What was it that initially attracted you to Kanae’s novel?
What I really wanted to do was to portray the emotions and feelings and mindset of the 17 year old high school girl in Japan. It’s very delicate, it’s very fragile, and it’s a very tumultuous part of adolescence that they go through. In doing so I thought that the title, Night’s Tightrope, really described the state of mind really well, so that led me to want to do this novel, and this film.
What really got me involved with this thematically is that death is such a big thing with young girls in Japan. They just talk about it quite a bit. They get bullied – they want to die. They turn around and bully someone else – they tell them “You go drop dead!” They say “Go die!” or “I will die!” really lightly, with no deeper consideration of what that means. So when you look at these characters in this film, and lots of girls who survive this period of their life, what they really do is find a way to live in spite of it – they put the whole concept of death on their backs as they go forward with their lives, and that’s what I really wanted to express in this film.
In the process of adaptation, how much did you have to change the story for it to work on the screen?
It changed a lot! 50% of it is different from the book. The big change is that the original novel is sort of like a murder mystery, whereas the direction we went with this was that we wanted to portray two young girls reaching for a moment where they can actually appreciate the lives that they are living, and so that’s the main difference in how we adapted the novel to the screen.
In order to express how much pressure is on them from society, as well as how enclosed their space is, we wrote it so the school was this very traditional Christian girls’ school, to describe how much control is exerted on them on a daily basis.
I also wanted to describe how close they are – the proximity to death. Thematically, we use the essence of water to represent death, so you see that the girls live in a town which is by the sea, there’s lots of water, there’s imagery of falling into the water, which is like falling into death, that I use in this film.
Was the casting process difficult?
The script itself turned out to be very, very delicate, so the process of looking for appropriate actresses worked out to be very difficult as a result. Part of it is that when you make a film it’s a business. There are lots of actresses who are very good in Japan, but if you want to actually make this work as a business as well you have to make different kinds of choices, and ultimately that led us to the two people we chose to play the roles.
How would you describe the relationship between Yuki and Atsuko?
With 17 year old girls who are best friends forever, there’s an element that is very close to romance – it’s a very romantic thing. You see that a lot quite frequently in Japanese girls’ schools. The interaction between the girls unfolds the way it does because there is a romantic investment in these characters, where they want to do something for the other party, or get the other party to like them – there is this give and take which is a hallmark of romantic relationships.
The film certainly has a pessimistic view of adolescence, and the pressures and strictures society places on teenagers.
There’s a certain level where there’s a weird valuation of girls in high school uniforms, and because that exists, that forces the girls into very difficult situations. So in a sense the girls are valued, but they’re valued for the wrong reasons – which is pointed out by one of the character. She says ‘They only like us for our uniforms.’ That’s part of the story that informs the dynamic of these characters.
In Japan you have kids who, throughout their teens until they’re 20, are looked after by their families, and they’re also looked after in these schools. It’s a very small world for them, and because it’s such a small world I feel that they don’t have a lot of freedom.
Ultimately, what do you want audiences to take from the film?
What I really do want people to take away from the film is to reach deeper into themselves and try to feel for the moment, whether it’s holding hands with someone or doing something that fulfills them in life – I want them to think about that.
Night’s Tightrope is playing as part of the Japanese Film Festival. For tickets and session times, go to the official site.