Director: Shinji Sômai
Screenplay: Yôzô Tanaka
Starring: Keiji Mutô, Michiru Akiyoshi, Narumi Yasuda, Saburô Date, Hide Demon
Country: Japan
Running Time: 115 min
Year: 1987
BBFC: 15

Third Window kick off their second wave of Director’s Company Blu-ray releases with Luminous Woman (a.k.a. Hikaru onna), another title from the highly regarded director Shinji Sômai. They’d previously released Sômai’s Typhoon Club, which I fell head-over-heels in love with. I was also a huge fan of the director’s earlier film, Sailor Suit and Machine Gun, which Arrow released in 2021. With me begging the labels to put more of Sômai’s work on Blu-ray in the UK at the end of both reviews, it seems as though someone was listening, because not only are Third Window bringing out Luminous Woman in May, but they’re releasing Sômai’s Love Hotel in July.

Of course, I leapt at the chance of reviewing both and my thoughts on the earlier release follow.

Luminous Woman centres around Sensaku (Keiji Mutô), a large man from the mountains of Hokkaido, who journeys to the neon-drenched underbelly of Tokyo to find Kuriko (Narumi Yasuda), his fiancée who has vanished after heading to the city to study.

His search leads him to a strange nightclub where violent staged fights entertain the patrons alongside opera music and other varieties of wildly different performance art. In the club, Sensaku encounters a faded opera singer, Yoshino (Michiru Akiyoshi), who has lost her voice, and the club’s enigmatic manager, Shiniuchi (Saburô Date).

To get information about Kuriko, Sensaku is forced to agree to a brutal gladiatorial fight in the club. He wins the battle and, indeed, finds Kuriko, but she’s reluctant to leave. Puzzled but undeterred, Sensaku stays in the city, living with his alcoholic colleague, Akanuma (Hide Demon), whilst waiting for Kuriko to change her mind.

Whilst Sensaku continues to fight for Shiniuchi to earn a living, a bond develops between the fighter and Yoshino. We also learn some shocking truths about Kuriko.

I didn’t fall as whole-heartedly in love with Luminous Woman as I did the other pair of Sômai films I’d seen, but it still shares many of the same qualities.

Once again, it’s unconventionally handsome. Long, complicated takes are often incorporated. The most impressive of these occur in the club, with even some of the fights taking place in a single shot with a great deal of camera movement.

There’s a strange pink-purple hue to the film too, whenever it’s in the city. It’s quite striking, giving it an almost garish quality, but makes for some sumptuous images in places. Most notably, there’s a key sequence involving a burning bus that looks positively dreamlike, bathed in pink.

Like the previously mentioned films, Luminous Woman is no mere style exercise though. Sômai looks at the nature of beauty and art, and how it is often inspired by pain and suffering. He also looks at the differences between life in the city and that of people living off the land. Whereas those out in the country are relatively simple and aim for the basics – food, shelter, family – the city is like a machine that sucks you in and spits you out. People are treated like objects or commodities.

This latter theme might have become trite in the wrong hands but Sômai puts such an unusual spin on it and avoids spelling things out too clearly, that he gets away with it. Saying that, the final scene is on the verge of getting corny in the idyllic view of country life.

Elsewhere, the view is a little more balanced, with Sensaku’s attitudes towards women, in particular, being misguided and selfish, preventing his naivety from coming across as being totally innocent.

You do sympathise with Sensaku though. He’s a big, strong guy but he’s out of place and taken advantage of in the city. All he wants is a basic, wholesome family life back in the mountains.

Part of that sympathy comes from the performance by Keiji Mutô. This was his acting debut, having spent most of his career as a pro wrestler. He found the experience of acting very difficult and often clashed with Sômai, but his blunt delivery and hulking demeanour are perfect for the part.

Michiru Akiyoshi counters this nicely with a more delicate and composed performance. Whilst I imagine her singing scenes were post-dubbed by someone else, they’re highly effective and she does radiate beauty, as the title suggests.

However, I found the latter portions of Yoshino’s story, where she once again struggles with her voice, were less effective than the core relationship arcs in the film and Sensaku’s tale. However, the final act is strong, winning me back after I’d begun to drift.

The pace is slow, as with the other films of Sômai’s I’ve seen. I didn’t mind that then but I did feel the length a little more here. Perhaps I was just tired but, I wasn’t absorbed in quite the same way.

So, overall, I admired but struggled a little with Sômai’s unusual operatic drama about the impersonal nature of urban life and the way beauty and art often stem from ugly places. However, due to the astonishing craft on display and its unique style, I still find myself drawn to its strange beauty.

Film:

Luminous Woman is out on 20th May on region B Blu-ray, released by Third Window Films as part of their Director’s Company collection. The transfer is decent. It’s a clean, fairly detailed image, though it looks a little murky in some of the darker scenes. I assume the pink/purple hue is intentional, so colours seem solid. The audio is generally satisfying, though I noticed the scenes in Akanuma’s apartment had a strange almost chorus effect on the dialogue. I assume this was a choice made or issue stemming from the original mix though, as it doesn’t appear to occur elsewhere.

There are several special features included on the disc:

– New 2k remaster from the original negatives
– Making Of (50 minutes)
– Deleted Scenes (50 minutes)
– Trailer
– Slipcase with artwork from Gokaiju
– ‘Directors Company’ edition featuring insert by Jasper Sharp – limited to 2000 copies

The deleted scenes are a treasure trove of treats. Running close to 50 minutes, it’s a huge amount of extra material. It’s not just a bunch of extended sequences either, it’s mostly made up of completely new scenes. Sadly, the audio was lost, so you have to make do with subtitles taken from the shooting script.

Many of the scenes help explain details that appear in the final cut, such as the acorns that are thrown around in a couple of scenes. Character motivations are made clearer too. The film might have made more logical sense with these scenes, but without them, it becomes a more enigmatic and possibly more natural experience.

There are also more scenes back in the mountains with Sensaku. These and a deleted conversation between him and Kuriko put a stronger emphasis on the theme of comparing country and city lives. In this way, it makes the film a little less subtle, so I can see why they were cut but there are some lovely moments in there.

It’s wonderful to have all the material on the disc though, and I highly recommend people give the deleted scenes a watch.

There’s also a 50-minute ‘making of’ piece. It’s made from various TV sources, so the quality is a bit rough but there’s some revealing behind-the-scenes footage. I particularly enjoyed seeing Sômai working with the actors to get what he wanted from them. The piece largely follows Mutô struggling with working as an actor. Sômai is not particularly sympathetic, even slapping him a couple of times at one point, though this may be a technique to bring out the desired performance.

Assuming the paper insert included is the same that appeared in previous Director’s Company releases, it provides a clear and concise history of the Director’s Company, which is handy.

So, Third Window have put together a strong package to accompany this unusual film. It’s well worth picking up.

Disc/Package:

Luminous Woman - Third Window
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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