The Moonlight Shadow interview
The following interview is the original English transcription of an exclusive interview article which I made for Blog Fascinant Japon, a French speaking media outlet. It was translated into French and published on September 5. Due thanks to director Edmund Yeo for his time and kindness…
You moved to Japan in 2008 for your Masters and Phd at Waseda University, Tokyo, what was the driving force behind that move?
Like many of my generation, I grew up with Japanese anime and manga. My familiarity with these gradually led to an interest in Japanese films, music and literature as well. And I believe my love for Japanese culture grew stronger during a couple of family trips I made in Japan as a child.
Once I finished my studies in Australia. I wanted to pursue my childhood dreams of filmmaking. Japanese Cinema had received international attention and acclaim for a really long time. I was curious to learn more, so I decided to go.
Several short films you made are based on Japanese short stories and more often than not the action takes place in both Malaysia and Japan, are you building cultural bridges?
Because of the personal nature of my films, where I reach from my own experiences and emotions to interpret these Japanese short stories for the screen, I try using settings that I’m familiar with, hence Malaysia, a place where I grew up in, and Japan, where I spent most of my twenties in.
And I always do believe that cinema is a bridge to a different culture, since I have learnt a lot about the world and the different cultures through cinema, perhaps in a way, that is why I myself was trying to find a connection between these two countries which played such big roles in my life.
Moonlight Shadow has a very universal story
Moonlight Shadow was shot in Japan, it is a Japanese story, with a Japanese cast…you often stay in Japan but come from a different culture, so maybe it is not far fetched to say you have the external point of view of an insider. In what way, M.S. is or is not a Japanese movie?
I always believe that having some distance allow ourselves a clearer view of telling a story. My time in Japan gave me distance to tell stories in Malaysia. My time in Malaysia allowed me the distance to tell stories in Japan. Being an outsider in both countries, but also being able to maintain some sort of objectivity.
Despite its Japanese background, Moonlight Shadow has a very universal story and universal themes, about love, about loss, about learning to let go. Instead of being restricted by invisible rules, I was able to tell its story using visuals and colour palettes that are probably more unconventional. I wanted to respect and preserve the authenticity of the Japanese culture, but also to tell the story in a manner and rhythm unique to my own.
Loss, the sense of loss is the core of Moonlight Shadow, it seems to me it is a recurring theme in your movies.
Yes, the cycle of life and death. Loss is something all of us have to experience sooner or later. In different stages of our lives. For me, many times I was just trying to process my own feelings, and perhaps at the same time, reach out to those who felt the same. Do I feel lesser as I got older? Did I feel more when I was younger?
I have no answers, but I just wanted to sometimes remind ourselves that we are not alone in our sadness and melancholy.
At some point in the story, Satsuki (the main character) is sort of drawn in by a mysterious girl called Urara to witness something that somehow belongs to the supernatural. This is the kind of odd, fantastic occurence which is quite frequent in Japanese literature and cinema. Is that also part of the Malaysian culture?
In a way, yes, magical realism is one of the unique characteristics of Banana Yoshimoto’s writings. Finding the surreal in the mundane, something extraordinary in everyday life.
Magical realism is also, I think, a representation of one’s culture. Both Japan and Malaysia share the similarity that they have numerous folklores, beliefs and superstitions that have remained for generations. Our ways of understanding the everyday life in Malaysia and Japan is filtered through something that is unreal. Which I feel, is magical realism.
I’ve read you once said Hirokazu Kore Eda was one of you fave directors…was he -and maybe other Japanese directors- a source of inspiration for your films?
Yes, Koreeda Hirokazu is definitely one of my absolute favourite directors in the world. I love his humanistic and sensitive approach to storytelling, they tell us so much about people and the world around us. One of the earliest films that got me into Japanese cinema was Shunji Iwai’s Love Letter. I watched it when I was in my early teens and i became obsessed with it. The romanticism. the melancholy. the poetry.
The beauty of arts and literature and cinema is that they sometimes articulate our inner feelings in ways that we cannot describe with our own words. The works of Koreeda and Iwai-san were like that for me. So I was definitely influenced by them.
I think the works of Studio Ghibli too, have a profound influence in my filmmaking, or perhaps shaping my understanding of Japan when I was a child. But that’s a different story.
However, there are also a couple of contemporary filmmakers whose works I really admire. Although I know them personally and share many of the same collaborators, I also want to say that I’m huge admirer of Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Koji Fukada’s works. Their incisive exploration of human nature and effortless shift between tones and genres make their films very exciting to dwell into. Catching Hamaguchi’s 5-hour HAPPY HOUR at an all-night screening in Tokyo Film Fest 2016 was one of the most transformative cinematic experiences I had.
When did you decide to make a film based on the Moonlight Shadow novel and what led you do that decision?
Sometime around 2019, my producers, whom I have worked with during MALU, had discussed with me the possibility of adapting MOONLIGHT SHADOW. I first read the novella back in 2006, and MOONLIGHT SHADOW remained vivid in my memories. So I immediately agreed with this project, making a long comprehensive list of ideas on how to interpret the story for the screen, and how would I directing it.
I guess for me, learning that the film was going to be made felt like a beautiful coincidence. When I read the original novella in 14 years earlier, it was just the beginning of my interest in Japanese literature. The novella left an impression , and I started reading more works by Japanese writers.
But the works of Banana Yoshimoto never left my mind much, I would hang out in a bookshop, read her entire short story collection in a day during my first few months in Japan.
It’s quite amazing to see how versatile she is as an actress
There’s currently a new generation of very talented Japanese actresses, all of them in their twenties, and Komatsu Nana is definitely one of them, what made you think she could be a great match to portray Satsuki?
My first introduction to Komatsu Nana is from her breakthrough role in The WORLD OF KANAKO. That film marked the arrival of a major talent and I have followed her career since then. Jojo’s Bizarre Journey, After the Rain, Kuru, her work in Martin Scorsese’s Silence.
It’s quite amazing to see how versatile she is as an actress, and the commanding screen presence that she has despite her young age. So, when we were considering the lead for Moonlight Shadow. Nana was really the only choice we had. Without her, that is no film.
Correct me if I’m wrong but Moonlight Shadow is your first full length movie with an entire Japanese cast, what was special during the shooting with Komatsu Nana and the other actors?
Yes, thankfully, my earlier Japanese short films prepared me for a Japanese film production environment.
We had limited time for rehearsals, so we had to optimize each of our rehearsal days. We generally rehearse some scenes so that each and everyone of us, the cast and the crew, would have an idea of the pacing and tone of the scene. And understand clearly the interpretation of the characters.
Most of my cast members, despite varying levels of experience, are very committed and passionate in their roles. And these sessions were invaluable moments for us to discuss and workshop some scenes and roles.
Nana is a very intuitive and instinctive actress, so I knew that I shouldn’t let her rehearse some of the more emotionally heavy scenes. I would rather let her conserve her energies and do what she had to during the actual shoot. This unpredictability of our process is something I prefer too, since I tend to improvise and adjust scenes based on intuition.
Because of the Covid pandemic, filming surely became more difficult because of delays and budget inflation due to security costs, was it an obstacle?
Yes, due to the Covid pandemic, there were some worries that I couldn’t fly into Japan from Malaysia for the film shoot. So there were even discussions of the possibility that we had to delay the shoot to a different time.
But in a way, I guess we were lucky and everything turned out all right as I was able to fly into Japan just in time for the premiere of my last film MALU, and then immediately prepare for MOONLIGHT SHADOW. Due to the intensive preparations we had to do for MOONLIGHT SHADOW, I never even had the chance to catch MALU when it was playing in the cinemas.
During the shoot, we adhered to the important SOP, temperature checks 3 times a day, everyone having to wear masks except for the actors in front of the camera. The shoot was surprisingly smooth, and we were truly blessed. But I’m a little sad that I never actually got the chance to see the faces of some of my crew members since we were wearing masks the whole time
Has the writer – Banana Yoshimoto- watched the movie, what was her reaction?
She hasn’t, but she visited our film set one day during our shoot. I was so excited! (note: since that interview from last August, the writer saw the movie which she described as a ‘masterpiece of elegance’ on her instagram account)
In view of your previous films, do you see Moonlight Shadow as an evolution or rather a new step or direction?
Every film I’ve made had been made in response to the previous film. I always consciously try not to repeat myself. I like changing things up in service of the story. I think this allows me to evolve more as a storyteller.
This film is a brand-new experience for me, its scale is bigger than my last 3 feature films. I’m working with great, experienced producers who share my vision and helped nurture my creativity. A highly experienced and skilled cast and crew. I think I learnt a lot throughout the shoot. Therefore I hope MOONLIGHT SHADOW is an evolution!
A Malaysian director, a novel penned by a famous writer for a film with a young Japanese star, that is quite a combo and thus possibly a ticket for International Film Festivals. Are there any such plans?
Yes! Fingers crossed! This film is a labour of love from us, I definitely hope that more people around the world can watch it!
We can’t stop the passing of time but we can continue walking
To conclude on Moonlight Shadow, you already mentioned that but could you develop a little about the universal dimension of the movie, as a human experience?
Moonlight Shadow is about falling deeply in love, suffering a terrible loss, and learning, finally, how to experience life after loss. The story may happen in Japan, but it’s an experience shared by all of us. Especially in these times.
Moonlight Shadow is about learning that we are not alone. That one caravan leaves and another begins. We can’t stop the passing of time but we can continue walking. The words of Banana Yoshimoto in her original novella remain relevant until now. And I hope the film will serve the same purpose.
What about the future? Another film project shot in Japan, in Malaysia or both countries?
There are a couple of projects floating about and being in development. I would love to explore the possibility of shooting in Japan, but perhaps with French actors? shooting in Japan AGAIN, but perhaps with French actors?
The two leads with writer Yoshimoto (TBS TV Brunch- September 4)