“There’s nothing wrong with leaving it a mystery” the enigmatic presence at the centre of Keishi Ohtomo’s Beneath the Shadow (影裏, Eiri) advises the hero as he vows to look into the unexpected appearance of a fish found swimming in the wrong river. Best known for mainstream blockbusters such as the Rurouni Kenshin series, March Comes in Like a Lion, and Museum, Ohtomo shits towards an arthouse register in adapting the Akutagawa Prize-winning novella by Shinsuke Numata which is in a sense obsessed with the unseen, the hidden details of life and secret sides we all have that are perhaps intended to protect but also leave us vulnerable.
Konno (Go Ayano), an introverted man in his 30s, has just been transferred to rural Morioka by the pharmaceuticals company at which he works. He keeps himself to himself and largely spends his time caring for a Jasmine plant which appears to have some especial yet unexplained significance. It’s at work that he first encounters the enigmatic Hiasa (Ryuhei Matsuda), reminding him that theirs is a non-smoking building only to discover that Hiasa isn’t the sort to care very much about rules. For some reason or other, Hiasa takes a liking to Konno, turning up at his house with sake, teaching him how to fish, and going on what to anyone else look like dates. Yet when winter comes Hiasa abruptly quits his job and disappears without a word, resurfacing a few months later with a better haircut and a sharp suit explaining that he’s now a top salesman for a suspicious insurance company designed to help pay for expensive ceremonies such as weddings or more commonly funerals. The two men resume their friendship, but soon enough Hiasa again disappears. Only when he’s contacted by a co-worker (Mariko Tsutsui) after the earthquake hoping to find him because it turns out he owes her a large some of money does Konno begin to reflect on how little he might really have known this man he thought a friend.
“Right from the start you have to groom it so it’s tantalised” Hiasa later explains, operating on several metaphorical levels but talking quite literally about lighting a fire. Konno has to wonder if that’s all it really was, if Hiasa is just a manipulative sociopath playing a long game, getting him on side in case he’d be useful later. When he resurfaces after his first absence, Hiasa eventually asks Konno to sign for one of his policies claiming that he’s one away from his quota and will be getting the can if he can’t fill it despite having talked a big game in proudly showing off a commendation he’d won as a top salesman when he turned up on Konno’s doorstep. “What you see is where the light hit 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”, Hiasa had pointedly told him during a heated fireside conflagration, seemingly hurt as if in the moment he had wanted to be seen and is disappointed to be met with Konno’s irritated rejection, fed up with his mixed signals and distance both emotional and physical.
Yet Konno is also himself living half in shadow as a closeted man choosing not to disclose his sexuality to those around him. A meeting with an old friend who has since transitioned presumably having embraced her own essential self raises further questions about the reasons he accepted the transfer to Morioka as if he too, like Hiasa, wanted to disappear from his old life and reinvent himself somewhere new, he’s just done it in a more conventional way. Even in contemporary Japan which is in some ways very old fashioned when it comes to the technology of everyday life and with a strong belief in personal privacy it’s surprisingly easy to just vanish at the best of times, but even his family members who are in no hurry to find him wonder if Hiasa may simply have used the cover of disaster to disappear for good. His conflicted brother (Ken Yasuda) affirms he thinks he’s probably alive because he’s “someone who can survive anywhere” which in the way he’s putting it is not much of a character reference.
The conclusion Konno seems to come to, in a happier epilogue some years later, is that Hiasa himself was perhaps a fish swimming in the wrong waters, unable to adapt to the world around him. Perhaps it’s alright for him to remain a mystery because a mystery was what he was. Konno, by contrast, sets himself free apparently less gloomy, no longer living half in shadow, even if still hung up on the one that got away. A slow burn affair, Beneath the Shadow eventually refuses conflagration in favour of something cooler in accepting that you never really know anyone, perhaps not even yourself, even when you peer into the darkest part of the shadow. In the end you just have to let it go, “the cycle keeps repeating”.
Original trailer (no subtitles)