Nicole Midori Woodford’s Last Shadow at First Light occupies an exasperating middle ground between heartfelt sincerity and hoary cliché, exploring generational trauma and survivor’s guilt in the most literal, least interesting manner possible. When we first meet teenaged Ami (Shirata Mihaya), she is clutching an old tape recorder, listening intently to a woman’s voice. It’s gradually revealed that this is the voice of Ami’s absent mother, who abandoned Ami and her father and returned to their native Japan some years prior. Ami has been told that her mother is dead, and this collection of old, pre-recorded cassettes is her only connection to an absent parent. But the discovery of a cache of old letters and postcards suggests that mom isn’t dead, or at least that Ami’s father has been lying to her about things for many years. After an aggressive conversation where Ami confronts her father about his deceptions, she convinces him to let her travel from their home in Singapore back to Japan in an effort to track mom down.
These early scenes are dour, but opaque enough to keep things productively off-kilter; Ami seems withdrawn and even potentially violent — when a rude classmate steals her tape recorder as a prank, Ami repeatedly punches him in the face — while intermittent sequences of the camera prowling through a derelict, abandoned building suggest either visions or dreams. Indeed, the film frequently insinuates that Ami can “see” the dead, as she begins to walk through or otherwise interact with these mysterious liminal spaces. A visit to her elderly, bed-ridden fraternal grandmother expresses the girl’s gentler side; she seems deeply concerned about her fractured, disconnected family. But the oppressive mood gets repetitive, so it’s a relief when Ami arrives in Japan and meets her Uncle Isamu, played by the great Nagase Masatoshi. He’s gruff, a working-class guy concerned with weathering day-to-day life with little time or concern for Ami’s existential angst. Isamu also knows more about Ami’s mother — his sister — than he lets on. Ami is determined to see her mother’s childhood home, and so the mismatched duo embark on a road trip.
It’s here that the film doubles down on its theme of trauma, as the area they are heading toward was devastated in the 2012 Tôhoku tsunami. Ami’s visions of old abandoned buildings, detailed at the beginning of the film, are revealed to be very real places, all broken by gargantuan waves. Recovery has been slow, the scars of the cataclysmic event still very visible as the locals go about their business. Ami also learns more about her mother’s circumstances, given that she was in Singapore when the tsunami struck, killing her parents. All of this is relayed in the most somber, pensive tone imaginable, the film creeping along at a snail’s pace toward a foregone conclusion. Lovely cinematography and a nice sense of framing can’t mask how familiar this stuff is, and once Isamu begins falling prey to his own guilt (he’s got a dead wife, too), it all becomes too much — too much gray, too many slow camera pans, too many contemplative stares out the car window. Moments of real humanity do occasionally shine through; Isamu is steadfastly dedicated to playing the lottery, and a late-film visit to a pachinko parlor represents just about the only splash of color in the entire film. And Ami’s eventual reunification with her mother is genuinely emotional, thanks to a fine performance from young Shirata Mihaya. But by the time glowing lights begin emanating from the ocean, one is more likely to roll their eyes from the forced attempt at profundity than feel their heart swell.
Published as part of San Sebastián Film Festival 2023: Dispatch 2.