American bank robber Willie Sutton, who allegedly made more than $2 million over a 40-year criminal career, once told a reporter that he robbed banks because “that’s where the money is.” In the usual heist movie, however — with Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1956) serving as a template — the stolen dough soon proves to be a disastrous sort of fairy gold. Instead of rich, the crooks end up arrested or dead. Sutton himself spent more than half his adult life behind bars.

Rika Umezawa (Rie Miyazawa), the heroine of Daihachi Yoshida’s powerfully told immorality tale “Kami no Tsuki (Pale Moon),” is a different sort of thief. Instead of a hardened criminal, plotting a holdup or a bank vault break-in, she is a housewife turned bank employee who slips, ever so reluctantly, into embezzlement.

Aged 41 when the story starts in 1994 — after Japan’s economic bubble has burst but before Internet use was widespread — she seems to be the soul of propriety as she visits her elderly clients in their homes to collect their deposits or advise them on investments. Soon, though, she is using her insider knowledge of forms and procedures to siphon some of that money into her own pocket.

Kami no Tsuki (Pale Moon)
Director Daihachi Yoshida
Run Time 126 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Nov. 15

The poster, with ¥10,000 notes wafting about Rika’s pale, strikingly beautiful face, promises a blackly comic spin similar to that of Yoshida’s 2007 breakthrough “Funuke Domo, Kanashimi no Ai wo Misero (Funuke, Show Some Love you Losers!).” Based on Mitsuyo Kakuta’s eponymous novel, the film is instead closer in tone to “Kirishima, Bukatsu Yamerutteyo (The Kirishima Thing),” Yoshida’s critically acclaimed 2012 high school drama that was more about illuminating inner lives than scoring laughs.

Not to say that “Pale Moon” (Yoshida chose the title since the direct translation of “Kami no Tsuki” is “Paper Moon,” which might cause confusion with the 1973 Peter Bogdanovich classic) is devoid of humor, but its view of Rika’s choices and crimes is serious — the risks she is taking and the lines she is crossing have life- and character-altering consequences.

At the same time, the film refuses to sit in judgment of her. Instead it presents an unblinking study of how money can shape its human possessors and seekers from the inside out, for good, for bad, or both.

Rika’s fall begins the moment she lays eyes on Kota (Sosuke Ikematsu), the louche grandson of a miserly old client (Renji ishibashi). Without even a dog to care for and a distant, often-absent husband offering only token companionship, Rika feels lonely and unloved, so when Kota’s insistent wooing lights a spark, it quickly bursts into a full-blown affair, age difference be damned.

Kota, it turns out, is falling behind on his school tuition payments (yes, fellow Americans, they are high here, too), while his rich grandfather refuses to lend him a single yen. When Rika hears her young lover’s sad tale, which just may be true, she decides to run an ingenious scam on Grandpa that may have a noble motive — help a young man complete his education — but is also her first step down the rosy path to being arrested and eventually, disaster.

First, though, the roses. Kota’s passionate sexual healing not only awakens Rika as a woman, but makes her realize all she has been missing as a dutiful helpmate to an indifferent corporate warrior. She and Kota begin to live large, courtesy of her unwitting, undeserving clients.

Of course, in the eyes of society, as represented by a stern senior clerk (Satomi Kobayashi) and Rika’s smarmy, womanizing boss (Yoshimasa Kondo), she is criminally in the wrong. Meanwhile, a young junior (former AKB48 star Yuko Oshima) distresses Rika with her winking talk of embezzling — has this young woman no morals?

Has Rika? In flashbacks to her younger self — an idealistic student at a Catholic girls’ school — we see that the answer is not so simple. The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but to young Rika, the hypocrisy of those who preach charity while practicing indifference teaches only that their moral/religious game is a con.

Can you blame her for drawing her own conclusions and acting on them? Not if you are caught in the spell of the many-sided, finally mysterious brilliance of “Pale Moon.”

Fun fact: Following its world premiere in competition at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, “Kami no Tsuki (Pale Moon)” will get its international festival premiere at the upcoming Torino Film Festival (Nov. 21-29) in Italy.

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