- 22 April 2002
by Tom Mes
One of the people in the vanguard of the independent 8 millimeter scene of the late 1970s, Shunichi Nagasaki's name is not nearly as well-known outside Japan as it deserves to be. Best known internationally for his imaginative post-Ring horror moodpiece Shikoku, the director has been delivering a steady stream of interesting and challenging films for many years.
His most recent accomplishment is possibly also his greatest: the impressive and gripping four-hour masterpiece A Tender Place. Originally made for satellite TV, this astonishing drama about a mother's search for her missing daughter went on to more acclaim by way of the international festival circuit. And if there is any justice left in the world, it will get wider exposure even beyond that.
A Tender Place was based on a novel by Natsuo Kirino, I believe. But the story is remarkably similar to a short story by Yukio Mishima, called Death in Midsummer. Were you aware of this similarity?
I haven't read that story, so I couldn't say anything about the similarities. But I like Natsuo Kirino's work very much and I had already made two other attempts to turn her work into film.
The running time of the film allows you to approach the story not unlike a novel. Since you also wrote the screenplay, and edited the film, this must have been your intention from the start?
It was actually at the stage when I was writing the script that I noticed that it was getting longer than your average 90-minute or two-hour film. So it happened sort of naturally while I was writing it. But the sponsor of the film agreed with it, he said it was okay if it became longer, so I just went ahead with it.
The film shows several possibilities as to what might have happened when the little girl disappeared. Did the novel have this same kind of structure?
Yes. The author originally set out with a particular culprit in mind, but I learnt later that while she was writing the novel she gave up on that idea. When I found out about this, I thought that maybe it would be better to keep this kind of ambiguity in the film as well. As I was shooting the film, I myself definitely had a guilty party in mind. But what I was interested in showing was the dark part in everybody, not just the heroine, but also in the other characters. They all have their dark side, within the scope of this crime as well. That's what really appealed to me in the story.
Who initiated the project? Was it you or the TV company?
The TV station asked a production company, of whom they knew that it owned a number of mystery novels they wanted to adapt into films, whether they could suggest any of the books. They came to me with this novel. I read the book and liked it a lot, so I really wanted to make the film.
What was it that attracted you in this novel?
I was really attracted to the heroine of the novel, especially the way she was looking for freedom. Also the other characters I thought were very interesting and I really felt that I wanted to put these characters into images.
Was the film broadcast in its entirety or in parts?
It was shown on TV in Japan in two parts.
Was the fact that this is a TV film the reason why you shot on video?
It is a satellite TV station, so they want to use this Digital Hi-Vision equipment for that reason. Of course I could have shot it on film and then transferred it to Hi-Vision, but I'm interested in this format, so I decided to do it on Hi-Vision from the start.
What struck me about the way you shot the film was that, despite using video, the framing, lighting design and such are quite conventional. You didn't seem to want to experiment with the format in a stylistic or narrative way.
Of course it may seem more video-like at some of the festival screenings, because sometimes they used a Beta dub. But I thought that this kind of too clear image that you get of the characters' faces and expressions through the use of Hi-Vision was very suitable to this story.
Is this a kind of reflection of the way you used video on your earlier film Dogs?
There are similarities between the two certainly, but in the case of Dogs it was really my aim to capture the rawness of the story through the use of video. Whereas with A Tender Place I was very aware of the fact that everything would be reflected on screen as very sharp and flat, and wanted it that way.
There is no music in A Tender Place. Why?
There are two reasons for that. One is that when you put music over a certain scene, be it sad music or suspense music, you immediately force the viewer to have one interpretation of that scene. The music dictates what kind of scene you are watching. But I wanted to leave several options open to interpretation. I didn't want to impose how the scene should be interpreted. That's why I left out the music, to leave options.
Another reason is that, with scenes like the one where the heroine goes back to her hometown and she's looking out over the sea, all you can hear is the sound of the waves. This I also wanted to make very clear. The only sounds will be the waves or the wind. To create that awareness is also why I left out the music.
How did A Tender Place find its way into the international film festival circuit? Because I believe it was never released in theatres in Japan.
It wasn't released theatrically as such, but there was a special program of Hi-Vision films, including my film, which traveled the country as a road show. Hiromi Aihara, a lady who works as consultant for several film festivals, liked this film very much and Tony Rayns has liked my work for quite a while now. He introduced my film to the Vancouver Film Festival in 2001 and it continued from there.
The character of Utsumi is dying of cancer and tries to give meaning to the last days of his life. This seems like a reference to Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru.
It's not a real reference, but of course there is the same concern of being aware that your own life will finish soon, so what are you going to do with the time that's left to you. So it resembles Ikiru in that way, but it's certainly not a direct reference.
Why did you choose to cast such a young actor in the part of Utsumi?
First of all, I thought it would be a good to capture the contrast between his ambition as a young police officer who really wanted to go places, and the fact that he will be dying soon. There is a kind of rough edge that comes into existence as a result of his young age. Secondly, it is also a contrast to the heroine, who is very much alive and has a strong life force. To put that in contrast with this young man who, in spite of his young age, will die soon, I thought that would be more effective. Thirdly, I wanted the character to be somebody who couldn't come to terms with his own life and the fact that he was going to die soon. Rather than an old man, who would be able to accept this fact much easier, I decided on a younger character who would have more difficulty to cope with that.
The heroine Kasumi keeps referring to her husband by his last name Moriwaki. Is that a reference to the distance between them?
You shouldn't read too much into that, because in Japan that is actually not unusual. Especially if you talk about your own husband to others whom you're not too familiar with, it's quite common to refer him by his family name.
Many of the characters seem to be driven by a fear of being alone. The relationships they have with each other seem to be more about using the other person as a way to not be alone than about having an actual emotional connection.
I wasn't really aware of that. Perhaps in the relationship between Kasumi and Utsumi there is that element of her using him for that reason. But with the other characters I didn't make it look that way on purpose.
I asked this, because I also felt that in the relationship between Ishiyama and his young girlfriend.
I think you can say that. In general it's probably a reflection of the loneliness and solitude in every human being.
There is an interesting change in the relationship between Kasumi and Utsumi. Towards the end they become lovers, basically, but in the beginning they seem to have more of a mother-son relationship. Especially when she starts to take care of him and nurses him. Is that process something you intentionally put into the film?
Actually, I didn't think about having them become lovers until the end. When I explained to the actors beforehand what their characters were about, I didn't tell them that they would become lovers eventually, because I really had no such intention at that point. But I also didn't tell them to have a mother-son relationship either. That more or less developed as we went through the story during shooting.
Is there any significance to the fact that their names, Kasumi and Utsumi, sound very similar?
I don't think there is any particular meaning to it. In the novel, the names of all characters beside Kasumi when written in kanji have something to do with water. I suppose the writer had some reason for giving them these names, because the characters with whom she doesn't get along all have names that are not related to water. Ishiyama [lit: stone mountain - TM] has nothing to do with water, so it didn't work out with him. The name of Utsumi contains the kanji for sea, so they do have a good relationship. But I just used the names that were already in the novel.
What were your reasons for casting Yuki Amami in the role of Kasumi? She is usually better known for doing action films.
I worked with her once before. I was not so greatly impressed by her acting skills, but for this expression of the character's determination and her search for freedom, I thought she would be very suitable. But I did want to cast her in another type of role than the films we usually see her in.
Your recent films, including Dogs, Shikoku and this one, have all featured female protagonists.
I haven't really been too aware of that. It's not a conscious choice. But I do want my heroes to be people who fight for themselves and who want to be free. Women are more suitable to portray that kind of search for freedom.