Directors, Features, Interviews, Japan, UK

Yuki Tanada Interview: “My team and I were running around searching for pregnant women that were expecting boys”

easternKicks talks to Yuki Tanada during her visit at the Japan Foundation’s Touring Film Programme…

Yuki Tanada is fascinated by the tenacity of the human spirit, taking an interest in its presence in everyday life and presenting it on screen. Since the release of her debut feature film Moon & Cherry in 2004 Tanada has quickly become one of Japan’s leading female directors, and she has often been praised for her straightforward look at society. Whether her characters are trying to make a million yen quickly (One Million Yen Girl) or dating someone 20 years their senior (Otou-san to Itou-san), their imperfections don’t define them, and this is what Tanada hopes to exhibit most in her work. This is especially apparent in her 2012 drama The Cowards who looked to the Sky.

Screened as part of this year’s Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme, the film follows an oppressed-housewife who cosplays as magical girl Anzu in her spare time and begins a relationship with high-school student, before moving onto the struggles of another high-school student to balance school life and working to keep his family from starving. The film fits effortlessly with the festival’s theme of life’s highs and lows and how directors have managed to capture them on film, so it is inevitable that she has been chosen to be the guest of honour at the event.

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What interested you in the story for The Cowards who looked to the Sky?

There are various characters in the film and each of them represent Japanese society in a way, and they are embracing issues in Japanese society. Also, even though they have hardships, they never actually try to run away from them, they just face things. Of course, not everyone starts wearing cosplay to escape their problems.

The film is based on a book by Misumi Kubo, how did you adapt it? And did you work with her at all when making the film?

When you adapt a film from a story or original novel, quite often the author will be fussy about the content. But as far as this work was concerned, the author never intervened in the making of the film. So instead of talking with the author myself about the production, I talked with staff and producers.

What did Kubo-san think of the film?

It was a long time ago so I don’t remember exactly what she said, but she watched it and thought it was interesting. The author never gives anyone lip service, so when she said it was interesting that was her true feelings, if she didn’t like it she would have just walked away!

How did you originally come across the book?

My friend recommended I read it.

In your previous films you have often looked at themes of poverty and sexual awakenings, and both are featured in this film. What interests you in these topics?

In terms of sexual awakening, I think that this is a normal part of our lives and because it’s nothing unusual I never pay attention to it when I use it in my films. I treat a character’s sexual awakening as a natural course of their life. As far as poverty is concerned, though, I think it is to do with my upbringing. I wasn’t really poor, but I was never brought up in an affluent family either, so these characters are going through the equivalent of what I had experienced. I am the daughter of a fishmonger in a regional area of Japan, and nearby the shop there was an arcade where I encountered many homeless people. That area was very chaotic, so I am familiarised with that sort of environment. Even though these homeless people didn’t have anything, they never begged for food or money, they lived with pride as human beings.

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Courtesy of the Japan Foundation. Photo by Adrian Snood

In the film the focus of the narrative shifts halfway through from Anzu and Takumi’s adulterous relationship to the hardships faced by Ryota Fukuda. Was this in the book? Or did you decide to make this change as a director?

Yes, that originally happened in the book so I wanted to keep it that way.

The cast deliver some impressive performances in the film, how did you cast them?

The three main characters, Anzu, Takumi, and Takumi’s mother, were all chosen through discussion with my producers. The character that Masataka Kubota plays, Ryota Fukuda, and Junko Akutsu, played by Ena Koshino, were chosen through auditions. In the original story, Ryota Fukuda was nicknamed “weed” because he was very tall. So he should have been a tall boy, but when I saw Kubota-kun in the audition he was so impressive that I wanted to use him even though he wasn’t as tall as he should have been. Ever since he worked in my film he has become very popular in Japan but he agreed to take on a small role in one of my other films, Romansu, as well.

“I never make a story into a film unless I find it interesting myself, even if the story is a bestseller”

Did you face any challenges when making this film?

The most difficult part was filming childbirth. I wanted to stick with the original story, and at the end of the film Takumi has a line that is referring to a male child, so the baby we showed had to be a boy. So my team and I were running around searching for pregnant women that were expecting boys, and one midwifery clinic told us that there were two women who were about to give birth to boys there, and they both agreed to be in the film. It was a real birth that we filmed, and we also used acting of course. It was just a matter of camera angle really, we asked a real midwife to wear the same costume as the actor was supposed to wear when she was helping with the birth, and then we filmed her at a particular angle during the childbirth. Then the actor that plays the midwife did her scenes, and we put them together so they look the same.

In between One Million Yen Girl and Romansu you made three adaptations, and you latest film Otou-san to Itou-san is also an adaptation. What interests you about adaptations, and what is the main difference between working on them in comparison to original productions?

I never make a story into a film unless I find it interesting myself, even if the story is a bestseller, it doesn’t matter to me. The point at which I find it very interesting is when the character written in the book is not necessarily perfect, and there is some sort of imperfection in their lives. When I work on adaptations it’s because I like the story and respect it. There is little I can do to change it, though, so there is a limitation to the freedom on how I can make the film. Also in terms of time and resources I am not always 100% satisfied when I finish it. But when it comes to original films I can actually make it freely because it is my own work and I don’t have to consider other people’s opinion, or how people perceive it.

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How did you first become interested in becoming a director?

I started off being interested in theatre, but as I started that it became clear that it wasn’t what I wanted to create because there were a lot of restrictions and rules, such as what your voice had to be like and where you had to stand. So I started to think that filmmaking would be a less demanding and would give me more freedom in terms of creation, so I shifted into that. As a child I was also a very keen storywriter, so I think making a film is a succession of this childhood interest.

You are also a script writer for your own films and for other directors, was this also a succession of your childhood interest in writing?

I think it is true, and generally speaking I like to make things and physically creating something. Now I’m really interested in dressmaking, I am fascinated with the process of something being created. Film is a long-enduring process with quite a lot of hardships, but even with all these challenges I become more interested in filmmaking.

” We asked a real midwife to wear the same costume as the actor was supposed to wear when she was helping with the birth, and then we filmed her”

What kind of dresses do you make?

I made this bag. I just started learning how to make dresses so I am making things like upholstery, bags and cushions right now. I have a pedal machine, an industrial machine and also a normal sewing machine. They are not that big so they all fit in my house!

Do you think the Japanese film industry is more progressive in its treatment of female directors?

At first I was concerned, but the answer is yes. I know so many female directors, and it is not so difficult for women to become directors in Japan, even when compared to other countries. But, the issue isn’t just with female directors, it’s with any director in Japan – making one film doesn’t necessarily make ends meet, so making a living as a director isn’t that easy in Japan. I hope that this situation will improve. It’s not just directors that are female, everyone involved in filmmaking such as lighting, and cameramen are also women. Particularly in the past 10 years, the number of women in the film industry has increased. I have seen plenty of frail looking women carry film cameras without a problem. For The Cowards who looked to the Sky my assistant director was female, and other members of the crew was also female.

The Cowards who looked to the Sky will continue to be shown in cinemas across the country as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film 2016 until March 26.

About the author

Roxy Simons
Roxy is an arts journalist, and has been in love with Asian culture ever since she first discovered anime and Asian cinema at a young age. Countless cinematic masterpieces from the east, manga, anime and dramas have continued to fuel this passion for the region, and she is excited to show her appreciation through easternKicks. More »
Read all posts by Roxy Simons

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