A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Moonlight Serenade (Masahiro Shinoda, 1997)

Moonlight Serenade is an entertaining mélange of several genres: historical drama, coming-of-age tale, and family drama, with a touch of road movie and two romantic subplots, all kept more or less in focus by a framing story that turns it into a film about the endurance of the Japanese people in the face of everything that life can throw at them. It begins with Keita Onda (Kyozo Nagatsuka), a man in his 60s, watching the news reports about the 1995 earthquake that devastated Kobe. The film flashes back to 10-year-old Keita (Hideyuki Kasahara) watching, from a safe distance, the red sky over a burning Kobe after an American air raid. Like the other boys watching the fiery sky, who claim that the sight gives them an erection, Keita is more excited than frightened. Then the war ends, and Keita's family is marshaled his father, Koichi (also played by Nagatsuka), into a difficult journey from Awaji, where they now live, to the ancestral home in Kyushu. Keita is entrusted with seeing after the box that supposedly contains the ashes of his elder brother, who enlisted in the Japanese navy at 17 and was killed two years later when his ship hit a mine. (What the box actually contains is one of the film's surprises.) The family also consists of Koichi's wife, Fuji (Shima Iwashita), and their 18-year-old son, Koji (Jun Toba), and small daughter, Hideko (Sayui Kawauchi). The neighbors are astonished that anyone should be making such a perilous trip across American-occupied Japan; the trains are unreliable and overcrowded and ships are still prey to undetonated mines. Gossip builds that Koichi, a tough police officer and a notoriously hidebound traditionalist, intends for his family to commit ritual suicide when they reach the ancestral burial place. The journey is in fact difficult and often suspenseful, but director Masahiro Shinoda, working from a screenplay by Katsuo Naruse from a novel by Yu Aku, maintains a light touch, infusing the difficult journey with humor. The film develops a love interest for Koji in the form of Yukiko (Hinano Yoshikawa), an orphaned girl who is also going to Kyushu, to live with relatives she has never seen. Koji, who hates his father, plans to run away somewhere along the journey, and when he meets Yukiko, he tries to persuade her to join him. A group of secondary characters joins the family on shipboard, including a black marketer (Junji Takada), whose stash of whiskey helps break down Koichi's stiff reserve (along with his policeman's distaste for the black market), and a traveling film exhibitor whose collection of movies includes some illicit samurai films that have been banned by the occupying Americans for their militarism. Keita, naturally, is enchanted by the movies, and there's a charming scene late in the film in which he goes to a theater to see Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) with his father. Unfortunately, Keita can't follow the American romance -- some of the words in the Japanese subtitles are too hard for him, he says -- and his father only says he'll have to be older to understand it. Moonlight Serenade is one of the late films by Shinoda, who apprenticed with Yasujiro Ozu and became a prominent member of the "Japanese New Wave" in the 1960s. It displays his skill at storytelling, handling several subplots and surprises, and has a fine sympathetic treatment of the people caught up in the postwar crisis. But it's a bit old-fashioned for a movie made in the 1990s, too overloaded with characters and incidents for its own good, and the frame story seems unnecessary.