Shinoda Masahiro’s (1997) “Moonlight Serenade” (Setouchi mûnratio serenâde) recounts a family’s trip by train and ferry from Awaji to a hometown on the island of Kyushu (via Beppu) with the cremains of the eldest son, who had died in 1945, just before Japan’s surrender. It is narrated by the youngest son, whose recollections are stimulated by reporting on the Kobe earthquake half a century later. Both the US firebombing of Kobe and the earthquake caused a lot of damage, both structural damage and wildfires. In 1945 the boy watched the city burn. As in 1945, in 1995 he again observes out-of-control fires and stoic Japanese.
His father, Koichi (Nagatsuka Kyôzô [A Laughing Frog] above), rigid even for a Japanese policeman, is given to whacking his two surviving sons. The older surviving one, seventeen-year old Koji (pop star Toba Jun, below left) is rebellious (his long hair looks very 1950s to me) attempts to keep their father from hitting the younger Keita (Kasahara Hideyuki in his film debut, below right), taking the blows himself.
Koji commences a romance with Yukiko (Yoshikawa Hinano, who won the newcomer of the year award of the Japanese Motion Picture Academy and went on to “Tokyo Eyes” and “Who’s Camus, Anyway?” but has not appeared onscreen since 2006) a very somber-looking orphan with very long braids who is roughly his age. She is also staying at the inn (which is mostly a love hotel to which one of the father’s workmates has some family connection), in Awaji also preparing to take a ship to Kyushu (Beppu).
Koji is planning to run away on the trip, flaunting fraternal as well as filial piety. Yukiko follows him out of the inn into the dangerous (especially for an unaccompanied young woman: see Mizoguchi’s “Women of the Night”) black market. Together, they flee men menacing her and return to the inn. Koji wants to squire her to her surviving relatives in Kyushu.
On the boat, Koji is mostly with Yukiko in first class, while the rest of the family is spread out on the floor of a lower deck. Compared to the historical footage of troops being repatriated by ship that is nearly SRO, they have some space.
A sly black marketer, played by Takada Junji, shares some of his liquor, and accompanied by statements of contempt for those profiting in the black market, Koichi drinks with him. Nearby a morphine-addicted former soldier with a terminal case of survivor guilt has a chaste romance with a young woman raped by US GIs who is going to become a geisha on the southern island. And there is a silent-film narrator going on a circuit of Kyushu with his mute son and a stash of movies, including some with swordfights that have been banned by the US Occupation authority. Plus a guilt-ridden high school principal wracked with guilt for having enthusiastically sent off schoolboys to die in the recently lost war.
There are surprises, including a tragic one on the Beppu dock, on Kyushu, deepening the major characters, including the mother who tries to moderate her husband’s violent authoritarianism (she was played by Shinoda’s wife Iwashita [An Autumn Afternoon, Harakiri) and, especially, her husband.
Though there is no shortage of suffering and anguish, there is also a lot of humor, including Keita’s belief that he is going down in a “family suicide,” a rumor swirling around back at home before they left, after taking a family photo. There’s even a fight scene, in which young yakusa continue the samurai movie tradition of attacking one at a time rather than ganging up against a single righteous opponent.
There were gorgeous shots of islands and trains going through verdant countryside in “Moonlight Serenade” and I am surprised that a fairy gentle though not particularly sentimental coming-of-age story set in the time of the director’s youth (he was born in 1935) came so late in his body of work, along with “MacArthur’s Children (“1984), which I saw decades ago and found slow and diffuse, and, I think, “Takeshi: Childhood Days” (1990), set during the end of WWII bombing of Japan when children had been evacuated from Tokyo to the countryside (it won eight Japanese Academy Awards, but is not, alas available here). These late works differ from the mid-1970s movies that I find visually striking but grim and even nihilistic (Himiko, Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees, Ballad of Orin, and the 1986 “Gonza the Spearman”), as well as the very stylish and also hope-deficient earlier masterpieces (Pale Flower, Double Suicide).
©2016, Stephen O. Murray