Moonlight Shadow (2021) review

Introduction

Last year, Edmund Yeo’s pleased audiences all around the world with Malu (2020). This year, our master visual poet of the mundane, is back. Yet, this time he does not offer an original story, but an adaptation of Banana Yoshimoto’s short story Moonlight Shadow, a story loosely inspired by the romantic legend of Orihime and Hikoboshi that Japanese people ‘celebrate’ every year during the Tanabata festival.

Review

One evening at the riverbank, Satsuki (Nana Komatsu), in search for her cat Ku, realizes that she has lost her precious suzu bell. Looking in the dark nothingness of nightly river after unsuccessfully retrieving her bell, her attention is suddenly attracted by a light behind her. Hitoshi (Hio Miyazawa) is holding her lost suzu bell. Their eyes meet and they fall in love at first sight.   

One day, Satsuki learns from Hitoshi’s brother’s girlfriend Yumiko (Nana Nakahara) about the mystical Moonlight Shadow phenomenon that allows one to for a fleeting moment reunite with a beloved deceased person. Not that much later, Hitoshi and Yumiko die in a car accident and Satsuki meets the rather strange Urara (Asami Usuda).

Moonlight Shadow (2021) by Edmund Yeo
Moonlight Shadow Production Committee

Moonlight Shadow, as readers of the short story will remember, is a narrative about unresolved guilt and jammed state of mourning. The sudden loss of Hitoshi plunges Satsuki into the abyss of guilt and surrounds her with a heavy darkness that suffocates her desire (to live) (Narra-note 1).

The presence of a lingering guilt is first indicated by the impossible wish-fulfillment that marks Satsuki’s dreams. By dreaming that she prevents their final separation on the bridge, Satsuki does not only ‘satisfy’ her yearning to be with her lost beloved, but also radically confronts herself with her guilt of not having done what she dreams of doing. Satsuki’s repetitive act of running to the bridge of their final separation is not without subjective meaning either. Whether or not she fully realizes, the compulsion to run to this bridge is a vein attempt to regain what she yearns for and to assuage her lingering guilt. Both repetitive acts as well as the sounds of the suzu bell that keeps on ringing in her head reveal that Satsuki has not fully accepted her loss and that the process of working-through her complex mix of emotions has not yet truly commenced.

While Satsuki’s repetitive acts are driven by a yearning, it is also important to emphasize that her comportment constitute a repeated confrontation with her loss as such. In other words, the desire that drives these fantasmatical acts always ends up crashing against the Real of her loss.      

It is, as a matter of fact, this endless cycle of yearning and confrontation that has caused Satsuki to lose her will to live (e.g. her symptomatic inability to eat and her passive atmosphere). Yet, with this statement, we do not only mean that with Hitoshi’s death a part of her died as well, but also – to be somewhat evocative – that the inability to work-through her grief has enabled the element of loss/death to imprison her mind and, thus, her body. To put it in Freudian terms, the death drive has her firmly in his grasp. Yet, Satsuki’s vein acts of yearning do underline that the flame of desire is not completely extinguished. It would not be wrong, in this respect, to argue that what keeps her alive and protects her from succumbing to her death drive is the very repetition of these fantasmatical acts.

Moonlight Shadow (2021) by Edmund Yeo
Moonlight Shadow Production Committee

What Moonlight Shadow beautifully and touchingly reveals concerning the mourning process is the importance to speak about one’s loss. Yet, it is not simply the act of speaking that is important, but the fact that this speech has an address, the destination of the Other. Urara, in this sense, functions much like a psychoanalyst, inviting the other to speak freely and offer her ear to listen to what kind of hidden desires, unrevealed truths, and unresolved complexes the flow of the speech betrays.

That such kind of free speech has effect is elegantly revealed by Satsuki’s sudden attack of hunger. To vocalize what was hitherto unsaid destroys her oral symptom and annihilates the very inhibition and fixation that this symptom installed. In other words, putting her loss into words does not only enable her to embark on her journey of working-through her grief, but also unchains a chunk of eros. Yet, what can allow Satsuki to make further headway in processing this loss that is so difficult to integrate into her subjective being (Narra-note 2)?

The initial two-thirds of Moonlight Shadow are an impressionistic concatenation of mundane events – e.g. Satsuki and Hitoshi meeting Hiiragi (Himi Sato) and Yumiko, Satsuki shopping together with Yumiko, … etc. What keeps this exploration of fleeting atmospheric moments interesting is the very naturalism of the interactions – a naturalism born from the chemistry between the cast – as well as the subtle offbeat flavour that marks many of these moments. In the final third of Moonlight Shadow, however, Yeo fluidly dissipates the mundanity from his narrative to deliver a mesmerizing and dreamlike experience of something otherworldly.        

What also plays an important role in making Moonlight Shadow such an engaging narrative is, of course, its composition. Yeo’s composition – a fluid mix of floaty dynamism and static moments – is noteworthy for three reasons. First, Yeo’s thoughtful application of the cut does not only offer the spectator time to explore/read the visuals in detail, but also gives the unfolding of his narrative a gentle rhythm. The interaction between the pleasant rhythm and the floating dynamism, moreover, gives Yeo’s narrative its captivating impressionistic flavour.

Moonlight Shadow (2021) by Edmund Yeo
Moonlight Shadow Production Committee

The second element concerns his thoughtful use of shots. Static shots are, of course, exploited to deliver visually satisfying and poetic shot-compositions, but he also expertly utilizes these static moments to allow subtle expressions of emotions, be it via the body or via the signifier, to touch the spectator – he lets the images speak for themselves. Yet, Yeo does not only rely on this kind of shots to deepen the emotionality of Moonlight Shadow. In some cases, Yeo, the master visual poet that he is, heightens the emotionality of the signifier by utilizing shots – static or gently dynamic – to echo the emotion alluded to in the signifiers, hereby creating highly evocative visual moments (Narra-note 3). And in other cases, he chooses gentle slow-motion shots of facial expressions to emphasize the signifiers the spectator hears as well as the subtle emotions that these facial expressions reveal (Cine-note 1).   

The third element, which ensures that Moonlight Shadow is pleasing to watch, is the exquisite colour and lighting-design. The pleasing softness that marks the entire narrative does not only make Yeo’s narrative visually appealing but also successfully supports the poetic and dreamy atmosphere of his touching finale.

Yet, despite these three elements being instrumental in giving the composition its evocative rhythm, the poetry of the mundane and the extraordinary would not have been so emotionally engaging were it not for the exquisite musical accompaniment and the performance by Nana Komatsu. What makes Komatsu’s performance so mesmerizing is the very subtlety by which she infuses emotion into her character. It is this subtlety, a communicative subtlety of facial expressions, rhythm of speech, certain gestures, and body language, that gives the emotions of her character its genuineness and captivates the spectator.

Moonlight Shadow is, in short, fabulous. The blend of Yeo’s elegant and poetically flavoured composition and Komatsu’s pitch perfect performance offers the spectator one of the most touching explorations of the inability to mourn and what can enabling allow the subject to embark on the journey of saying goodbye. With his latest, Edmund Yeo affirms that he is one of the most accomplished visual poets of contemporary Asian cinema.  

Notes

Narra-note 1: Let us remark, in connection with her unvocalized guilt, that within Satsuki a subtle fear of being separated from her beloved lingered. Even when he was alive, she feared his death. This fear is illustrated when Satsuki, waking up in the middle of the night, checks his heartbeat to reassure her that he still alive, that he has not departed her.

Narra-note 2: It is the finale that, in a very poetic way, underlines the importance of being able to say goodbye. Thissymbolic act of saying goodbye does not only affirm the loss of the beloved, but also underlines that the subject has escaped the grasp of the death drive and pursue the path of the living, the path of desire.

Narra-note 3: In the opening sequence, Yeo utilizes a concatenation of shots marked by a subtle emptiness – i.e. shots devoid of men and women – to echo the subjective emptiness of Satsuki.

Cine-note 1: One cinematographical decoration we found somewhat unnecessary is the photographical fixation of a shot. While these sudden fixations do not disturb the flow of the composition that much, they do little to heighten the emotional fabric of the narrative.  

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