- 25 August 2009
by Jasper Sharp
The large role played by women in the Japanese film industry came under spotlight at 2009's Nippon Connection festival, as much in acknowledgement of their enduringly strong presence in such fields as promotion, production, distribution and translation as the emergence of the post-Naomi Kawase wave of female directors such as Nami Iguchi, Naoko Ogigami and Miwa Nishikawa, and initiatives like the Peaches Film Festival, or Momo Matsuri, launched a few years ago in conjunction with Eurospace and the Film School of Tokyo to showcase the short works of recent female graduates from the school and held every March.
As interesting a development as this might seem to foreign observers, the majority of the filmmakers I had a chance to speak to questioned whether such a big deal should be made over this, with the consensus arising that the focus on gender when it came to looking at the style of their work was something of an irrelevance. They'd rather be known simply as directors than "women directors". Peaches Festival organiser Atsuko Ohno, for example, explained that the motivation behind her event was more to do with providing an easy way of categorizing the films they show and having a bit of fun with her filmmaking friends rather than making any sort of statement.
Still, the phenomenon is certainly worthy of closer inspection. The democratization of filmmaking over the past decade or so due to the easier accessibility of digital equipment has played its part. So have institutions such as the PIA Film Festival, Image Forum and the Film School of Tokyo in promoting works made outside the mainstream industry, whether by male or female directors, along with a more general recognition that, as in many other countries, women represent the largest sector of the audience in Japan.
Questions of gender aside, one thing is for sure, as anyone who has seen Moon and Cherry (a.k.a. Electric Button) will surely agree, Yuki Tanada is a bloody fine filmmaker. With her films manifesting a unique wit and and a genuine warmth and affection for her characters, she is one of the most exciting arrivals on the scene of the past few years, bringing a fresh and somewhat subversive eye to her portrayal of male-female relationships. Midnight Eye caught up with her while she was in Frankfurt with her producer Kanako Yoneyama to present her latest work, Ain't No Tomorrows, a high school coming-of-age drama based on a manga by Akira Saso.
What did you find attractive about the subject of Ain't No Tomorrows?
Well, from my point of view, when you look at the life of a normal high-school student, generally nothing really major or out of the ordinary happens. But still, you do have a lot of fun and varied experiences that are worth telling, so I wanted to put all these in a single movie, to look at the meaning of this period of life.
I haven't seen your most recent two films, Hatsuko's World (2007) and One Million Yen Girl (2008), but what I find interesting about this one and your earlier Moon and Cherry is how you show that it is the female characters who are the controlling forces when it comes to sex and relationships.
In Japan it's not really that usual for girls to talk about sexual matters first hand, so the boys usually play the more powerful or leading part in the relationship. I think it's a very important thing to show this from the other side, so the girls take the initiative a little more. I wanted this to be an important aspect of the film.
In the media in Britain recently, there's been quite a lot of concerned talk about how young people nowadays learn about sex from pornography, through the internet for example, and the so-called 'pornification' of society. So when young people do come to their first sexual experience, the reality is quite different from what they've seen, and it can be quite unnerving for them. I was interested by this one scene in Ain't No Tomorrows where one of the young couple go to a pink theatre to "learn about sex", and they're seen watching one particular scene. When they do come to make love for the first time, they're adopting exactly the same position as the film they were watching, and it's framed in a very similar way. Was this intentional?
Yes. I'm interested to hear this is not only the case in Japan, that young people are learning about sex the wrong way, through pornography. People don't really talk about these issues in a public forum, and if you do, it's in a far more serious, censorious way, warning people about the dangers of sex, how it can lead to teenage pregnancies and STDs for example. I'd really like to see this situation overturned, so we see a more open approach to the topic of sex.
Obviously a lot of the pornography in Japan is produced by men for consumption by men, particularly the visual kind of pornography, such as AV and pink films. But there's also the print genres of manga and especially erotic literature. I believe quite a lot of this is written by women for women. This ties in a little with one scene I really liked, where the character Natsuko is walking around dreamily and is the subject of the camera's gaze, while a male voiceover attributes certain sexual feelings, actions and desires to her, typical of the standard pornographic tropes. Then the scene cuts and you realise it's this spotty teenage boy who is sitting reading a pornographic story quietly while looking distractedly at her, and this is actually his internal monologue, not hers, which humorously undercuts our understanding of the scene.
It's pretty uncommon for women in Japan to go to these adult cinemas you mentioned before, but yes, there are women filmmakers who deal with sexual subject matters or work in pornography, but with a different kind of approach, and there are erotic short stories and manga that are specifically aimed at a female readers. There are also a number of special film events that get held in Japanese theatres, where women can gather in a female-only environment to watch erotic films, and these get quite a lot of publicity nowadays. Female audiences obviously have an interest in the topic of sex, but they are embarrassed by watching it or discussing it in front of men.
There is actually quite a lot of nudity in the film, which I think is quite rare now with recent Japanese cinema, and of course, the actors are all quite young and newcomers to the screen. I was wondering how easy it was to direct these scenes.
Actually we had a special audition for this with the condition that the actors had to act in nude scenes, and we selected the ones who were willing to do this. These scenes weren't so difficult to shoot, as the girl we selected was emotionally prepared for it, and she didn't attach this scene to her personal feelings, but to the character she was playing.
It's a very vivid film for me, and I think everyone can remember being this age, when you first awaken to the opposite sex. How much of yourself and your own recollections are made it into the film?
Hardly anything, if I think about it. Of course there were influences from my own life, but nothing really in terms of what is actually shown in the film.
So you never went to a pink theatre, for example?
No, I never went to a pink theatre, but I did see videos at the time. It's really difficult for girls to go to pink theatres, either alone or with friends. There's a lot of gay men who use it as a pick-up joint for example.
Some do though. When I was researching my own book on pink cinema, I remember I used to go to pink theatres and often found it more interesting watching the audiences than the film. I remember one time in Tokyo, seeing two high-school girls in their school uniforms sitting at in the back row sniggering.
[laughs] When I was a high-school student, I remember a couple of my friends going to a specialist gay theatre near my hometown. These were my "friends", of course, not me!
I wonder how you became a filmmaker, and were there any specific films that inspired you.
I wasn't particularly interested in film originally, but rather in stage performance. When I was eighteen I was looking for a new form and thought film was a natural progression from theatre. I was living in my hometown in Fukuoka at the time, but there was nowhere to learn about filmmaking, so around the age of twenty I moved to Tokyo. I studied at Image Forum, the top school for experimental film in Japan, because it was a lot cheaper than anywhere else. Usually film school tuition fees are around 2,000,000 yen (about US$20,000) a year, but Image Forum was a lot less, about 250,000 yen, and it was the cheapest place I could learn about how to shoot and edit on 8mm film and video.
It's interesting that you say you first became interested in film through theatre, because your first released work was actually a documentary. Can you tell me a little about this?
I'd made a few short jishu eiga (independent film) before, but the first work I made with a professional staff that played in a proper cinema was, as you say, a documentary entitled Takada Wataru - A Japanese Original (Takada Wataru Teki), which was released in 2004. It was a musical documentary about the folk singer Wataru Takada, and it really attracted a lot of attention. There were a lot of myths about this figure - that he could actually sing in his sleep, or while he was drinking. I interspersed scenes of Takada performing with footage of his real life. The reason I made it was that I got a call from someone who asked me if I knew him, but I thought he'd already passed away. He actually died one year after filming. I should point out, he's not actually a household name in Japan, but he is a legendary figure in some circles, so I found it very interesting portraying the difference between the myth and the reality.
Before this documentary, I made a jishu eiga called Moru (a cute abbreviation for 'morumoto', meaning 'Guinea Pig') which won an award at the 23rd Pia Film Festival in 2001. This was my first real experience as a filmmaker.
The angle of this year's Nippon Connection festival is "Women Filmmakers in Japan". I was wondering if you wanted to be thought of as a woman filmmaker, or whether this gender issue has any influence on you or the films you make.
No, I want to be known as a filmmaker, not a woman filmmaker. As you know, there are male directors and female directors who produce interesting and not so interesting films, regardless of their sex. I don't think there's any difference in approach or subject matter between men or women.
One thing I have noticed however, is that when I've spoken to directors before and asked about influences, a lot of the women, for example Naomi Kawase, will say "I just make my own films, and tell the kind of story I want to tell." A lot of the men talk about specific films or filmmakers that they admire. My own feeling is that if there is a difference, it is that the films by women directors have a certain freshness or spontaneity to them.
Well, I've never really thought about it, and it's the first time too that I've really heard what other filmmakers think about their own films. I think if you had the same script and you gave it to a different filmmaker, it doesn't matter if they were male or female, a different movie would always come out. I don't think gender has anything to do with it. It's the individual who defines how the film turns out.
Outside of directing, you also are credited for the script for a pretty high-profile mainstream film, Sakuran, which was directed by another woman, though one who comes from outside of the film industry, Mika Ninagawa. So, with a film written by a woman and directed by a woman, featuring a more-or-less all female cast, the atmosphere on the set must have been pretty different from, let's say a Takashi Miike or Shinji Aoyama shoot.
Well, Mika Ninagawa is a very famous photographer. She's a woman, its true, but she's also a very good stills photographer who comes up with beautiful images, so I think the film was always going to be very striking whatever the case. I'm not so sure about the atmosphere during the shoot, as in Japan it's not really common for a writer to visit the set. I sat and watched a couple of times, and was shown around the set by Ninagawa, and the atmosphere seemed pretty calm and fun under her.
When I was approached to work on the script, I didn't really think about how the finished film would look if I was directing it. But I knew Ninagawa's style as a photographer, so I knew she'd make a very visual movie. I don't think I could have made a film that has these kinds of visuals.
Since we're on the subject of female filmmakers, regardless whether there's any difference in style or not, the point remains that there are a lot more young women directors around now than there were in the 1970s or 80s, where the major studios still dominated production. You've mentioned the organisations Image Forum and Pia Film Festival as steps in your own career. I was wondering if you could think of any other aspects that might account for this.
If you compare things with the early days, the environment for filmmakers in general is a lot better due to technical improvements such as the easier availability of digital video equipment, which gives better opportunities for everyone. The number of women filmmakers has grown a lot in the past few years and it will continue to grow, I think.
Your own career rise has been pretty meteoric over the past couple of years I think. What's next?
I'm not sure of the situation in England or Germany, but the Japanese film industry is in a bit of a precarious state at the moment and I'm not sure how long this situation will last. There's a lot of films that have already been made that might never be screened in public, because of this availability of digital equipment bringing production costs down, but I'd actually like to make more major movies with bigger budgets. I haven't got anything officially planned for the future, although I am writing a novel. I'm definitely not shooting anything this year, and from the original script to the official release takes about 2-3 years, so it might be some time before my next work.