Release Date: February 14th, 2020
Duration: 134 mins.
Director: Keishi Otomo
Writer: Kaori Sawai (Script), Shinsuke Numata (Story)
Starring: Gou Ayano, Ryuhei Matsuda, Mariko Tsutsui, Tomoya Nakamura, Ken Yasuda, Jun Kunimura,
After spending the 90s working in TV, director Keishi Otomo moved into film and has built a filmography stacked with adaptations of novels and manga. He is best known for the internationally successful Rurouni Kenshin trilogy, a big-budget samurai series with a visual sheen of intense action, dizzying stunt work and exquisite period details that swept viewers away. He reigns everything in for his latest work, Beneath the Shadow, Eirin in Japanese.
This is based on a same-named 2017 Akutagawa prize-winning novel by Shinsuke Numata and is set in the director’s hometown of Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, both before and after the 3/11 disaster. It features a slow-burn character-driven drama that teases audiences with a light mystery that hinges on the idea that our interpretations of people’s behaviour can be wrong if our emotions get in the way but also, that all of us have something we keep in the shadows.
The story starts in the summer of 2009 and follows Shuichi Konno (Gou Ayano) after he has been transferred by his pharmaceutical company from Saitama all the way to Morioka in the far north for a three-year assignment. New in town and friendless and desperately alone, he lives an unassuming life but he catches the eye of a co-worker, a fellow loner named Norihiro Hiasa (Ryuhei Matsuda) who loves fly fishing and flouting the rules. As the two hang out Norihiro behaves with a casual dynamism, physicality and an unselfconsciousness that draws the more reserved Shuichi out of his shell over the course of their long summer and autumn days together stalking the rivers and streets around the the city.
Throughout the story it is clear that Shuichi struggles with his emotions and Gou Ayano sensitively depicts this and it helps to show the impact that this newfound friendship has on him. At first, we see his huddled body-language and hear his low voice and view him tamp down on his feelings through close ups of him looking pensive as he processes difficult encounters. This is then contrasted with his broad smiles and openness he displays as he basks in his new friend’s dazzling company as they go drinking, to the cinema, and fishing. A scene where tears roll down Shuichi’s face as they watch a film together suggests this is the companionship Shuichi has craved but this goes much deeper than simple friendship as he is soon all smouldering glances and the film underlines his growing feelings for an ever-smiling Norihiro with cuts to various parts of their bodies slowly getting into a shared rhythm and their casual physical proximity to each other.
His sexuality comes increasingly out of the shadows and clearly into view as we understand that his character wrestles with it. The delight and disquiet produced by Norihiro’s habit of sleeping over at his place and the look of surprise and even gratification that his new friend doesn’t think twice about chomping down and slurping the juice of a pomegranate they share say more than reams of dialogue. Just as Shuichi believes there is deeper erotic potential in all of this male bonding, Norihiro’s actions go from friendly to rather inscrutable.
Their blooming relationship is abruptly put on ice one bitter winter when Norihiro quits his job without saying a word and disappears.
Then, in the following summer of 2010, he begins showing up unannounced like he used to, only this time it is in a salesman’s suit and with a plea for Shuichi to buy a policy from a clearly dodgy mutual aid society to help bump up his sales quota. Smitten that his friend has returned, Shuichi signs up and the two fall back into their easy camaraderie again but the atmosphere has been disrupted. Their chats are terse and trust is thin as Shuichi struggles increasingly with his homosexuality and Norihiro shows a certain callousness and desperation that suggests he is using his friend. As their relationship deteriorates, the man he considered a trusted friend offers a stark comment:
“Don’t act like you know everything. What you see is where the light hits for an instant, no more than that. When you look at someone, you should look at the other side, the part where the shadow is deepest.”
The film swings on this comment as it foreshadows the coming drama and mystery as, in the spring of 2011, Norihiro disappears in the 3/11 disaster. Without ever truly knowing what his friend was up to or getting to say goodbye, Shuichi is driven to go looking for him and discovers he didn’t really know his friend at all…
The remainder of the film is a series of conversations that go to change the image Shuichi had of Norihiro as he comes to understand the depth of betrayal his one-time trusted friend has performed. Each revelation comes in what amounts to an interview Shuichi holds with someone who has a different perspective. Each interview is essentially a monologue as Shuichi retreats into himself but each one comes from the lips of a great performer like Jun Kunimura (Vital), Ken Yasuda (The Actor) and Mariko Tsutsui (Harmonium) who are able to make static conversations feel compelling and packed with a long history of emotion that reflect the devastation of the disaster and losing someone close, which is what Shuichi, although he is a transplant in the area, is feeling.
The script and Matsuda’s performance leave open to interpretation whether Norihiro is a parasite that deliberately targets the vulnerable, such as the lonesome Shuichi and those people he signs up for the mutual aid society, or if he is simply a care-free guy who lives without regard for others because he is free-flowing like the rivers he fishes in but his an enigmatic character is founded on Matsuda’s dreamy performance and smartly contrasted with Gou Ayano’s more controlled character and the disaster is respectfully utilised to emphasise the depth of Shuichi’s loss. Images of wrecked rooms, rushing water and announcements on radio and in newspapers set the stage while the tragedy ties everything up thematically as a wider sense of loneliness, love and loss that marks the entire film reaches its crescendo. It is this disaster that prompts Shuichi to look into his friend’s shadow and also allows Shuichi to move his sexuality out of the shadows and openly embrace it and finally quell his emotions he has tried to keep a tight lid on.
Despite the sense of a bigger mystery, the film settles with Shuichi coming to terms with the loss of a friend and being able to move on with his life in the summer of 2012 as he accepts his sexuality as his three years in Morioka come to an end. Akiko Ashizawa, cinematographer for Kiyoshi Kurosawa on many titles like Loft (2005), Retribution (2006) and Tokyo Sonata (2008) and To the Ends of the Earth (2019), works with Otomo to show off Morioka and its surrounding natural environs at their most stunningly beautiful with lush forests and running rivers seen in different seasons. This, coupled with the good acting, make the film worthwhile as we can enjoy some simple character-driven drama.