Kawase: Hikari (Radiance) (2017)

Naomi Kawase’s latest film is also one of her most poignant, revolving around the operations of a Japanese company that provides audio film commentaries for the blind and sight-challenged. While much of the film details the procedures and challenges faced by this company, it focuses, more specifically, on the relationship between Masaya Nakamori (Masatoshi Nagase), one of its employees, and Misako Ozaki (Ayame Misaki), one of the sight-challenged subjects who comes in to sample her commentaries. The film starts in the midst of one of these sessions, as her subjects challenges Masaya to discover the right balance between describing and commentating, and proceeds with Masaya getting to known Misako in more detail. Although he’s gruff and stand-offish at first, she gradually discovers that he was once an iconic photographer, but that a degenerative ocular condition has forced him to give up his craft and acclimatise to a new life without a clear visual field.

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It’s not just the relation between Masaya and Misako, but the relationship between blindness and cinema itself, that forms Kawase’s focus here, since the film suggests that blind people are even more attentive as viewers, because they have less to work with at a visual level. Indeed, the commentary company works on the premise that “the imagination of sight-challenged people is phenomenal,” with much of Masaya’s work involving accommodating and describing the small details of mise-en-scene that she would have overlooked were it not for her blind interlocuturs. While they may be experiencing cinema through her, she is also experiencing cinema through their exquisite taste for detail, to the point where she starts to shut her eyes in order to “see” the films she is commentating better, a practice that she gradually extends back into her experience of her everyday life.

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To that end, Kawase also tends to remove visuality as a point of focus from her mise-en-scenes, largely eschewing establishing shots or extensive depictions of space except when they are accompanied by a voiceover. Instead, she emphasises cinema as a tactile and sonic medium, a mode of tactile and aural seeing, either by narrowing her focus to a specific object, or by perpetually presenting the world outside Masaya’s workplace as too glary, bleary to be properly conducive to sight. Whenever we step outside, light occludes one space after another, and only just permits spatiality inside, resulting in a radically unformed visual field that fully-sighted people never even think to adequately acknowledge or process. On the rare occasion that spatial vistas do emerge, they tend to have the same abstracted tactility as an Ozu pillow shot – images that are designed to be touched as much as witnessed, cut from the same cloth as calligraphy, rock gardens, tea ceremonies and all the other modes of idiogrammatic expression that fuse tactility and sight in Japanese life.

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As the film proceeds, then, light becomes a source of opacity as much as a source of illumination, opening up a visual field but also connoting a visual field so inchoate and overwhelming that visual apprehension becomes something of a disadvantage in properly navigating it. Both providing and occluding sight, light becomes a point of connection between the sight-able and the sight-challenged, both in its natural incarnation and as a cinematic projection. It’s no coincidence, then, that Misako’s symptoms don’t involve a gradual darkening of the world, but a perpetual bright white-yellow sheen that eventually overtakes his entire visual field apart from a small sliver of “regular” sight that remains in the middle. By the end, all he sees is light, even in the dark, and yet the fact that Masaya meets him just as he is starting to lose his sight normalises this mode of perception as well, turning the experience of light itself into a shared proprioceptive space in which the border between seeing and not seeing collapses back into a more amorphous sensory communion.

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Within that shared light, both seen and not seen, Radiance enters a space that feels distinctively digital, insofar as digital cinema is less oppressively anchored in visuality than analog cinema. As Christian Keathley notes in Cinephilia, or The Wind in the Trees, one of the main components of classical cinephilia is precisely the curious and roving attention to detail that the blind film viewers display here. The original point of this attention, as Keathley understands it, was to reinvest the experience of cinematic attendance with a whole-body, kinaesthetic potential, and to remove the primacy of the eye as a source of sensory and cognitive regulation. Something of that process occurs in Radiance, too, which suggests that the logical conclusion of analog cinephilic attachment is digital embodiment, or even a cinema without images – a cinema solely comprised of flickers and disruptions to a digital field. Jettisoning cinema from optic centrality, Kawase finally makes a film that feels designed for sight-challenged people as much as sight-able people, imbuing even the clearest vistas with a more abstracted sensory apprehension, and subsuming every visual feature into a broader sensory ambience, a whole-body immersion that transcends sight.

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Towards the end of the film, Masayo meets the director of the film that she is commentating, only to realise that Misako was able to elucidate more about the film than its director ever could, despite not being able to “see” most of it. At its most visionary, Radiance seems to hold out the opportunity for its own sight-challenged audience, creating a sensory and ambient field which is prescient that sight may well be a disadvantage for navigating its smaller details, and offering itself up to the sight-challenged to find something that remains invisible to Kawase herself. The result is a remarkably dignified, meticulous and interested visions of how people with different abilities mediate the world, and mediate cinema, in which Kawase discovers a cinema without images, or a cinema that transcends images, as the logical endpoint of the Japanese cinematic lexicon she so beautifully invokes.

 

Towards the end of the film, Masayo meets the director of the film that she is commentating, only to realise that Misako was able to elucidate more about the film than its director ever could, despite not being able to “see” most of it. At its most visionary, Radiance seems to hold out the opportunity for its own sight-challenged audience, creating a sensory and ambient field which is prescient that sight may well be a disadvantage for navigating its smaller details, and offering itself up to the sight-challenged to find something that remains invisible to Kawase herself. The result is a remarkably dignified, meticulous and interested visions of how people with different abilities mediate the world, and mediate cinema, in which Kawase discovers a cinema without images, or a cinema that transcends images, as the logical endpoint of the Japanese cinematic lexicon she so beautifully invokes.

About Billy Stevenson (695 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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