Smells Like Teen Spirit: Isao Yukisada on Being Alive

October 31, 2018
The River’s Edge filmmaker on author Kyoko Okazaki and how the film fits into a turbulent year in Japan’s history.

Japanese filmmaker, Isao Yukisada’s career spans back as far as 1997 with his first film Open House. His latest film, River’s Edge, is an adaptation of the Manga of the same name and does for the coming of age drama, what Yukisada did for the pitfalls of fame in Pink and Gray: completely skewer it with a bleak exploration of what it is to be human.

Playing at this year’s Japanese Film Festival, the film sees an ensemble cast navigate the dangers of high school and growing up, including drugs, sex, anxiety and dead bodies. You know, the usual.

You’ve had long and varied career. Do you feel there’s something that connects all your films, such as a particular theme? Or do you find you simply gravitate towards where you’re interested?

It depends on the film but basically, the theme is “to be alive.” I believe many of my films capture the view of life and death. In order to depict life, death must exist within the film.

Were you familiar with the original River’s Edge manga before you started making the film?

I read the manga in 1995 when it was published. Kyoko Okazaki, the author of River’s Edge, is one of the leading manga artists of ‘90s who has a charismatic presence. Back then, this manga was divinised and many film directors wanted to make it into a live action film.

At that time, as an assistant director, I felt that it was ridiculous to try and make this manga into a film. I guess I felt that it was pointless to turn River’s Edge into a film if you can’t convey the original manga’s interpretation of the world.

So, what changed?

Kyoko Okazaki was in a car accident in 1996 and since then, has been unable to draw manga. I then found out that even though 25 years had passed, [River’s Edge] still resonates with young people. Japanese teenage boys and girls of today, like those 25 years before them, are unable to realise what it truly means “to be alive”. I was convinced River’s Edge contains that universal theme, and that was when I felt that I could turn it into a film.

The movie is filled with some confronting imagery. Did you have any concerns that people wouldn’t want to see the film or wouldn’t want it to be made?

No, that wasn’t the case. I rather thought that by showing confronting imagery, people could possibly feel the pain of characters.

How did you choose your cast? Did you have anyone in mind whilst you were casting?

Fumi Nikaidou (who plays the extremely put-upon high schooler Haruna) was already confirmed at the planning stage. She also worked with us as a producer. We took her advice when choosing some of the actors, and the rest we auditioned. I chose young actors who were not well known, so that the audience wouldn’t have any preconceived notions of their characters.

The original River’s Edge is set in the early ‘90s, were you ever tempted to modernise it and set it in the present day?

I thought about modernising the setting, but it was too difficult. Some elements just did not make sense when it was placed within the context of today. For instance, the dead body that was discarded into the river would have been exposed quickly in today’s society, where information can be shared so quickly. It is getting more difficult to tell the story of a secret in the modern day. Also, the fashion of the ‘90s was something I couldn’t just leave!

The time setting of 1994 was also very important, because it was a year before events such as the Hanshin Earthquake and Tokyo subway sarin attack by Aum Shinrikyo occurred. 1994 was like the night before a massacre happens in the ordinary days. I wanted to capture how boys and girls were facing life and death during a period of change.

Do feel much has changed for teenagers since the ‘90s?

I actually don’t think it has changed much. I think that aspects, such as lacking a will to live and not being very concerned about the surrounding society, are elements that haven’t changed for teenagers. Many people are living vaguely. I once was shocked hearing my childhood friend say, ‘In the future, when we look for a job, artificial intelligence will be the biggest competitor. If that’s the case, I’ll be okay if I can just last until I’m 30.’

Where do you see yourself going to next in your career?

I turned 50 this year. Up until now, I have worked on many films that have originals scripts, but now I am preparing to make a film with my own original script! I want to make pieces that I have been dreaming about from when I was young, or broad pieces that would sound a warning to modern society. I hope to turn the world that I see into a film.

River’s Edge is screening in Sydney and Melbourne at the Japanese Film Festival. Isao Yukisada will participate in a live Q&A following the Sydney screening of the film.

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