The bad news? Japan has only one entry in the Competition section at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival. The good news? The submission, Daihachi Yoshida’s “Pale Moon,” is a major contender for the $50,000 Tokyo Grand Prix.

The film is based on a best-selling novel by Mitsuyo Kakuta that tells the story of one woman succumbing to the allure of money and diving head first into a swamp of crime and disgrace.

“Pale Moon” is the English title of the film, but the novel’s original Japanese title is “Kami no Tsuki” (“Paper Moon”). Director Yoshida tells The Japan Times that he thought a great deal about the translation of the title, and decided to change it because “there’s already a classic out there called ‘Paper Moon’ ” — a comedy from 1973 starring Ryan O’Neal and his daughter, Tatum.

“I was concerned the audience was going to associate this movie with something funnier and lighthearted and wanted to avoid that,” Yoshida explains.

There’s nothing lighthearted about “Pale Moon.” Set in 1994 when the Japanese economy was feeling the slow full-body impact of the recession, it follows 41-year-old bank teller Rika Umezawa (Rie Miyazawa) and her extramarital affair with college student Kota Hirabayashi (Sosuke Ikematsu). From the get-go, the couple’s relationship is defined by romantic rendezvous with huge price tags: dinners at French restaurants, weekend stays in a luxurious hotel suite, shopping sprees and Champagne sipped at every turn — the list goes on and on. How does our protagonist pay for all this? She’s extorting money from the bank she works at to keep the stud interested. However, it turns out that Kota isn’t the stud she’s made him out to be in her head; he’s just an ordinary young man.

“I didn’t want anyone else to do the screen adaptation,” Yoshida says. “A story about women and money and desire — the whole thing held an enormous fascination for me. As a filmmaker, I felt I had to take on this project.”

In Kakuta’s novel, Rika’s life and her relationship with money is contrasted with two of her friends from high school, both of whom, in their own ways, find it hard to maintain healthy financial lifestyles. The friends are absent in “Pale Moon” and Yoshida instead concentrates solely on Rika.

“I wanted to keep the lens watching Rika’s face for as long as possible,” he explains. In her expressions, “you can see her planning and plotting the logistics of this bank scam. You can see her giving into sexual pleasure and being surprised by the joy of having someone love her — the story’s all told through Rika’s face.”

Another focal point in the film is Rika’s workplace — a bank with an imposing lobby and a platoon of efficient female bank tellers who take their positions every morning like soldiers, dressed in identical navy blue uniforms.

“Actually, the image I had in my mind were nuns,” Yoshida says. “I think that women in general have a deeper relationship with money than men do. I’ve handled money all my life but I still don’t know what that stuff really means. But in a bank, money is a god and the female tellers are like nuns, assisting in the ceremony of handling the cash. And Rika is a fallen nun, so to speak, who took a sudden and secret swerve from the daily ritual.”

Interestingly, a stable, well-paid job at a bank remains a highly coveted position for many educated Japanese women entering the workforce. It also affords them more of a chance to find a good marriage prospect with one of their male colleagues.

“In Japan, people are very respectful of money,” Yoshida says. “Money doesn’t just mean the power to buy things; it’s an entity that’s sacred and mysterious.”

True, the Japanese have traditionally respected wealthy people simply because they have money, much more so than if they spend that money.

“The Japanese seem to have this notion that money should be put on an altar and not be used,” the director adds. “I guess that accounts for why everyone has so much saved in the bank!”

Rika’s theft and subsequent squandering of that cash, however, is an affront to the norm. One humorous scene involves her telling one of her customers (an old miser played by Renji Ishibashi) to just enjoy spending what he has.

“No one had ever said anything to me about spending,” he says.

There’s an unofficial statistic floating around in the media about how many Japanese women pour their earnings into keeping toy boys. It’s chilling to think that, like Rika, these women assume love and cash are part of the same equation.

Film festival takes viewers to the edge

A total of 15 entries will be vying for the audience’s attention in the Competition section at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival and they’re a formidable group from places as diverse as Bulgaria and Azerbaijan.

According to visual programming director Yoshihiko Yatabe, the films tell “stories about people on the verge of something, or on the edge. Right now, people all over the world are asking themselves how they can live out their lives in an increasingly uncertain future. The Competition entries are movies dealing with that question.”

This year’s batch of movies includes “Heaven Knows What,” a fictional documentary directed by brothers Joshua and Benny Safdie. It depicts the lives of drug addicts in New York and focuses on the struggles of one particular young female.

“1001 Grams” is a Norwegian piece by Bent Hamer, about an ambitious female scientist and her fall from grace. “Ice Forest” stars famed Serbian director Emir Kusturica in a frightening tale set during a black-out in the Italian Alps.

“The Lesson,” directed by Bulgaria’s Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov, is an excellent classroom suspense drama that involves stolen money and a teacher in financial trouble, while Poland’s “The Mighty Angel” sheds light on the dark, sordid side of alcoholism, via stories told in a rehab clinic.

Finally, don’t miss the gripping Iranian film “Melbourne,” about a young couple who are all set to move overseas when fate, visitors and some phone calls prevent them from leaving Iran.

“Pale Moon” will be screened at the Tokyo International Film Festival on Oct. 25 (2 p.m.), Oct. 29 (1:45 p.m.) and Oct. 30 (5:15 p.m.). The festival runs from Oct. 23 to 31 at various locations in Tokyo. For more information, visit 2014.tiff-jp.net/en.

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