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Luminous Woman

Luminous Woman

Written by Richard Durrance on 09 May 2024

Distributor Third Window • Certificate 15 • Price £17.99

Third Window returns to the Directors Company releases and the work of director Shinji Somai with Luminous Woman (1987). Sitting within a Blu-ray case that is alluring (ok my review copy is a check disc in a plastic sleeve, but I’ve seen the pictures and have a fairly fertile imagination) - does the film live up to the enticing cover?

Sensaku (Keiji Muto) walks into Tokyo seeking his fiancé, Kuriko (Narumi Yasuda). Drawn into a world of violent wrestling to assuage the pleasures of the wealthy, Sensaku only wants to return home to farm with a wife. Finding himself attracted to a young, yet fading, opera-singer, Yoshino (Michiru Akiyoshi), he may yet do so.

The opening scene is intentionally surreal, Sensaku walking in a rubbish dump on the outskirts of Tokyo and finds there Yoshino, singing to the strains of a piano played by the man who may know where Sensaku’s betrothed Kuriko works. This is Somai setting out his cinematic world early. Filmed with a purplish hue (as is most of the film, either that or the film stock has that tint), it’s a striking opening and never feels like the scene it reminded me of, one in a film by Jodorowsky (I forget which) where the rich indulge their pleasures and live their lives in a dump. Whereas Jodorowsky, I recall, drew his scene out to the point of tedium, Somai instead is pithy and he intrigues. He never tries to explain, he just lets the scene play out and it has its own sense of realness even if, contextually, it's bonkers. It helps that actor Muto is a real-life wrestler, as his character Sensaku is a man-mountain, dressed in a top that seems like it’s been cut from an animal while he also walks barefoot. He’s truly a man out of place, yet he’s also a man who is not interested in fitting in. His focus is only on finding his beloved and taking her home to farm. It's fitting perhaps that he starts his journey in a dump, because what he finds is not always salubrious.

As with all great films, the opening not only lays out the director’s intentions but has that ability to enthrall and intrigue. It’s not oddness for the sake of oddness, instead it is like watching Lynch or Kubrick where you feel there is an intention behind everything, even if there is no attempt to explicate it. As a viewer you intuit and accept because the film world that Somai creates is consistent.  

True, there seems to be an intentional oddness, an otherness to the film that I cannot help but think makes it fall under the category of "film-lovers delight" - if you love film, you will like Luminous Woman. If you aren't a hardcore film buff, you might not. Because this feels like a filmmaker pushing their own limits to see what they can do; visually, with their actors and the situations in order to make something unusual and sometimes unusually wonderful.

This veers into the wrestling world that Sensaku enters, which is not necessarily how you might imagine it. For those that have seen it, consider the rich and powerful in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut where they pair off with women and an orgy ensues. Here it is similar in the sense that this is a place removed from normal society, an elitist enclave where the rich, with their young ladies that are definitely not their wives, come to watch and be part of something illicit. Like Kubrick in his film, it’s a place that has its own identity, logic and sense of verisimilitude in terms of the narrative. Yes, it's an odd arena, with the opera sung to Yoshino’s piano and even the additional performers, one of whom is on the way out and like all of them, Sensaku included, is a plaything, yet the point of the film is that Sensaku doesn’t care, as he is a force of nature and has no interest in anything outside his own mission.

That’s important because Sensaku is singleminded but not simple. As he finds Kuriko and starts to learn about her life in Tokyo, how different it is from what he understands it to be, he doesn’t just trample over people. Maybe he cannot voice his feelings well (unless "will be my wife?" is your idea of eloquence). Yes, he’s simple in how he wants a wife and to farm but he’s similar to the fictional character that he is most often referred to as: King Kong, in the sense of how Kong is a sympathetic character, oft misunderstood, capable of carnage but ultimately seeking love.  

You can argue that Muto as Sensaku is impossible to judge as an actor, but he is perfectly cast. One of those alchemical moments – like David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth – of putting someone into a role that they naturally inhabit and need do no more. It also means that Michiru Akiyoshi gets to be our luminous woman, in Yoshino, and her tired, dying-voiced opera singer under the thumb of the man who would manage and control her is the true shimmering centre of the film. You can understand how Muto is drawn to her, and moreover she’s a delight to watch. In part because it’s hard to define why. There is nothing showy or exaggerated to Akiyoshi’s performance as Yoshino and maybe that’s it. She balances out the more force-of-nature Muto, but even to say that would be unfair because when on screen she has the ability to draw your eye in, and as such the title of the film really is true, Akiyoshi is luminous on screen.

Beyond this I don’t want to say more about Luminous Woman because the best way to approach the film is to be accepting of Somai’s idiosyncratic, often downright surreal, film and to give it a chance to unfold before you. Visually, with its slightly off-centre colour palette, it's curiously luxurious and enticing, as the characters navigate their worlds, it reminds you what we are seeing is almost hyperreal; emotions translated to screen. Really just go and watch it, experience it, because if you love cinema, you will love Luminous Woman. It’s a unique film, filled with a remarkable array of striking images, and we are richer for it being available in this lovely print given us by Third Window.

If you love cinema, you should love Luminous Woman

Richard Durrance
About Richard Durrance

Long-time anime dilettante and general lover of cinema. Obsessive re-watcher of 'stuff'. Has issues with dubs. Will go off on tangents about other things that no one else cares about but is sadly passionate about. (Also, parentheses come as standard.) Looks curiously like Jo Shishido, hamster cheeks and all.


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