Dream of Illumination (Japan, 2017) [JAPAN CUTS 2018]

Retreating from the hustle of Tokyo’s megalopolis reveals the sleepy surroundings of towns and villages trapped in time. Populated by debt-ridden farmers the town of Rokujo is far removed from a world chaotically steamrolling towards a multicultural and global future, rooted in quaint, generations-old traditions and values. In a slight reversal on the cinematic trope of adults returning to their familial and rural homes, Thunder Sawada’s directorial debut ties together a deeply personal web of individual stories of folk desperate to relocate from a town reluctant to let them go for good, their heritage more deeply ingrained into their psyche than they realise. Dream of Illumination aptly transports viewers to a dreamlike state of serene of deceiving harmony endangered and threatened to be lost forever.

After constantly relocating, Ueda (Yuya Takagawa) and his daughter Nana (Sara Shida) have spent the last four years residing in this town. A realtor facilitating the foreclosure of the local land by foreigners, he has become the scorn of the residents who have fled elsewhere due to his work; Nana, who has never remained in one place long enough, tries to live like a normal high school student whilst deliberating her future. Returning to her deceased father’s home is Yoko (Elen) who, along with Yuichiro (Hikohiko Sugiyama), resist the sale of the land further. Also returning is Michiko (Maho Yamada) who has a personal connection with Ueda whilst the animosity between him and her father, ex-mayor Miyoshi (Akira Hamada) worsens with the reckless selling off his land.

Allowing time for his film to slowly unravel, Sawada pads Dream of Illumination with gorgeous yet superfluous scenes which, when taken at face value, add very little to the stories as they slowly confluence towards the film’s tragic revelations. Besides its artistry however lies a delicate tenderness vital to reflect on the loneliness residing in each of Sawada’s major players. They bask us in a reflective harmony soon to vanish by the radical developments resulting from Ueda’s reckless disregard for the locals. Peaceful yet unnerving, this tranquillity masks a darkness long festered, now enveloping the town’s inhabitants. Tantamount to this understanding is Sawada’s ability to pace his narratives, giving them room to breathe whilst the air is still fresh.

Ueda has settled in as the embodiment of the outside, of a global urbanisation – a foreign being uprooting Rokujo from the inside. Like the film itself he has bided his time, slowly tearing apart not just the land itself but also the lives behind them; it is these lives Sawada makes his focus. Just as he has upset the local farming community – whose crops have already struggled –so too has the ensuing globalisation dealt a blow to the traditions upheld by these towns so far removed from the wider world. This resentment has trickled down to Nana who has already suffered greatly from their constant relocating (her crush Kato reminds her she has no foundations – the opposite to her neighbours); her tenuous and contemptuous connection to her father by proxy makes her a target for harassment. Their relationship is non-existent to the point which, gracing the screen for the first time together an hour in, the rift between them opens even wider with eruptive force.

Much like these two, the rest of Sawada’s cast seem to be in a permanent state of emotional dislocation, trapped within the deteriorating stasis as its value rapidly depreciates; it is a double blow dealt by Ueda’s sly and manipulative intimidation and the lingering sentimentalities ceaselessly gripping them by the wrist. For Yuko, Yuichiro and, especially, Michiko, their physical departure is not enough: they are spiritually incapable of fully moving on, brought back by their own heavy burdens. As if in limbo the inhabitant of Rokujo drift from place to place as disembodied ghosts, testament to the dying ways as the major road developments – instigated by the land foreclosure – threaten to eradicate this tranquil way of life once and for all. The only one fully capable of leaving is Ueda, who intends to do so before the damage he has initiated moves into its final phase.

Though the performances do well to inhabit the human spaces the real stars are cinematographer Mizuki Nishida and composer Keiji Kariu, who perfectly capture the haunting loneliness seeping through the cracks of the pristine landscape. Nishida’s immersive and meditative tonal palette is crisp, gently bringing these human stories to life and engraining them deep into the tapestries never to be forgotten; above all he respects their fragility. However, it is in his capturing of this landscape where his work truly shines. Kairu on the other hand amplifies their grief, silently billowing in a dreamlike state; their overall juxtaposition makes for a rich and hypnotic experience.

Drawing from his own experiences, Sawada’s tale of the conservative reluctance to adapt to the global age is grounded in a realism reminiscent of a bygone age of cinema. His artistic background shines through in his direction, revelling in immaculate imagery. Never are we as dislocated and as trapped as the Rokujo’s residents in our witnessing of the human consequences to radical change.

Dream of Illumination was shown on July 21 at JAPAN CUTS.