Friday, April 24, 2009

Crossing paths with Yuki Tanada in Frankfurt

by Chris MaGee

Yuki Tanada is one of the most important young directors working in Japan today, but when Marion Klomfass, the founder of the Nippon Connection Film Festival, introduced Tanada as such prior to a screening of her latest film "Ain't No Tomorrows (Oretachi ni asu wa naissu)" at the 9th offering of the festival that takes place annually in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, the 33-year-old director shook her head modestly and giggled in embarrassment. This down to earth attitude has been a hallmark of Tanada's filmography since the very beginning. Barring her screenwriting credit for the gloriously over the top 2006 period drama "Sakuran" directed by famed photographer Mika Ninagawa, the characters in Tanada's films, often women in their late teens and early 20's, are vulnerable yet headstrong, intelligent but fallible - in other words real - a rare quality in both Japanese and international cinema, and one that is making her films increasingly popular worldwide.

In 2001, after studying at Tokyo's Image Forum School, Tanada wrote, directed and acted in her first film "The Mole" and then in 2004 followed the award-winning success of that film with the documentary "Takadawataru teki" about Japanese folk music legend Wataru Takada. It wasn't until 2005, though, that Tanada began to be noticed internationally on the strength of her third film "Moon and Cherry". A mix of naughty comedy and and keenly observed drama, it told the story of Tadokoro, a virginal male University student who after joining an erotic creative writing club is deflowered by the group's most talented member, a female prodigy named Mayama who then uses their experiences as fodder for her fiction. In lesser hands "Moon and Cherry's" quirky plotline and plentiful onscreen sex could have ended up as a formulaic teen comedy, but as Midnight Eye's Tom Mes said in his review of the film its depiction of "a magnetic, radiant, almost beguiling protagonist," made it stand out from the rest of the releases that year.

While Tanada went on to the aforementioned "Sakuran" and a directorial spot on the Japanese TV serial "Camouflage" starring Yu Aoi (which led to their collaboration on Tanada's 2008 film "One Million Yen and the Nigamushi Woman") it wasn't until "Ain't No Tomorrows" that she returned the themes of the circuitous path from youth to adulthood and sexual exploration that made "Moon and Cherry" such a critical success. With "Ain't No Tomorrows" ending up as a favorite of many at Nippon Connection 2009 I was very much looking forward to sitting down with Tanada to discuss it, but sadly scheduling conflicts and jet lag conspired to severely limit our time together.

Nippon Connection is probably one of the best festivals to rub elbows with filmmakers and stars, with the entire five day event almost exclusively taking place in one location on the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt am Main campus and very few of the guests are accompanied by handlers, and Tanada and "Ain't No Tomorrows" producer Kanako Yoneyama were no exception, in fact the two made a special effort to fly in for only 24 hours to attend the screening of the film and take part in a function the following day before heading to the 11th Annual Udine Far East Film Festival where Tanada's "One Million Yen and the Nigamushi Woman" will be screened. They also made a special effort to meet with me during this brief stay so we could at least touch on some points about "Ain't No Tomorrows".

After Ninagawa's "Sakuran", "Ain't No Tomorrows" was Tanada's second manga adaptation "I was told by a friend about an interesting manga by Akira Saso, so I read it and decided this was the manga that the film would be based on," Tanada explained in a quiet voice, obviously jet lagged, her face shaded by her trademark floppy-brimmed hat. Saso's graphic novel, unlike so many of the teen-themed shoujo manga that make the transition to the big screen, deals head on with issues of peer pressure, violence, teen pregnancy, and of course sex. "All my friends who saw the movie had the same experiences in their childhood, and of course in the bed. It's not usual [for teens] to express to want to have sex in Japan, especially for females. It was kind of a new approach and seems to have been well received by the audience." It definitely was in Frankfurt, but Tanada expressed some concerns before the screening that the audience the film was made for may have difficulty seeing it. "I think everyone here is old enough to see this," she joked as she surveyed the packed Nippon Digital theatre. "Ain't No Tomorrow's" frank depiction of sexuality garnered it, "Like "Moon and Cherry", an R-15 rating which prevents anyone under 15 from seeing the film. Some of the most graphic scenes in the film involve Chizu, an innocent high school girl with very limited knowledge of sex, who's portrayed by 23-year-old Sakura Ando, daughter of actor/ director Eiji Okuda and essayist Tsuwa Ando. When I asked Tanada if there were any female characters or actresses, past or present, who had inspired her she made a point to mention Ando, whose roles in Sion Sono's 4-hour "Love Exposure" and various TV dramas has her, as Tanada put it, "becoming pretty famous amongst Japanese directors."

Too quickly my time with Tanada came to an end, but she was very apologetic about having to cut things so short. It was nice to joke a bit with her during the guest photo shoot that followed our brief interview, but I hope that our paths cross again sometime soon so we can continue our conversation further.

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