Hit filmmaker Keishi Otomo takes a break from the “Rurouni Kenshin” series with this uncharacteristically muted drama, set in the director’s native Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, before and after the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. That disaster exacted a terrible loss of life, but “Beneath the Shadow” wonders if some of those who went missing may in fact have chosen to do so.

In the wake of the tragedy, pharmaceutical company employee Shuichi Konno (Go Ayano) learns that his estranged friend, Norihiro Hiasa (Ryuhei Matsuda), has vanished. When a co-worker flippantly remarks that the latter may be dead, Shuichi’s flustered reaction is hard to read: Is he just upset, or does he have something to hide?

This sense of intrigue dissipates as the film skips back 18 months, and reveals in leisurely detail how the two men’s passive-aggressive bromance developed.

Beneath the Shadow (Eiri)
Run Time 134 mins.
Opens FEB. 14

Recently transferred to Morioka, Shuichi maintains a solitary existence, so he welcomes the overtures of enigmatic colleague Norihiro. The latter starts turning up unannounced at Shuichi’s apartment with a jumbo bottle of sake and introduces him to fishing, all the while seemingly oblivious to the longing gazes he gets in return.

Viewers won’t be so in the dark: The film has already dropped numerous hints about Shuichi’s sexuality, using the visual shorthand of showing him lounging around in little but his Calvin Klein underpants. He’s so infatuated with his new pal that he’s willing to overlook some questionable behavior, such as when Norihiro suddenly quits his job without warning and vanishes, only to turn up again a few months later as if nothing had happened.

Matsuda, seldom the most expressive of actors, uses his blankness to good effect, injecting a subtle hint of malevolence into even the most casual exchanges. Ayano spends most of the film in a state of torpor; his character’s reunion with an old lover (Tomoya Nakamura) generates more heat than any of his scenes with his co-star.

You’d think a story so freighted with foreboding would be more gripping, but even knowing of the impending March 11 disaster and Norihiro’s disappearance doesn’t make the slow-motion drift of the film’s first half feel any less interminable.

In his aesthetic choices, Otomo seems to be following a vague sense of how an art movie should look, but there’s little logic to his use of extreme close-ups and bold sound design. Too often, it’s left to the anxious, droning soundtrack by Yoshihide Otomo (no relation to Keishi) to generate a sense of tension that’s missing in the onscreen action.

Things get a little more interesting once Norihiro vanishes, and Shuichi starts to discover his supposed friend’s less savory side. There’s some solid support work by Jun Kunimura and Mariko Tsutsui, and Ayano makes the most of his big emotional moment towards the film’s close.

“Beneath the Shadow” is adapted from an inscrutable Shinsuke Numata novella, which won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 2017. Working from a screenplay by Kaori Sawai, Otomo’s version is less ambiguous than the original — in which even the protagonist’s gender remains obscure for much of the story — and provides a clearer resolution.

The film ends up in an awkward hinterland, neither atmospheric enough to work as a mood piece, nor sufficiently taut to satisfy as a suspense story. It’s not so much shadowy as insubstantial.

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