Summer Lights comes from the award-winning French filmmaker Jean-Gabriel Périot. His past work has consisted of non-fiction shorts about war, human rights, and political struggles. He continues to explore these issues here in his first fiction film about a documentary filmmaker in the company of a capricious young woman who guides him around the city of Hiroshima, the two discovering some of the stories and traumas of the past whilst life blooms around them.
Hiroshima. If you know that name then it probably conjures up nightmarish imagery of the city’s traumatic past when it was devastated by an atomic bomb. The centre was reduced to rubble and set ablaze by the blast and some people who survived the blast suffered radiation poisoning and developed horrendous physical maladies. Despite that horrific event the city recovered and remains to tell the tale. It is these tales that Akihiro (Hiroto Ogi), a Japanese director based in Paris, wants to capture for a television documentary. This background sets up the powerful cold opening as an elderly lady named Mrs. Takeda (Mamako Yoneyama) recounts her memories of the atomic bombing in an interview that lasts for nearly 20 minutes of screen-time and culminates with the heartbreaking recollection of the death of her older sister Michiko from radiation poisoning. Her testimony, despite being scripted and read by an actress, is so powerfully delivered and well-written it has the feeling of documentary accuracy, as if it would be one of the stories found in the different museums around Hiroshima’s Peace Park. Indeed, the interview was shot in the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for Atomic Bomb Victims. The cloistered atmosphere of the museum with its low lighting and silent surroundings are perfect for making an audience focus on the harrowing account of war given by Mrs. Takeda since there is nothing to distract from her and Jean-Gabriel Périot films this sequence like a real interview with the very occasional reverse-shot on Akihiro to show the impact Takeda’s words have on him.
Her testimony proves so moving that it leaves Akihiro upset and with his production running behind schedule he heads out of the memorial hall to the Peace Memorial Park where he sits on a bench in the summer sunlight and tries to get his mind and his film back on track. After a conversation with the film’s producer in French, he zones back into the park where life is abundant around him. Kids chat loudly, joggers are fleetingly glimpsed, tourists mill about, and the sun bathes everything with its healthy glow and cicadas emit their cry. Sat on the same bench as Akihiro is a young woman (Akane Tatsukawa) who is interested in the language he has spoken. Their spontaneous verbal exchange blossoms into something more as the two begin to talk about life and the difficulty in trying to capture the memories of the bombing.
Amused by the appearance of the young woman since she is dressed in a summer yukata and charmed by her lively character, Akihiro allows her to cajole him into taking a walk around the city streets where they continue to discuss the bomb but also move on to fashion and food, life and love. Despite knowing a lot about the history of the city, she claims to be as ignorant as Akihiro about some aspects which allows her to lead the filmmaker astray culminating in them taking a surprise train ride to a beach and participating in obon.
Despite the rambling nature of this journey, it is interesting to watch because of the sense of reality it develops. What the film does remarkably well is convey the life and vibrancy of the compact city with its bright shopping boulevards and parks that are bursting with colour because of the gorgeous foliage. Like some cinema verite movie, the camera is free flowing and offers up a view of Hiroshima that allows the lives of its people to be shown and for many truths to be seen on the screen with Akihiro and his new female friend uncovering everything together. She, being a Hiroshima girl, is proud of the local okonomiyaki and they end up in a restaurant where the elderly owner tells them of his memories of the bomb. It isn’t just old stories or lives but new and nascent ones such as an eight-year-old boy left in the care of his grandfather. This proves to be an interesting way of exploring history and reality.
The film’s most charming element is the relationship between Hiroto Ogi and Akane Tatsukawa which has a natural flow from friendship to something more. Their sudden meeting sparked by her vivacious personality and his genuine desire to understand things is sustained by her curiosity and impulsiveness and his patience and good nature. They make a complimentary pair and it doesn’t hurt that they are both very photogenic. It is a pleasure to spend time in their company as they walk and talk or when they are silent and contemplating things. It is clear that the camera loves Akane Tatsukawa as it often comes to rest on her beautiful face and records her reactions to the different things that she sees. This means that when the film takes a turn for the mysterious and spiritual at the end, the tone isn’t broken and the story comes to a perfect end.
Summer Lights is a clearly and concisely told slice of life in Hiroshima with a bit of magic thrown into the mix. It is worth a re-watch to see the lines of dialogue and the acting which foreshadow certain things later on in the plot and to understand more about Hiroshima in the aftermath of the atomic bombing and the beautiful city it has become now and the link between the past and the present. Life truly has reasserted itself in the ruins but it is important to listen to voices from the past and Summer Lights conveys these ideas most effectively.
Summer Lights is showing as part of JAPAN CUTS 2017 on Sunday July 23 at Japan Society at 2:30pm. Tickets can be purchased from the Japan Society website.