Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for JAPAN CUTS: The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema which runs from July 11-21. For more information of this film series visit www.japansociety.org and follow Japan Society Film on Twitter at @js_film_nyc.
There Is Light starts out as what would presumably be a kinky comedy about a young woman, Saori, on her first day at work for the agency Honey Lips. Honey Lips is a company that provides sexual services to disabled men, a task that for Saori seems like an easy deal. As the film charts Saori’s encounters and experiences with her clientele, There Is Light immediately reveals its inner life as a documentary-like look at social contact, the disabled communities in Japan, the lack of accommodation towards the disabled in terms of access around cities and towns, and the particular friendship between Saori and one of her clients. Clocking in at a brisk sixty-eight minutes that perhaps betrays its television documentary origins, There Is Light is a very surprising gem of a debut film by Toda Yukihiro. Centered on a very fine, detached performance by former swimsuit model Koizumi Maya, who injects a subtle, melancholy pathos to her character to avoid expected flights of melodrama given the subject, Toda presents a kind of stunning narrative about feeling—both physical and emotional—empathy, life choices, and making do with what one has, or put another way, confronting what one does not possess yet donning a ‘screw it’ attitude regardless.
Centered on a very fine, detached performance by former swimsuit model Koizumi Maya, who injects a subtle, melancholy pathos to her character to avoid expected flights of melodrama given the subject, [director]Toda presents a kind of stunning narrative about feeling—both physical and emotional—empathy, life choices, and making do with what one has , or put another way, confronting what one does not possess yet donning a ‘screw it’ attitude regardless.
Through the several clients that she services on her first day, Saori encounters a different perspective of human contact and interaction. Before meeting her first client, her boss Tsuda (Tsuda Kanji) gives her a brief, informal, and conversational prologue about Japan being a non-disabled-friendly society: the country is populated by roughly three million disabled inhabitants who are forced to remain indoors because the way the outdoors are conceived in a way that privilege narrow notions of mobility. For Tsuda, the disabled are actually an untapped, hidden market for companies such as Honey Lips. However crass it may sound, Tsuda provides a simple yet profound insight about disabled communities and desire. During the course of the film, its humour, frankness, and sensitivity to bodies cannot help but recall Hara Kazuo’s excellent documentary on people with cerebral palsy and their day-to-day lives, Goodbye CP (1972).
Goodbye CP stages provocative encounters between people with CP, led by the poet Yokota Hiroshi, and the public by reciting poetry on the sidewalk or going around sections of Tokyo without a wheelchair (and thus drawing further attention from passersby) and having people see the taboo of disabled bodies out on the streets. Its confrontational element is a product of both the filmmaker’s personality and the very politicised moment in Japan in which it was made. There Is Light operates much more inaudibly, but not less effectively, first and foremost because the principal encounters in terms of the public and private involve Saori and her individual clientele, in the quiet of their respective homes, and the emotional effect that these encounters have on her. Given her work in relation to them, she treats them professionally but also comically and coyly, unable to tap into the prejudice that others would have immediately conjured to reduce these clients to victims. By extension, as voyeur of Saori’s experiences with her clientele, the film sets up an encounter between the spectator and these disabled bodies, specifically those that express basic sexual desires and any kind of physical contact.
Sure, the film takes that trope character of the prostitute with a heart of gold, but it upends this trope in a way to challenge ideas about Saori and what she does for a living and about the disabled as a faceless, entity-victim for whom sexual desire is no longer a part of their lives. Yet for all of these details, the film never becomes maudlin melodrama or takes itself too seriously to get on a pedestal and clamour for reforms and attitudes like a run-of-the-mill documentary, either of which would construct for both Saori and her disabled clients long-distance and self-comforting pity from the spectator. It is way too subtle and tasteful for such soapbox posturing. Instead, it focuses on the friendships that grow between Saori and her clients, and the rapport with her boss, all executed sensitively and thoughtfully. In particular, it follows Saori’s eventual amity with one of her clients, Kenji (Moriyama Masayuki), who initially meets Saori because his mother called Honey Lips. In partial denial of her son’s paralysed condition following an accident, she makes an appointment to have Saori visit their house even though Kenji is no longer able to feel or respond to pleasure from the waist down. That the film manages to avoid being preachy or overdramatic is a testament to the combined thoughtfulness of the story, direction, and ensemble performance.
[...] the film never becomes maudlin melodrama or takes itself too seriously to get on a pedestal and clamour for reforms and attitudes like a run-of-the-mill documentary, either of which would construct for both Saori and her disabled clients long-distance and self-comforting pity from the spectator.
In fact, Toda makes everything much more surprisingly nonchalant, and so lulls the spectator into engaging with these characters based on their appearances and then into taking them for what they are beyond the surface look of things. Integral in this regard is comedian Hawking Aoyama, who was born with a condition that leaves him unable to move his arms or legs, playing one of Saori’s clients.
[notification type="star"]91/100 ~ AMAZING. There Is Light is a very surprising gem of a debut film by Toda Yukihiro. [/notification]