Pale Moon (Kami no Tsuki): Written by Kaeko Hayafune, directed by Daihachi Yoshida. Starring: Rie Miyazawa, Sosuke Ikematsu, and Satomi Kobayashi. Running Time: 126 minutes. Based on the novel of the same name by Mitsuyo Kakuta.
Pale Moon is exactly the sort of experience I hunt for when I go to events like Nippon, something that gives me what I call the Shivers. I suppose I should explain what the Shivers are. The Shivers are one of the physical signs my body gives me to indicate that I have just heard, read, seen, or in some way experienced a great work of art. It is a sensation of cold that starts around the neck and shoulders and inches its way down my spine, like cold rivulets of running water after I’ve just jogged a mile. As they spread, the chilling sensation grows and causes me to- what else- shiver. And every year at Nippon, I’ve gotten the Shivers while watching at least one movie. In 2013, it was Key of Life. Last year, it was Like Father, Like Son. This year, I had the good fortune to uncover two films that did it. The first was Hello, Supernova. The second was Pale Moon.
Our heroine (or perhaps villain, depending on your point of view), is Rika, a physically slight, married banker slowly approaching middle age. On a purely superficial level, everything in her life seems fine. Her husband has a good job and seems poised for further advancement, her own position at a bank is well-regarded, and she lacks for nothing. But for some reason, or perhaps no reason in particular, she begins to chafe at restraints both large and small placed on her by her family, her work, and even the society she lives in. It starts small- encouraged by the examples she sees in others, she decides to treat herself to some luxurious personal items, and “borrows” a few bills from the accounts of particularly rich clients to pay for them.
But as in so many things left unchecked, the small soon turns into the large, and over the course of the film Rika concocts wilder, more daring, and more desperate measures to seep out more and more sums of cash from her clients’ accounts to support an increasingly elaborate lifestyle she seeks to hide from everyone around her. She begins an affair with a college student half her age, putting themselves up in pricey hotels, and financing his dreams of going into web design. Emboldened by this, she pushes back against her husband’s request that she quit her job to move with him to Shanghai for one of his company’s projects, staying in Japan on her own and turning their apartment into a veritable counterfeiting Master Lair.
This obviously can’t go on, but in true trainwreck fashion, it is impossible to turn away as everything starts to crash and burn around her. There is a subtle theme to Rika’s character of Christian charity run amok- we learn she was schooled by nuns, and admonished day after day to give to the needy. In a somewhat perverted fashion, we can see how this may have influenced her later behavior. She is overwhelmingly, single-mindedly passionate about doing what she perceives to be good, even if that leads her to what others see as extreme behavior. As an example, her enthusiasm for her affair is sparked, in part, by hearing about the young man’s growing debt from his studies.
And that may be the most subversive, perhaps even revolutionary, aspect of her character, and one of the most powerful themes in the film- even though she is driven by very selfish motives, by following her own heart and intuition so absolutely, she shatters a myriad of gender restraints and stereotypes that the film sets up during the first act. Her husband simply assumed she would drop everything to come to China with him, and is shocked when she says no- such decisive rejection by a wife was practically unheard of at the time. The manager at her branch of the bank, a man who practically oozes slime out of his stringy hair (take a shot every time he slicks it back), regularly transfers or “retires” women who get to be too senior and expensive in favor of younger, cheaper, and more attractive ladies. This is a world defined by and for men, and even though she never explicitly says so, it would be fair to see her rejection of this as just as important to the events she sets in motion as any characteristic to be found in her own person.
There’s also a huge importance to this film taking place in the Japan of the mid 1990’s- this is right when the economy, which had boomed for decades, began stagnating, which led to a pervading sense of economic and cultural malaise within Japanese society. This is everywhere in the film, just as pervasive as the clear gender roles laid out- everyone we see has loads of cash, but no one seems to be really interested in doing much of anything with it, other than using it to make more cash. It’s as if everyone is plain bored. Perhaps what she does is to be condemned, and she is certainly guilty of breaking the law many times over, but in all fairness, at least she resolves to actually DO something. There is a powerfully poignant scene where one of her co-workers admits wistfully that, even though she can’t condone what Rika did, she can’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy that Rika has now experienced things she never will.
The treasure trove of social, economic, and gender commentary aside, this film is also just straight up cool. Every scene has gentle, cool lighting and slick, smooth cinematography- when combined with the rhythmical, atmospheric score, it’s like someone took the slow-mo tendencies of Wes Anderson and paired them with a swiped soundtrack from a David Fincher film. It carries us through the story with a sense of purpose and energy. It thrums with its own vitality, buoyed by a sense of self-confidence most films could only dream of maintaining. Pale Moon is a great, great movie, one of the best of this year’s crop. Spread the word any way you can- we need to make sure this one gets an international release.