Dark Side of the Light (Japan, 2016)
Dark Side of the Light uses a Citizen Kane (1941)-style structure to explore how an actual murder, which occurred in Shibuya back in 1996, would have been committed. Gaps left by the news reportage are filled not with “fiction”, but with possibilities. The film is narrated through the perspective of Takumi (Takashi Nagayama), who witnessed the incidents leading to the murder. Takumi’s best friend, Kohei (Shugo Oshinari) married Tomomi (Megumi Hatachiya) months after a single’s meeting, only for Tomomi to become disappointed with Kohei’s contrived self, after learning that he is not really a lawyer by profession.
Kohei’s and Tomomi’s relationship crumbles down into a play of pressures and (dis)appearances as Kohei begins to beat Tomomi over almost every little frustration, while they keep up appearances as loving couple supported by an established corporate man. Oshinari is effective on his depiction of the fragility of the patriarchal ego – which has always depended on symbols and entitlement. When Kohei begs Takumi not to report the domestic violence incident to the police, claiming that reporting the incidents will “ruin his life”, he makes it explicit that he cares only about the appearance that he projects outside his home, and not for his life as part of a couple.
The title, Dark Side of the Light is fitting for the world in which Kohei and Tomomi lived: the ‘dark’ being the world inside the high-rise expensive apartment in Shibuya where every frustrations and stress is brought about by the world of the ‘light’, the world of alienation, market transactions and capital intervention embodied outside the apartment, by Tokyo itself. The film itself is only concerned on exposing the spaces inside the ‘dark’, but always in relation to what happens in the ‘light’. The events in the ‘dark’ itself are all effects of keeping appearances and struggle to survive in the ‘light’.
In the film’s press materials, director Ryota Sakamaki recalls the questions he asked himself, “Did the husband’s violence turn his wife into a monster? Or did love transform her into a monster?”But it seems that he failed to grasp what lies beyond the familial/patriarchal relationship and may not be aware of the deeper critical possibilities of his work. The possibility posed by Samakaki as the conclusion isn’t that Tomomi herself turned into “monster” as Tomomi is still largely governed by logic, albeit, her own logic. Tomomi supplements her situation not by denial of it, but by pushing it further. Her desire is not to inflict revenge but to truly liberate herself in her own terms. This is contrary to what Kohei and Takumi suggests with divorce that will “free” both of them as Tomomi knows too well that Kohei only wants to save himself. Divorce, in itself, is also a product of the structure which supports and validates Kohei’s prior violence towards Tomomi, and of their marriage as capital-patriarchy relationship.
The film’s strength lies in Sakamaki’s simple yet effective poetic lighting: Kohei and Tomomi keep up appearences in the daytime or well-lit sequences, while darker sequences show Kohei’s troubling treatment of Tomomi. But the film is never balanced in its presentation and darkness dominates the light. It seeks to understand the darkness more, which is perhaps where the film fails as there is also much to be understood in the light outside the home, as hinted by Kohei’s character, which would explain what has transpired in the closed apartment spaces.
Like most contemporary independent productions based on true events, Dark Side of the Light presents an intriguing way of bridging gaps between facts and possibilities. Unfortunately, there is nothing more to this intrigue. The film and the filmmaker’s process provides an opportunity for a more radical course of discussion, but only to fall to the comforts of vagueness. This is yet again a problem of prioritising form over meaning, which is arguably a mistake made by young independent filmmakers from almost anywhere in the world. Their obsession with story-telling structure and processes, even to the marginal details of each narrative, in effect, leaves very little room for message, or essence.