Daihachi Yoshida’s last venture into human dynamics, The Kirishima Thing, took the high school environment as a microcosm for society as a whole. In some senses painting on a large canvas by illuminating the inner lives of these teenagers acting as both individuals and as members of a group, The Kirishima Thing was equal parts ensemble character drama and probing social commentary. Pale Moon (紙の月, Kami no Tsuki) is no different in this regard although it focuses more tightly on one individual and shifts age groups from turbulent adolescence to middle aged desperation. Set in 1994 just after the bubble burst, this gleefully cheeky (im)morality tale takes another sideways glance at the social norms of contemporary Japan.
Rika (Rie Miyazawa) is a demure woman in her early forties. A childless former housewife, she’s recently moved from a part time position at a bank to a full time job where she works as a kind of personal banking assistant visiting wealthy clients at home to discuss their financial needs and physically depositing their money in the bank for them. Efficient, reserved, reliable – Rika is the perfect employee, that is until one day she spends some of a client’s money because there isn’t quite enough in her purse. She takes the money straight out of an ATM and replaces it right away, of course, but a line has been crossed. It’s a quick step from a gentle misappropriation of funds to a series of interestingly decorated hotel rooms with a boy half your age, embezzlement on a grand scale, blackmail, bank fraud – the list goes on. How did it ever come to this? Yet, it’s the strangest thing – Rika has never felt more alive.
Money – it’s the life blood of capitalism. It makes the world go round and drives people crazy as they try to amass even more little bits of paper with numbers written on them. It’s fake, an illusion that we’ve all bought into – no more real than a paper moon (to go by the film’s original Japanese title), though we continue to set all of our hopes afloat on its surface. When Rika finally convinces her financially challenged young lover to accept her (stolen) money, she tries to convince him that nothing will change but, of course, it does. The dynamics fluctuate and money gets in the way, the toxicity of debt starts to eat away at any genuine connection that may have existed. The irony is, Rika is one of those people who steals in order to give away. It sounds selfless, even altruistic, but is in fact the most intensely selfish action that can be taken. “It’s better to give than to receive” goes the mantra of the nuns of the Catholic school where young Rika was educated, but they also council that charity should never have anything to do with your own gratification. This is the lesson that Rika finds so hard to learn, it feels so good to give – how can it be wrong to take?
It’s easy to say that the world has changed a lot in the intervening twenty years between now and the time the bulk of the action takes place, but maybe it hasn’t. The first thing that strikes you is how extraordinarily sexist Rika’s world is. It’s not long before she’s being asked questions about her marital status whilst being made to feel uncomfortable, alone in the home of her elderly male client. Then at the office her boss praises her efforts whilst sadly lamenting that women have more “tools” at their disposal than men do, which is both insultingly crude and a put down of her skills and hard work. Rika only gets her permanent position because another woman, an employee of nineteen years standing, has been forced out through a campaign of constructive dismissal because the big wigs don’t like paying higher salaries to older female workers but they won’t promote them past a certain level either. Her younger colleagues make fun of their “spinster” supervisor, Sumi (Satomi Kobayashi), who, only a generation older, had to make a clear cut choice between work and family and having chosen a career now sees the rug being pulled out from under her with the standard “transfer to head office” game plan in place to force her into retirement.
Rika’s home life offers a similar level of hope for the future. Her husband is probably well meaning, but totally insensitive and the marriage is at best unfulfilling. He pooh-poohs his wife’s thriftiness and her new “hobby” at the bank, totally failing to understand her motivation. At one point he announces he’s being transferred abroad so she’ll have to give her notice – it never occurs to him she may not wish to go, let alone that she’d refuse over something so trivial as her own job. It’s little surprise then that she’d so quickly fall for a handsome and attentive stranger. An “amour fou”, an old story but no less potent than it ever was.
Rika knows none of it’s real – that her temporary crime fuelled reprieve can’t go on forever, but that only makes her feel more free. In one telling episode, Rika is talking to a granny she’s in the process of swindling and remarks on her beautiful new necklace. What a shame it’s fake, Rika says, but the old lady replies that she knows it’s only imitation but she doesn’t care – it’s pretty, she likes it and she’s happy. That perhaps is the answer. Rika saw her chance and she took it. That takes some courage and whatever the moral outrage one might feel, there’s something undeniably admirable, even exciting, about Rika’s dramatic escape from the constraints of conventional social behaviour.
Pale Moon is receiving its UK Premier at the Glasgow Film Festival on 19th February so if you’re in the Glasgow area be sure to check it out!