima is not without any relevance either. As many of Yukio Mishima’s works deal with homosexuality (e.g. Confessions of a Mask and Forbidden Colours), one could argue that what attracts Akira in Mishima’s oeuvre is the question of his own (homo)sexuality.
The composition of Backlight stands out due to its floaty dynamism and the visual rhythm Sudo crafted by balancing static and dynamic moments. Yet, Sudo’s reliance on floaty dynamism to brings his narrative visually to life should not blind us from the fact that he has a fine sense of composition. Dynamism is, in certain cases, thoughtfully utilized to deliver pleasingly composed semi-static moments – e.g. moments highlighting Onomichi’s scenic beauty. More evident is Sudo’s sense of composition in his static shot compositions. With these kind of shots, Sudo shows that he knows how to subtly exploit the dimension of geometry (of interiors as well as exteriors) and colour gradations to create pleasant visual moments.
The visual rhythm created by Sudo’s dynamism is further enhanced by peaceful musical accompaniment. In certain cases, the interplay of dynamism and music creates dream-like poetic moments. These moments do not fail to celebrate the social pleasure of mundane summer activities.
Backlight offers an elegantly constructed and highly impactful exploration of the inhibiting fear of being rejection by one’s beloved other. Ren Sudo reveals his talent not only by creating visual poetic moments of mundanity but also by thoughtfully utilizing moments of silence, the gaps between signifiers, to highlight the subjective weight of what is left unsaid and how this unsaid pushes for some kind of expression.
Narra-note 1: The fact that Akira gives Fumie books written by Mishima could, in a certain sense, be understood as an indirect way to communicate his own sexuality to Fumie. As the narrative unfolds, we eventually come to understand that, while her act of reading his books functioned as a way to reveal her interest in him, she did slowly grasp his sexual truth by reading Mishima.
Acting-note 1: Of course, the impact of the silent moments also heavily depends of Ren Sudo and Eriko Tomiyama’s performance. Their performances, which stand out due to their naturalism, play an instrumental part in allowing that what speaks with the body but remains unvocalized with signifiers truly become sensible for the spectator.