The Sound of Sorrow in Nicole Midori Woodford’s Last Shadow At First Light

By Ace Chu

How do we talk about that which is beyond grief?

Nicole Midori Woodford’s Last Shadow At First Light (2023) is a film shot after the fact. It is preoccupied with the aftermath, the ringing in your ears after the initial blast, the silence as the dust settles. From the moment the film begins, everything has already been lost to the waves.

The aftereffects of the tsunami are tangible in almost every aspect of the film. A large majority of the sound in the film is diegetic, leaving us largely bereft of emotional cues, immersed in the silence of the aftermath. As the two characters work through their own grief, the sound design shows us the tragedy of daily life, how mournful the mundane can be in the wake of tragedy, soaking every little action that Isamu and Ami take on their joined solitude. The sonic landscape presents us with an aftermath, a ravaged world in which everything echoes of loss. It is a silence that is barely noticeable until we are once again inundated by recollections of the events of the disaster.

Haunted by their own private ghosts, Ami and her uncle Isamu trace a tragedy to its source, each bearing the immense weight of personal grief. As they make their way across the Japanese countryside, the signs bearing “Tsunami Inundation Zone” are a grim reminder of loss and haunt us on multiple occasions. Inundation might be a good way to describe the way in which grief has permeated this film.

The leitmotif of a tidal, orchestral swell comes when we are drenched in recollection; it arrives when we see visions of buildings devastated by the tsunami, the faces of the people already lost to the waves. It is a sound that consists of multiple elements: haunting atmospheric tones, string instruments, the swelling of a distant, terrible wave. On different occasions these elements come separately, giving us a varied emotional current, yet every instance of its appearance has a common, identifying trait— it floods the senses, encroaching from the corners of the screen. It bears down with an immense, oppressive weight, presenting us with an overwhelming force of emotion. The surging of memories and the accompanying sound come again and again throughout the film, in waves, creating a rhythm that the audience soon learns to anticipate. The ebb and flow, the periodical refrain of this non-diegetic leitmotif, comes to represent a return of grief, coming once again to stake its claim on those afflicted; each period of diegetic calm is only a temporary respite.

Tragedy seeps into the color grading itself—much of the film takes on a desaturated, cool tone, as though the waves have claimed every part of this film from the very beginning. A great portion of the film is drenched in shadow and silence.

Tracing the current of sound, however, presents us with potential for change, for hope. As the film progresses, Ami occasionally witnesses streaks of glowing light—these are accompanied by their own leitmotif, a sort of mystical ringing echo that serves as a counterpoint to the non-diegetic sounds of tragedy that the audience has become accustomed to. Where the orchestral swell of memory seems to envelop the listener, the sound of the light cuts straight through into the clear. These streaks of golden light present the only artificial visual spectacle within the film—as the film progresses the lights grow in magnitude and complexity, twisting and yearning towards the ocean and sky. Effortlessly, they draw attention to themselves, a magnetic spectacle, cutting through the shadows so prevalent in this film, presenting us an effervescent alternative. The lights seem to transcend a singular interpretation, an amalgamation of hope, relief, forgiveness, and much more. Through the light, we are given a glimpse of an alternative to the oppressive weight of recurring sorrow. The burden of their grief is their own to carry, but the two eventually learn to find a sort of kinship in their personal mourning. Those extended periods of diegetic sound become a form of healing, of connection and recovery. Long, panoramic shots of the Japanese countryside, of mountains and the ocean make little of our personal tragedies, and silence makes a slow transformation from the agony of loss to the calm of acceptance.

This crescendos in the final scene of the film where Isamu and Ami are on the beach, their faces illuminated by the dim light of a bonfire. For the first time, they discuss the future. The twisting lights return, dancing across the surface of the sea, forming an outline of an unknown grandeur. These lights, thus far only privy to Ami, are also reflected in Isamu’s eyes for the first time. The two leitmotifs sing in unison: the orchestral swell fills the atmosphere and the clear ringing cuts straight through. It becomes clear that the two were always two parts of the same whole. This final duet is the payoff; it is the conclusion that serves as the undercurrent throughout Last Shadow at First Light, showing us a truth, as old as time, which has been submerged along the way. There is always hope in grief: in healing, in bravery, in companionship.

This cycle of grief and relief, of hurt and healing, is something that Last Shadow shows us is at once personal and universal. Tragedy occurs on multiple levels, and not one is more significant than another. Grief is the loneliest thing, but the very experience of it connects us with a wider pulse. Our tears are a salt sea unto themselves, but they are also a drop in an ocean, far greater and beyond us.

The poet, Mary Oliver, tells us:

“In the personal life, there is
always grief more than enough,
a heart-load for each of us
on the dusty road. I suppose
there is a reason for this, so I will be
patient, acquiescent. But I will live
nowhere except here, by Ocean, trusting
equally in all the blast and welcome
of her sorrowless, salt self.”

—Ocean, Mary Oliver