Pic is bookended with scenes set in 1995, as 60-year-old Keita Onda watches with horrified fascination the TV coverage of the devastating earthquake that destroyed much of the city of Kobe. The conflagration reminds Keita of the last time he saw Kobe in flames, 50 years earlier, as American bombers attacked the metropolis and the 10-year-old was impressed only with the spectacle of it all.
In 1945, Keita lives with his father, Kokichi, a police officer, and his mother, Fuji. Both are traditional: His mother always wears a kimono, while his proud father is a stickler for discipline. He blames himself for the death of his eldest son, killed in the fighting, and he has decided to fulfill tradition by returning the dead youth’s ashes to the place where he was born, in far-off Miyazaki, a town on the southern island of Kyushu.
This means a long journey by train and ferry for the family, which also includes Keita’s little sister, Hideko, and his older brother, Koji. The rebellious Koji represents the new, postwar generation, as he wears an American flier’s jacket and secretly intends to run away and forge a life for himself at the first opportunity. Keita is fearful because among his friends and neighbors it’s rumored that, once Kokichi gets his family to Miyazaki, he will arrange a ritual suicide for all of them.
A large part of the film is set on the ferry, a veritable ship of fools on which Shinoda introduces a cross-section of Japanese society: a beautiful orphaned girl, traveling first class, who befriends Koji; a woman who may have worked as a geisha and is seizing the opportunity to start a new life; a discharged soldier, addicted to morphine; an elderly school headmaster, tormented by some nameless shame or fear; a cheerful black marketeer who represents the new entrepreneur of postwar Japan; an amiable traveling projectionist, repping Japanese culture, who screens movies in small towns and regrets that, because of a decree from MacArthur, he’s unable to screen that most popular of genres, the samurai film.
These and other characters are thrown together for the 24-hour voyage, during which the ferry narrowly avoids hitting mines, still plentiful in the sea, and one of the passengers commits suicide by jumping overboard. Once they arrive on the island, the lives of everyone undergo unexpected changes, some for the better, some not.
This handsomely produced film moves at an even pace and covers a great deal of ground, succinctly exploring the lives and destinies of at least 10 characters. The climax, with the hidebound Kokichi and the temperamental Koji coming to understand each other better, is quite moving. There’s also a fair amount of humor to be found in these characters and situations, as well as in spare injections of nostalgia, such as the Glenn Miller theme that gives the film its title, and a lovely scene in which Kokichi takes Keita to see “Casablanca,” though he really doesn’t approve of American films. Shinoda also explores with subtlety the tensions between the American occupying forces, who always seem quick to make moral judgments about Japanese traditions, and the defeated Japanese, who quickly get tired of constantly being criticized.
Well cast and well acted, “Moonlight Serenade” is visually handsome and lush. The music score is a tad sentimental at times, but overall this is a solid piece of work from an accomplished craftsman with something interesting to say.