|Yuki Tanada at the 36th Toronto International Film Festival (L), The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky theatrical poster (R)
by Chris MaGee
“Wow! Three great filmmakers!” Yuki Tanada exclaims when I mention her name alongside those of Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse and Kenji Mizoguchi. There are only a handful of filmmakers like Tanada in Japan today, those whose work so keenly and unsentimentally examines the inner lives of everyday Japanese. It seems appropriate then to cite this Holy Trinity of Japanese cinema who so consistently captured the quiet triumphs, bitter heartbreaks and grinding struggles of their nation; but what I’m after, here in Tanada’s room at Toronto’s Hyatt Regency Hotel during the 36th Toronto International Film Festival, are the names of some non-Japanese filmmakers who have inspired her work. “The two brothers who make the crazy comedies... The Farrelly Brothers!” she laughs, “I love them!” A surprising answer, but the 37-year-old writer and director has spent the past eight years surprising and challenging movie audiences with her frank depictions of 21st-century Japan. Now, after a 4-year break from the director’s chair, Tanada has returned with her most accomplished work to date, The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky.
Based on the award-winning 2010 novel by Misumi Kubo, The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky begins as a love story, albeit a dysfunctional one. Lonely housewife Anzu (portrayed by former child actress Tomoko Tabata) and high school student Takumi (Kento Nagayama) are caught up in a tempestuous affair, one fueled by Anzu’s obsession with a popular romantic manga. Their cosplay love-making sessions, in which Anzu adopts the persona of a Princess and Takumi her manga Prince Charming, lie in stark contrast to their daily lives. Despite costly medical treatments and excessive pressure from her husband and mother-in-law Anzu is unable to conceive, leaving her self-esteem in tatters. Conversely Takumi is constantly exposed to the often messy details of childbearing and birth by his mother, Sumiko (Mieko Harada), who runs a holistic midwives’ clinic out of their home.
|Tomoko Tabata and Kento Nagayama as Anzu and Takumi
“Takumi and Anzu were the most difficult part,” Tanada admits when discussing bringing Kubo’s novel to the screen, “I really had a concern about how I could deliver their message to the audience, but in that sequence what I wanted to do is show that these two characters are looking at the same things, but are also two people living in different environments.” Still, Anzu and Takumi aren’t the only “cowards” in Tanada’s film. Soon what started out as a love story moves into much more complex territory. After a decisive crisis between the two lovers the narrative branches out to explore the lives of Takumi’s mother and her pregnant patients as well as Takumi’s good friend, convenience store clerk Fukuda (Masakata Kubota), who struggles not only with a senile grandmother, but also with his own mother whose oppressive debt has left Fukuda’s home bankrupt. Still, it was one the novels most conflicted and ultimately least likable characters in the original novel who drew Tanada to the project.
“Taoka has very strange sexual preferences,” Tanada acknowledges of Fukuda’s co-worker at the convenience store, a young man who both helps Fukuda to study for his University entrance exams while secretly molesting neighborhood children, “At first my thoughts never went beyond what kind of pain he caused, but after reading the novel I realized that these people who have this very negative sexual behaviour have real difficulties trying to blend into society. They are trying to find a way to get along with society. It was realizing that I had never thought about those issues that really made me become attached to this character.” It was just a happy accident that saw both Tanada and producers at Toei Studios considering an adaptation of Kubo’s novel. “It was perfect timing,” Tanada says of her chance to tackle characters like Taoka on the big screen.
Sexuality and odd sexual practices have been a recurring theme in the films of Yuki Tanada. Her confessed love for the low-brow antics of the Farrelly Brothers makes sense in light of Tanada’s debut feature film, 2004’s Moon and Cherry. Ostensibly a sex comedy, the film centers on the relationship between a virginal male university student who is deflowered by his classmate, an aspiring author who uses the details of their sexual exploits as fodder for her fiction. 2008’s Ain’t No Tomorrows would further explore the sexual misadventures of a group of high school students (including a girl on a sexual fact-finding mission and another who has a fetish for sumo wrestlers); but Tanada isn’t convinced that sexuality has been a connecting thread in her work. “Actually I never thought that was a theme to my films. I'm just taking it as a very normal thing. As people living together, sex is just a part of their lives.”
|Mieko Harada as Sumiko
This refreshing matter-of-factness may also be the reason why her work has featured some of the most fully realized female characters in Japanese film since, well, the work of the abovementioned and universally praised Naruse and Mizoguchi. Before working with Tomoko Tabata on The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky, Tanada regularly teamed with some of Japan’s most talented actresses, such as Noriko Eguchi (Moon and Cherry), Yu Aoi (One Million Yen Girl) and Sakura Ando (Ain’t No Tomorrows), to breathe life into her female protagonists. Even when Tanada wasn’t the one calling the shots behind the camera her depictions of women ring true. Her 2006 screenplay adaptation of Moyoco Anno’s popular manga Sakuran, brought to the screen by photographer-cum-director Mika Ninagawa, perfectly captures its sensual, headstrong heroine, the courtesan Kiyoha (portrayed by Anna Tsuchiya). So, why has she had such great success with her female characters? “Because I don't have fantasies about women,” she bluntly, but politely, states.
The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky will be receiving a theatrical release in Japan this November, just in advance of Japan’s film awards season next spring. By then, though, we may not only see Yuki Tanada gaining praise for her directing, but also for her skills as an author. Her absence from filmmaking since 2008’s Ain’t No Tomorrows was largely due to the fact that Tanada has been hard at work writing her debut novel. “If I had to describe the novel in one word I would have to say ‘revenge’,” she says of this new literary venture, “It’s very dark.” Despite its darkness the book will also delve into some happy memories from Tanada’s youth. “It also includes a lot about a Japanese matsuri [festival] that I experienced and that touched me when I was little, so the festival is part of the story.” There are no plans, at least at the moment, for Tanada to adapt her own novel to the screen. Her main focus now is simply meeting her publisher’s deadline. “The first deadline was two years ago!” she chuckles, “but it is almost completed, so next year it should be out.”