Edmund Yeo has been a fixture in Japan’s film scene for such a long time now, it’s almost a surprise that it has taken him this long to produce an entirely Japanese-language feature. Since coming to international attention in 2009 with his inventive, Tokyo-set short film, “Kingyo,” the Malaysian director has always been able to count on an enthusiastic reception here.
With “Moonlight Shadow,” he’s delivered both his most cohesive and most conventional feature to date. It’s also the first that doesn’t feel like it was made for audiences at the Tokyo International Film Festival, and while some viewers may miss the stylistic audacity of Yeo’s earlier work, this mournful mood piece makes a virtue of consistency.
It’s based on a 1988 short story by Banana Yoshimoto, a writer who used to be mentioned in the same breath as Haruki Murakami, but seems to have fallen out of vogue with Anglophone readers. The film keeps many of the story’s basic components, but makes some significant revisions that aren’t always for the better.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||92 mins.|
Young lovers Satsuki (Nana Komatsu) and Hitoshi (Hio Miyazawa) first meet at night on the banks of a river, and quickly fall into an intimate, Instagram-ready relationship. Hitoshi introduces his new squeeze to his quirky younger brother, Hiiragi (Himi Sato), and the latter’s girlfriend, Yumiko (Nana Nakahara), who’s obsessed with a paranormal phenomenon that allows people to reconvene with the dead — the “moonlight shadow” of the title.
The brief, rather cutesy happiness that the foursome enjoy together is brought to an abrupt end when Hitoshi and Yumiko are killed in a traffic accident. Hiiragi, blaming himself for their deaths, starts wearing his late girlfriend’s high school uniform, while Satsuki channels her grief into a grueling fitness regime.
They’re shaken out of their mutual depression by the appearance of a black-clad woman, Urara (Asami Usuda), who collects recordings of people revealing their deepest secrets. She seems to have one foot in the spirit world herself, and dangles the prospect of a reunion with their lost loves — assuming they are brave enough to take it.
Yeo leans into the dreamlike elements of the story, and the film works best when he lets its seductive aesthetics do the talking. Much of the action takes place at night or in the half-light of dawn, and cinematographer Kong Pahurak enhances the oneiric effect with honey-toned, shallow-focus images that are well complemented by Ton That An’s haunting score.
It’s too bad that Tomoyuki Takahashi’s script keeps spoiling the vibe, introducing reams of lumpy dialogue that weren’t in Yoshimoto’s original, while amplifying the New Age undertones (sample line: “I think everyone has a river flowing within them”). Usuda also tries far too hard to engender a sense of mystery, which frequently threatens to tip the proceedings into silliness.
But in its hushed moments, “Moonlight Shadow” can be quite exquisite. It captures the numb, hollowed-out quality of grief with aching clarity, building toward a wordless denouement that moved me to tears.
The whole thing would have been a lot less captivating without Komatsu, who gives a deeply internalized performance as Satsuki. For all that Yeo brings to the table here, she’s the one who anchors the film, making “Moonlight Shadow” more than just a fleeting pleasure.
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