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OHTOMO KEISHI: BENEATH THE SHADOW 影裏( (2019) - NYAFF 2020

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ANANO GO IN BENEATH THE SHADOW

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The blockbuster director of the romantic manga sword fighter Rurouni Kenshin films here explores his contemplative side with an arthouse film based on a prizewinning contemporary novel. It is the story of a strange, haunting friendship. Shuichi Konno (Anano Go)is a delicate-looking young man of thirty who's transferred to northeastern Japan, Morioka (Iwate), by his company. He seems to have been excited, and then, lonely. Someone else comes to work there, Norihiro Hiasa (Ryûhei Matsuda of The Sythian Lamb[/i], NYAFF 2018), who latches onto Konno, gets drunk with him in his apartment, takes him fishing, later, even camping. We know there is something, well, fishy about Hiasa, but we also believe in Konno's fascination, need, even, it seems one night, desire, in this moody piece of minimalism.

The devil is in the details. And Ryûhei Matsuda, who seems more confident, even aggressive, even hostile with Konno, seems devilish. Anano Go is a bit of a sex object at first, the camera caressing his butt and crotch in jockey shorts in opening scene repeatedly. The "friendship" between Konno and Hiasa seems a bit suspicious, or maybe Konno is just so lonely. But no - Kazuya comes for a visit, and it emerges that in Tokyo Konno had a relationship, commemorated by a very long hug, with someone who has become a trans female. But the details are of the fish, how to put a worm on a hook, then gang hooks, Hiasa's little chat about the cycle of nature - "moss loves fallen trees" - and his story about the pomegranate tree (an image picked up later) in his yard growing up.

This is yet another Japanese film that weaves in the Fukushima event. Iwate, where this mostly transpires, was affected by the earthquake, I understand. But first, there is Hiasa's sudden disappearance from work, followed by his surprise reappearance later selling shares in a suspicious mutual aid society he forces everyone he knows to subscribe to, including, after a night of drinking, Konno. Then, Fukushima, and Hiasa seems to have been in one of the devastated areas.

Konno goes hunting for his lost friendship that never was. But then, it was a very special friendship. We have seen that. Only Hiasa has this other side. And he has warned his friend, with another haunting speech about the deeper shadow behind a face, the warning that he's not all he appears to be. This, Konno finds out something about, as revealed in scenes of meetings first with Norihiro's father (Jun Kunimura), then with his older brother, Kaoru (Ken Yasuda).

This film is a little too slow and too long, but early on it reminded me of Lee Chang-dong's wonderful, haunting Burning (NYFF 2018) created by just spicing up a bit a Haruki Murakami short story. One feels one is very much in the realm of the short story here also. Director Ohtomo Keishi has worked here from a novel by Shinsuke Numata, which won the Akutagawa prize in 2017. It's the essence of this story, and of the film, that the secret of Hiasa, Konno's intense, mysterious friendship, slips away like the fish Konno releases at the end of the film. But that seemed somehow rather anticlimactic.

This is a movie whose beginning and middle are better than its end. James Hadfield is cruel but not inaccurate in his Japan Times review when he concludes that it finishes "in an awkward hinterland," not "atmospheric enough" to be a "mood piece" nor "taut" enough to "satisfy as a suspense story." Ohtomo doesn't hit a home run in his foray into art filmmaking. Nonetheless this is a memorable, in some ways classic, theme.

Beneath the Shadow 影裏 , 135 mins., debuted Dec. 2019 at Hainan, and was released in Japan Feb. 14, 2020 (Sony Music Entertainment). The dp was Akiko Ashizawa. Screened for this review as part of the Aug. 28-Sept 12, 2020 virtual cinema New York Asian Film Festival.

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