The main idea behind Naomi Kawase’s 2017 film Radiance is a complex statement: only those on the verge of blindness have the best view of the sun.
Ever interested in the connections between disability, memory, and mourning, Kawase’s film equates looking at the sun with the experience of passion, creating a solar perception both blinding and illuminating at the same time. The film follows Misako, an audio descriptor of films for the blind, and the relationship she forms with Nakamori, a formerly prestigious photographer who has lost most of his sight. Misako’s occupation provides explanations for films to those like Nakamori who lack the ability to see, but Nakamori, who retains a glimmer of his artistic vision, brutally criticizes her descriptions. His bitterness comes from his body’s inability to keep up with his passion, and Misako shares with him the problem of working in the dark.
As Nakamori loses his vision entirely and Misako finds herself strangely drawn to him, Kawase bathes their movements, thoughts, and interactions in direct and indirect sunlight. Whether through spinning slivers of light reflected by hanging prisms in Nakamori’s apartment, or through blinding backgrounds of direct sunlight, Kawase’s characters share an intimate relationship to light from the privileged place the sun holds in their memories. Nakamori’s photographic career was built around being an expert on light, while Misako’s familial memories revolve around a single photo taken with her father in front of a sunset. Above romance and aesthetics, the significance of light in Kawase’s film lies in its relationship to time. While on the one hand an integral component to general timekeeping, the sun in Radiance is most radiant and most mnemonic at sunset: when it’s on the verge of disappearing. For Kawase’s characters, light is time and lucidity is oppressive, each element being felt most acutely only as it sinks into the past.
The solar perception of Radiance relocates the distinctly Japanese emphasis on the fleeting nature of things toward a broader national territory, viewing Japan’s own historical relation to the sun, “the land of the rising sun”, as itself a blurry and fading memory.