Elbert Wyche talks to O about her fourth feature, a pensive drama about a depressed man played by Go Ayano who is trying to escape his painful past.

A chance encounter at a pachinko parlour leads him to Chinatsu, played by Chizuru Ikewaki, who lives in an equally difficult situation.

The Japanese foreign language Oscar submission earned best director prize at Montreal and best international feature at Raindance.

Where are some places the film has screened?
We first opened in 30 theatres in Japan in April, and eight months later, even though the film is already out on DVD, it is still playing in theatres. At this point, it has played in over 100 theatres in Japan. Overseas, the film has played at Montreal World Film Festival, Raindance Film Festival, Kinotayo Film Festival in Paris, Cairo International Film Festival, and in Australia for Japan Foundation’s traveling film festival. When the film won Best International Feature at Raindance Film Festival even though I was not there to promote the film personally, it let me know that the film had taken on a life of its own.

How did the script come to you?
This film is based on a novel by Yasushi Sato, who committed suicide at the age of 41 two decades ago. When I was first approached by the producer, the book was out of print, but in recent years, Sato’s works have come back into the public consciousness. At first I myself tried adapting the screenplay, but in order to fully understand the male protagonist’s psyche, we felt we needed a male perspective and so we brought in screenwriter Ryo Takada.

Why was this a story you wanted to tell?
The original novel was written 25 years ago, but still resonates today. The gap between the rich and the poor was vividly drawn and although Japan is a developed country, there is much disparity, for example, between cities and the countryside and within each area. I wanted to show how people in these worlds live.

How did you find your stars Go Ayano, Masaki Suda and Chizuru Ikewaki? Was it easy to get them attached to the film?
It was difficult to put together financing for this film. Just when we were talking about having to let go of the project, Go Ayano read the screenplay and reacted instinctively to it. Because there isn’t a person in Japan today who doesn’t know who Ayano is, once he said yes, the ball started rolling again. Chizuru Ikewaki and Masaki Suda said yes immediately after that.

When and where did shooting take place and for how long?
We shot in Hakodate, a northern port city in Hokkaido, where the original author was born and raised. It’s a tourist city, but beyond the lights, it has issues with poverty like any other city in Japan. Filming was 25 days.

Did any problems arise during production?
That this film made it past development was a miracle, so I was grateful every day. More than any other film I’ve made, it felt like a shared experience between everyone involved. Our cast and crew were only 30 people, so the people of Hakodate pitched in, bringing us snacks at night, helping with set decoration, even helping us clean up after filming and driving the cast to the hotel every day.

What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
To me, this film is about love – love between a man and woman on the fringes on society, and a broken man coming to love unconditionally, but also about familial love. I want viewers to reflect on what love means to them through the film.

What are some audience reactions you’ve received and do they match up with what you hoped they would experience?
When we went to Montreal World Film Festival, a young man said these poetic words us, “You have shown me a deep journey of joy and love.” It was a new discovery for me, for this film to travel across oceans and to have people from all walks of life tell me, “Your story is universal.”

What’s next for you?
My next film is Kimi Wa Iiko, You Are A Good Kid, which will be released in Japan next year. It’s an ensemble film, a first for me, about families. I wanted to focus on social issues such as child abuse, neglect, intellectual disabilities to show how people are hurt by people, but also saved by people. Both Chizuru Ikewaki and Kazuya Takahashi, who played the abusive Nakajima, co-star in this film in wildly different roles from The Light Shines Only There, and I also worked with the same producer and screenwriter.