Summer Lights, so much more than a holiday tale


France’s Jean-Gabriel Périot explores the bombing of Hiroshima in this delicate, sad story, imbued with poetry and more than a few ghosts

In Summer Lights, screening in the New Directors section of the 64th San Sebastián International Film Festival seasoned French documentary filmmaker Jean-Gabriel Périot broaches the painful and rarely discussed subject of the bombing of Hiroshima. It’s a delicate, sad story, imbued with poetry and more than a few ghosts... but there is room for hope here as well. The film, which so far has not been shown in Japan, aims to get up close to Japanese society and forge a genuine connection: no small ambition for the director.

After the somewhat heavy-going A German Youth (a documentary about a group of individuals whose shared ideology leads them to succumb to the conceits of terrorism), Périot returns to what has for some time been one of the recurring preoccupations of his work: violence. In this case, his subject is the violence of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, which we see through the shattered gaze of the film’s central character, Akihiro, a Japanese filmmaker living in Paris who returns to his native country to make a documentary about the attack, and through the unwavering and heartrending testimony of a seemingly fragile survivor, just 14 years old when the bombing occurred.

Nothing in the film’s opening scene is indicative of the gem that it will turn out to be, and here we have the great strength of Summer Lights: the demarcation between fiction and reality is so fine that at times it seems to dissolve away. A survivor of the Hiroshima bomb describes her experiences, the images still fresh and vivid despite the passing of so many years: the noise, the ash, the hundreds of dead bodies piled up in any available corner, her sister —a nurse — dead, her mother’s corpse (never recovered), and so on. Suddenly, these truths to which the audience listens, transfixed, metamorphose into a haiku (a short Japanese poem evoking the seasons) with echoes of Richard Linklater.
As the film unfolds, it probes into questions of dreams, traditions and poetry. Akihiro takes a seat on a park bench, much as Julie Delpy, back in the 1990s, sat down on a train headed for Vienna (it’s impossible not to be reminded of Before Sunrise). Akihiro (Hiroto Ogi in a restrained and multi-layered performance), overcome by the devastating words of his subject and the hubbub of Parisian life, is soon captivated by a spirited and determined young woman named Michiko, played by a magnificent Akane Tatsukawa. Naturally, his new-found companion decides to show him the city in her own way.

On foot, they take an improvised tour that will become a liberating rite of passage for the harried filmmaker, with the culture-shock between France and Japan is everywhere in evidence. From this point on the story flows, moving and surprising in turn as it questions the fragility of existence.

Filmed using the handheld camera technique, to bring us closer to the actors and lend a sense of authenticity, Summer Lights was produced by French company Local Films.


Aida Amasuno Martín
23 September 2016