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Banana Yoshimoto brings youthful bereavement to screen

Helmed by rising Chinese Malaysian director, 'Moonlight Shadow' delights Japanese audiences 35 years later

Malaysian director Edmund Yeo's cinematic interpretation of Banana Yoshimoto's 1986 novella "Moonlight Shadow" tells of a young woman's post-traumatic recovery. (© Moonlight Shadow Production Committee)

KUALA LUMPUR -- Recovering from the death of a loved one is a harrowing experience that can crush the soul and transcend reality, and few Asian literary works have captured that feeling as profoundly as Banana Yoshimoto's debut novella "Moonlight Shadow," published in 1986. Inspired by composer Mike Oldfield's 1983 song of the same title, the novella would later form the final quarter of Yoshimoto's 1988 bestseller "Kitchen," which propelled the Japanese author's international career after Megan Backus completed an English translation in 1993.

Now 35 years after its publication, "Moonlight Shadow's" evocative tale of personal healing has returned as a feature film that debuted in Japanese cinemas in September, attracting old and new fans of Yoshimoto's work to theaters nationwide.

"I didn't remember much about what I wrote anymore, so it was very fresh to me," Yoshimoto told Nikkei Asia in describing her reaction to the movie. "I think that when someone close to you dies when you are young, there is an intense pain as if your body is suddenly cut in half. I think that feeling came out very well in the movie."

The angst of facing death as a young person is an overarching theme in Yoshimoto's other few novels translated in English, such as the 2010 "Moshi Moshi," which deals with a young woman whose much-loved musician father dies in a suicide pact with an unknown woman. Yoshimoto's praise is a resounding compliment for "Moonlight Shadow's" visionary director, Malaysian Edmund Yeo, who worked with a fully Japanese cast led by the 25-year-old rising star Nana Komatsu, whose acting credits include an international debut in Martin Scorsese's 2016 film "Silence," which is set in Japan.

Perhaps thanks partly to Komatsu's youthful fame, "Moonlight Shadow" has quickly drawn attention in Japan. "Those who loved [the novella] really loved it [the movie]," Yeo told Nikkei. "I saw on Twitter and Instagram that some folks went to see it three or four times, and one even went seven times." Yeo is also pleased with the success of his film's promotional merchandise, which includes a hardcover booklet of photos, musings, and even verses by the legendary Japanese poet Shuntaro Tanikawa.

A poster for "Moonlight Shadow." ( © Moonlight Shadow Production Committee)

Long fascinated with Japanese anime, culture and literature, Yeo studied in Japan and was the youngest Malaysian filmmaker to ever compete at the Venice Film Festival in 2009 with his Japanese-language short "Kingyo" (Goldfish). That film focused on the final meeting between a married university teacher and his former female student lover who had presented him a pair of goldfish as a parting gift, and is now offering tours of Tokyo's Akihabara electronics district dressed in a French maid outfit.

The goldfish embody the professor's memories of his student lover, although they were cared for by his wife, who dies shortly after her husband's extramarital affair. Following the wife's passing, the man kills the goldfish and buries them in her grave to snuff out memories of his affair.

Yeo's cinematic interpretation of "Moonlight Shadow" tells of a young woman's post-traumatic recovery. Satsuki (Komatsu) tries to cope with the death of her boyfriend Hitoshi (Hio Miyazawa) while developing a friendship with his brother, Hiiragi (Himi Sato), whose girlfriend, Yumiko (Nana Nakahara), also died in the same car accident. Satsuki also encounters a mysterious figure, Urara.

Edmund Yeo on the set of "Malu," a 2020 Japanese-Malaysian co-production that he directed. (Courtesy of Edmund Yeo)

"Literature and cinema are very different mediums, so it was impossible for me to do a 100% faithful adaptation of the original text," said Yeo, who believes his film is more an interpretation of Yoshimoto's original, rather than a slavish adaptation.

"The original was an evocative mood piece told entirely through the main character's point of view and internal musings [...] while we took many creative liberties to expand upon the five core characters and situations that were suggested fleetingly in the book, with Yoshimoto's approval, of course," Yeo told Nikkei.

For example, the romance between Satsuki and her dead lover, Hitoshi, lasted for a few years in the original, but only less than a year in the film. "The character of Yumiko is biracial in the film, and the mysterious Urara is also reinterpreted differently," said Yeo. He emphasized the suggested supernatural and magical realist elements in the book to better visualize Satsuki's devastated emotional landscape and psyche.

"Nevertheless, I did my best to respectfully preserve the essence of Banana Yoshimoto's original writing. There is a timeless quality to the story, and a dreamlike lyricism in her prose, which I tried to interpret for the screen," said Yeo. The author was certainly pleased with Yeo's work and appreciated its diversity. "My portrayal of Urara was a bit more laid-back, but the movie had a more intense feel to it, and I enjoyed the difference," said Yoshimoto.

Top: The character Urara is played by Asami Usuda. Bottom: From left: Yeo, Banana Yoshimoto and "Moonlight Shadow" co-stars Nana Komatsu and Hio Miyazawa. (© Moonlight Shadow Production Committee)

Yeo's chance to direct "Moonlight Shadow" came when the Japanese producers of his Japanese-Malaysian 2020 co-production "Malu," a film about two Malaysian sisters who meet again in Japan after 20 years of separation, asked Yeo if he had ever read the novella. Yeo said he still had vivid memories of certain scenes even though he first read it in 2006.

Yeo remembers how he stumbled on "Moonlight Shadow" right after finishing "Kitchen," and did not immediately realize it was a different story included in the English version of the latter. "Kitchen" ended on a hopeful note about the relationship between the protagonist Mikage and Yuichi. But Yeo recalls flipping the last page, and reading how Mikage suddenly started remembering a dead lover named Hitoshi. Finally Yeo realized that "Moonlight Shadow" was a different story about a young woman named Satsuki, "who loses her lover in a car accident, and finds herself mired in crippling sorrow."

"Moonlight Shadow" was shot in Japan during COVID-19 restrictions in late 2020 when Yeo managed to travel to Tokyo to attend the world premiere of his "Malu" at the Tokyo Film Fest. "We had to do temperature checks three times a day, and except for the actors, everyone had to wear their masks the entire time when the camera was rolling," said Yeo.

A still from "Malu," which tells the story of two Malaysian sisters who meet again in Japan after 20 years of separation. (Courtesy of Edmund Yeo)

Fans of Yeo's highly metaphorical, visionary and often puzzling films like the 2017 "Aqerat (We, the Dead)" and "Malu" will not be disappointed because he did not try to make "Moonlight Shadow" a mainstream film.

"The story has plenty of overlap between reality and fantasy, dreams and memories, and magical realist moments," he said. "It's possible that there are similarities between Banana Yoshimoto's and my worldview. After all, she wrote the story when she was 22, and I read it at the same age, so I'm more or less interpreting it through my 22-year-old self."

"Moonlight Shadow" is scheduled to be distributed in Thailand in 2022, but there are no plans so far to release it in Yeo's home country of Malaysia -- a place he feels is unable to offer the artistic freedom he needs to explore and openly question things.

"Navigating around our censorship would lead to self-censorship, which, I worry, is a malady that has plagued at least two generations of Malaysian filmmakers," said Yeo. "I'm more interested in telling stories that can give voices to the forgotten, and I'm excited to tell stories about people anywhere in the world."

A still from Yeo's 2017 film "Aqerat (We, the Dead)." (Courtesy of Edmund Yeo)

But if he could continue following his passion for Japanese literature, Yeo would love to adapt the 1972 posthumously published novel "Dandelions" by Yasunari Kawabata, the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. "Many of my earlier short films, like 'Kingyo,' were Kawabata's works," said Yeo.

The Malaysian director also cites Yukio Mishima's "Sea Of Fertility" tetralogy (1969-71) as a possible adaptation, except for "Spring Snow," which was adapted by Isao Yukisada, and Abe Kobo's "The Ark Sakura" (1984). Kobo's novel "felt like a very cinematic work, since his previous books had all been adapted brilliantly by the late great Hiroshi Teshigahara," said Yeo.

Among more contemporary works, Yeo is attracted by the novels of authors Yoko Tawada and Mieko Kawakami. "And of course, I wouldn't mind trying another of Banana Yoshimoto's novels in the near future," he added.

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