In the Japanese drama ‘Radiance’, Misako (Ayame Misaki, ‘Attack on Titan’, ‘Hentai Kamen: Abnormal Crisis’), a writer of audio versions of films for the visually impaired, is working on her latest description of a film with the help of visually handicapped people. She reads along with the movie in her clear, chiming voice and the panel reply with observations and delicately-worded tips for improvement. All except for the crusty Nakamori (the great Nagase Masatoshi, ‘The Hidden Blade’, Jim Jarmusch's ‘Mystery Train’), once a world-famous photographer until a degenerative disease stole away his sight (he’s abrasive and blunt but tall and handsome, ‘natch). As the director slowly moves her narrative forward, the two bond while watching 'Radiance', a film within the film (which stars iconic Japanese actor Tatsuya Fuji).
The work of director Naomi Kawase (‘Sweet Bean’, ‘Still The Water’, ‘Suzaku’) is heavily concerned with the distorted space between fiction and non-fiction that has occurred within the state of modern Japanese society. She employs a documentary-style realism (often using amateur actors) to focus on individuals of lesser cultural status and connect her own personal reflections on contemporary issues - Japan-centric hot button topics like the economic depression, declining birth-rate, alienation, the collapse of traditional family structures, and feminist practices.
To this extent, Misako is a direct Kawase surrogate, not least when she veers between sincerity, “I want cinema to convey a more tangible feeling of hope,” and feistiness - after listening to Masaya trash her script, she snaps back, “You have no imagination!”
The film looks terrific. Kawase focuses our attention through extreme close-ups, making use of natural autumnal magic-hour light with a diffuse, gauzy quality. Cinematographer Arata Dodo (his father, Shunji Dodo, was Kawase’s teacher) conjures occasional frames of stunning widescreen poetry from the director’s image system, whether it is two kissing lovers emblazoned as orange silhouettes against the twilight, or a spinning crystal scattering shards of multi-coloured light on gazing faces. Equally impressive is the subtly heightened sound design by Roman Dymny, which captures the buffeting of the world around Nakamori.
Kawase focuses our attention through extreme close-ups, making use of natural autumnal magic-hour light with a diffuse, gauzy quality.
Unfortunately, the writing doesn’t support the visuals and sound, with thin characterisation and glacial pacing that provides very little plot momentum. It’s also super sappy and overwrought. Even the film’s use of visual metaphors becomes heavy-handed (such as a burning photograph of a man’s eye).
Essentially, ‘Radiance’ is a film about people’s desires for encounters - with others and with cinema - that are sensorial and true. But strikingly cinematography and production design can’t overcome the schmaltz overload of Kawase’s script. If you’re after a film about characters chasing more rewarding lives by embracing sensory experiences, try Kawase’s previous and much better film, ‘Sweet Bean’.