The title of Kawase Naomi’s 2017 film Radiance tells us that light is a subject itself and not only a medium for images of things. This director has always shown an affinity for brightly backlit shots, which audiences tend to find either poetic or cloying. In Radiance, these have special bearing on a story about the creation of audio guides, spoken narratives created for blind and vision-impaired filmgoers. At one screening, Kawase said that she first encountered audio guides when one was made for her audience-pleasing 2015 film Sweet Bean (An). She wanted to treat the love of cinema by focusing on this work of turning images into words – an intriguing prospect for a filmmaker who normally relies very little on words.

The protagonist is a young woman named Misako (Misaki Ayame) who is writing the audio guide for an art-house tearjerker. In this film-within-a-film, a man (Fuji Tatsuya from In the Realm of the Senses) faces his wife’s illness and the prospect of life after her death. Mentored by her female supervisor, Misako reads the audio guide to a test audience convened to give feedback. Most, but not all, of the group are played by sighted actors. A tense relationship develops between Misako and one of the listeners, a famous photographer named Nakamori who is played with rubber-faced inscrutability by Nagase Masatoshi. Others in the group offer thoughtful remarks, but Nakamori harshly criticizes the way Misako has treated the end of the movie: she presents it as hopeful, when the film itself is more ambiguous. Nakamori says that she is not allowing the audience’s imagination to work.

This blunt appraisal propels Misako into reflection on her work, and on first viewing, I hoped that the film would probe the relationship between words and images, and what it means for one to be adequate to the other. But Radiance is more interested in the specific mistake Misako has made. It draws a connection to her feelings of loss concerning her father’s disappearance years ago. A sunset in one of Nakamori’s photos recalls a moment from Misako’s childhood, and their encounter reactivates unresolved feelings. The theme of loss is overdetermined: Misako’s mother’s dementia is also worsening, and Nakamori, already isolated, is losing what remains of his vision. Over the course of their stormy interactions, a romance develops between the two characters.

Although female film directors are still a minority in the industry in both Japan and America, Kawase and others of her generation figure significantly in any consideration of Japanese film since 2000. In part, her career has been built on success on the international festival circuit since winning the Camera d’Or at Cannes for her first feature, Suzaku. Her films have begun in recent years to be distributed in North American theatres and streaming platforms. (Radiance follows the recent release of her 2014 film Still the Water.) Kawase is sometimes said to be better known internationally than in Japan, but she cannot be accused of painting a picture of the country calibrated to tastes abroad. Her movies frequently concern marginalized people, and they are usually rooted in specific places. Radiance returns to her hometown of Nara, as well as to subjects like grief and dementia that she has treated before in films such as The Mourning Forest.

Her filmmaking process might be called mystical: she creates scenarios and allows actors to live in their roles, providing the opportunity for something to happen. Here, for instance, she asked Nagase to spend time in blinders before working on his character’s isolation. Sometimes the process works: we watch something take place between characters for which we don’t have a name, which is what someone might mean by calling a film poetic. In Radiance, a few scenes strike me this way, but at other times I suspect many viewers will find the film saccharine. I wish the script gave actors more to work with, so that emotional climaxes weren’t disrupted by platitudes about letting go of attachments.

The film-within-a-film also looks like a heightened or parodic version of Kawase’s own work, and it’s easy to wonder if she is addressing her critics. Yet to take Misako’s work of translating images into words seriously, we must also take what she’s describing seriously; one character calls it “profound.” Neither critical nor ironic, Radiance is sincere and unafraid of sentimentality. Which brings me back to those shots of characters against backgrounds suffused with light. I can’t help seeing them as visual cliches suggesting loss and spirituality, especially when accompanied by the tinkling piano music (by composer Ibrahim Maalouf). But it wouldn’t be fair to leave things at this: Misako and Nakamori’s coming to terms with loss – and their developing relationship – aren’t matters of private spirituality. They take shape against the background of a community and a specific place. Community, in this movie at least, isn’t something beyond the people who make it up, which might compensate for personal losses. It’s what reminds people of death and loss, and in Radiance images (photos, movies) are sites where relationships form.

Radiance is available on VOD & Digital platforms through Film Movement, 

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