Love is a mystery with lasting effects in director-editor Edmund Yeo’s Moonlight Shadow (2021), his fourth feature. Yeo is known primarily for his earlier experimental films, but in this one, adapted by Takahashi Tomoyuki from the novella by Banana Yoshimoto, he shifts to fable-like fantasy, and the result is life-affirming.

We begin in medias res as Satsuki (Komatsu Nana) speaks her story into a tape recorder. It’s a fairy-tale of her romance with Hitoshi (Miyazawa Hio). The two meet Hitoshi’s younger brother Hiiragi (Satō Himi) and his girlfriend Yumiko (Nakahara Nana), and everyone gets along swell. This is just the first thirty minutes. When it starts out this good, you know something’s up.

This first third can feel caricatured, unlike the opening of Maborosi (1995), which has a similar premise. Each character has a clearly defined role. Hitoshi is tall, handsome, and gentle. Hiiragi is quirky, narcoleptic, and insightful. Satsuki is bubbly, vivacious, and loving (and looks amazing in the technicolor wardrobe by Sakaue Shuhei). And Yumiko is quiet, attuned to her surroundings, and mixed race without the film making a big deal about it (Nakahara is half-Ghanaian). She also brings up the Moonlight Shadow Phenomenon.

Like H.G. Wells’s time machine, the Moonlight Shadow is vaguely explained. All we know is that it happens during twilight after a full moon by a river, you need a guide, and if successful, it lets you briefly reunite with a deceased beloved. As Yumiko puts it, it’s “a miracle that’s also a coincidence, like rolling a die and getting the same number a hundred times in a row.”

This first act also introduces us to the film’s style: elliptical and dynamic like Terrence Malick, and static and gorgeous like Hou Hsiao-hsien. In this era of bland film colors, the palette here is wondrous, fully capturing the blues of the river and sky, the blacks and yellows of a streetlit sidewalk, and all the primary colors worn by Satsuki in between. Flexible use of soft and rack focus adds to the atmosphere (cinematography by Kong Pahurak).

That atmosphere is fantasy. The people and events all seem normal, but then little things start to stand out. Nobody has a job, nor does the uniform-wearing Yumiko go to school. Technology is absent when not required for exposition. And the characters make Rube Goldberg machines as a hobby. When the Moonlight Shadow’s requirement of a river is mentioned, we recall Hitoshi saying that the small town where they live is crisscrossed by a web of underground rivers. It’s a Japanese fable.

Once all the groundwork is laid, Hitoshi and Yumiko die offscreen (not a spoiler as it’s in the trailer; but the trailer itself is highly misleading, so watch with caution). The palette and wardrobe dampen. Hiiragi wears Yumiko’s uniform as a form of grieving, and Satsuki runs to exhaustion every day. Time feels frozen.

It’s here that Komatsu shows off her acting chops. It turns out that she can do both the external acting of the manic pixie dream girl and the internal acting of the bereaved lover. One standout scene is when she learns of the accident by phone; in the minute-long take, she uses her eyes alone to tell a tale of surprise, worry, and dawning desolation. That it’s matched to the emotional turns of the ethereal score (by An Ton That) makes the scene hit so much harder.

Satsuki and Hiiragi decide to try for a Moonlight Shadow, and the rest of the film roughly follows the conventional plot structure of a trip to the underworld – think a romantic version of A Dark Song (2016).

They need a guide: Enter the black-clad, long-braided Urara (Usuda Asami), whose witchy demeanor leaves no doubt about her role. She fits right in with the fantastical tone. The scene where Satsuki explains her motives to Urara has such a magical, fable-like, and wistful shot composition that I’m shocked it wasn’t used for the poster.

The travelers need to overcome their hangups. Hiiragi faces up to his denial of his longing when Yumiko’s uniform vanishes from his washing machine. And returning to the opening scene, the film leads Satsuki to speak into Urara’s tape recorder, transforming melancholy into narrative and allowing for catharsis. Among Komatsu’s many acting talents is her ability to hold in tears for a really long take.

The next step is premeditation. Satsuki sneaks into the apartment of an out-of-town friend where she once dreamed of building a life with Hitoshi. Awaiting her there is her own favorite lantern – and Hitoshi himself, or at least his form, against which she cuddles. She’s not the least bit surprised. She’s ready.

It begins with a fever, the mythical liminal state. After a short (and cringey) pep talk, Urara brings the feverish Satsuki to the river at twilight, where they meet Hiiragi. Yumiko appears and dances with him for a while, she serene, he astounded. Her all-too-brief departure is Eurydice bidding Orpheus farewell.

As for Hitoshi, he too appears, but the film plays with time to juxtapose the emotional climax with the denouement, showing how Satsuki finds the vital force to move on. The one-two punch is powerfully life-affirming enough to make me cheer, and make the Japan Times film critic burst into tears.

The great strength of Moonlight Shadow is in how it elevates the archetypal plot with stylish subjective mood and convincing fantasy. For Yeo, whose strong suit is the cinematic portrayal of subjective experience, it’s exactly the kind of film he was born to make.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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