As the only Japanese film playing in competition at the Tokyo International Film Festival, expectations were high and goodwill primed to cheer the root-of-all-evil tale “Pale Moon” as the local find of the week. And it just scooped the Audience Award, having earned at least mild praise from most critics, so really the only kink in that narrative is us, contrarians that we are. “Pale Moon,” the fourth feature from director Daihachi Yoshida, is certainly more slickly made than some of the other competition titles here. It boasts a locally well-known lead in stage and screen actress Rie Miyazawa, plus a springy, culturally and temporally relevant-feeling plot about the corrupting lure of money. But it is also a remarkably plodding telling of a familiar story, one that unfolds in so linear a fashion that it feels oddly overexplained, only ever operating on a single level, entirely without subtext or subplot. So the film feels much longer than its 126 minutes, and relies solely on the assumption that we’ll be deeply invested in this lead character and get some vicarious thrill from seeing her throw off the restrictive shackles of her place in society and take what is not hers—in love and in material gain.
This is problematic because it assumes an empathy for Rika (Miyazawa), a drippy housewife who has returned to the workforce in a junior position at a local bank, which the character never really earns. If her transition from meek wifey (whose bluff, career-fastracked husband regards her job as little more than a diversion and expects her to leave it post haste when he is promoted to a position in Shanghai) to devious thief with a hot new boy toy and a closet full of designer clothes, is supposed to bring us some sort of satisfaction, surely she should have some register in between those two settings. But it’s less a tale of gradual, hard-won change than the flicking of a switch, and Miyazawa gets little to work with in terms of her character’s interiority.
This lack of depth grates because the film is fundamentally a morality play. Rika hits on a scheme, which requires nothing more than a basic level of competence with a scanner, by which she can embezzle her clients’ money. She also, in her husband’s convenient absence, embarks on an affair with the grandson of an important elderly client, so basically she’s overstepping her bounds in every way as a working, married female in Japanese society, which, while so progressive in so many ways, is still relatively conservative when it comes to its expectations of women. Indeed the film glances off that potentially fascinating topic—the junior staff at the bank are all women, while the manager and his boss are the only men we see working there. The more interesting character of Sumi, Rika’s sharp-eyed superior, a bowl-haired 20-year veteran who is about to be unceremoniously ousted as she’s simply become too expensive to keep in her position—being a woman, can’t really expect a promotion—is largely sidelined until the very end.
A further compounding issue is that while lots of attention is given to moments of relatively minor moral import, frustratingly little is lavished on the moments that, from an outside perspective, mark a much bigger act of personal transgression. It seems we’re being told that once Rika has embarked on this illegal course of action, it’s more or less a race to the bottom for her in terms of ethics. Yet we can easily discern a qualitative difference between Rika’s “no one gets hurt” one-off plan to bilk a mean, lecherous old grandpa out of cash he doesn’t need and replace it before he could possibly notice, and her more or less immediate next step, which is to scam her other clients, including a kindly aging couple and a sweet, trusting, lonely old lady who suffers from memory lapses. Confusedly relating all this back to an incident in Rika’s childhood where she became overzealous in her charitable donations, ultimately even stealing from her father’s wallet to stuff her school’s donation box, doesn’t help matters either. Returning to that storyline for the film’s “resolution” feels needlessly pat, and, again, both overexplained and weirdly undernourishing as regards what the real import is.
A near-final scene, after Rika’s chickens have come home to roost as they inevitably always were going to, does make a late bid for something provocative. It’s an exchange between Rika and her stern-faced nemesis Sumi, in which the older woman reveals both her contempt for Rika and her admiration for the hedonist excess she’s experienced that Sumi herself never has. A grown woman, past the flush of youth, whose pathetically small dream is to one day stay up all night, there is a real undercurrent of regret and emotion in her, and it gives even the thinly drawn Rika something to play off, if only by reflection. It hints at just what rich territory Yoshida stumbles about in, as though fumbling for a light switch in a darkened room— heady themes about social roles and propriety and the tiny truthful tragedies it can mask.
But it’s too little too late, or at least it was for us. Neither a convincing parable of self-empowerment, nor the kind of ripe ethics drama that really involves itself in the moral ramifications of its characters’ actions, “Pale Moon” is, as its name suggests, and as its desaturated palette and indifferent photography confirm, a wan drama, drained to the point of bloodlessness. The audience that embraced it here presumably found something more vital at its heart, but try as we might, we couldn’t even locate a pulse. [C]