TOKYO – Homosexuality remains very much a taboo topic in Japanese society. Even if it does not necessarily suffer explicit prejudice, it is at the very least a subject that is rarely discussed in an open way, especially when it comes to women.
Films like Nagisa Oshima’s final film, “Gohatto” (1999), brought to the big screen the widely held belief that the samurai classes of the mid-1800s were more tolerant towards male homosexuality, but it did so in a discreet way. But while literature, such as Jun'ichir? Tanizaki’s Manji, tackled the even more taboo topic of lesbianism as early as the 1920s, various film interpretations of that book have played up the kinkiness rather than examine the lengths that some Japanese women go to avoid potential ostracization and prejudice.
Throughout his own work, director Shusuke Kaneko has always had a tendency to focus on the experience of the young female characters, presenting their sensitivity and youth in ways both sweet and dangerous – such is the reality of adolescence.
In his latest work, “Jellyfish” — which some critics have deemed as verging on the “Pink” genre of mildly sexually explicit Japanese cinema thanks to its erotic scenes and purported fetishism of the topic — Kaneko has perhaps created a film that best defines his own work to date, and which does attempt to explore the reality of the situation for young lesbians.
Adapted from a short novel that won Shinchosha's "R18 Literature Award For Women, By Women," the film is an interpretation of 16-year-old writer Sarie Hinakura’s story of two young girls, Yuki and Kyoko (played by first-timers Miho Otani and Rumi Hanai), who struggle to fit in with their classmates and so begin talking to each other when looking into at a jellyfish tank at an aquarium.
After a hesitant kiss, the two innocently begin to explore their own relationship, until one of them, Kyoko, finds a boyfriend. The amorous and fragile initial attraction turns poisonous as one girl cruelly stings the other – a reference to the jellyfish of the title – in a tale that portrays the innocence of young love and the first pains of jealousy experienced in youth.
BLOUIN ARTINFO Japan caught up with the director to discuss how his interpretation came about, the influence of William Wyler’s “The Children’s Hour” (1961), and whether a male director can ever do justice to a topic that is very personal to women’s experience of life.
This is the second film to be adapted from the winner of Shinchosha's "R18 Literature Award For Women, By Women," following Naoto Takenaka's "Self-Bondage: All Tied Up with My Own Rope." What drew you to this particular book?
After "Bakamono," (2010) I was keen to work together again with Kazuyoshi Okuyama, and we looked at a few possibilities. One of these which was tempting was "Jellyfish," it had been a long time since [I had worked on] an R18 project, so it was intriguing. The original short story was about the small, pure world of two young girls, which alone may not have been right for a film, [so I expanded the story]. Also, I thought their pureness and innocence could not be clearly described without comparing it to the outside world and society at large, which required us to imagine how these two girls’ lives have been so far, and how they deal with the prejudice they face from others.
Shusuke Kaneko (right) and cast at the film premiere at the Okinawa International Movie Festival in March, 2013
The book was written by 16-year-old Sarie Hinakura. How much communication did you have with her?
Almost none. The screenplay was passed to me by Shinchosha, and they had completed the editing of it. Then when we were shooting the very last scene in the rain, she came to check it out and that was the first time we met. I had the impression that she was a very normal senior high school student. After we completed the film, she came to a preview and she literally leapt up and down with joy!
The award is about works by women, for women. Is it not then a contradiction that the director that interprets it is male?
It's not that paradoxical — of course I am a man, but that doesn't mean that I was trying to film something expressly feminine, because the focus and consideration here was on the feelings of the characters. The film, however, may also encompass how a man tends to see them. It reminded me of my first year in high school when I made my first film with an 8mm camera, and all the staff were girls! In those days for some reason all my colleagues were female and we talked about many unusual and great things.
Many of your films are adapted from manga, so the visual element is already formed in the audience's mind. Was working from Hinakura’s story a welcome opportunity to have more freedom to shape the visuals, or did it instead present a challenge to get it right?
For sure, manga gives many visual cues, and then you can go and really get inside those pictures. Particularly with "Deathnote," (2006) the main characters were very fully formed, so making the film meant keeping that sense of composition. Based on the novel, you have to develop the characters to some extent by yourself, of course.
It is said that you were influenced by Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour," a 1934 play that tackles the issue of prejudice against homosexuality. In what ways did that play, and the 1961 film adaptation by Willam Wyler, influence your direction?
The influence was really Wyler’s film "The Children’s Hour." After seeing it at the cinema during my junior high school days, I started to wonder what the original play was like, and read it in English at college. At that time Hollywood was all about hunting communists, so my impression of the film was that it implied this whole communist-baiting attitude through discussing the topic of lesbianism. After that, I found myself drawn to studying the works of (Alfred) Hitchcock and (Billy) Wilder, which was almost inevitable for anyone who wanted to study cinema at that time. Later, I came across the 1936 version of the same film (also by Wyler).
Although that play is nearly 100 years old, sex and homosexuality are still rarely discussed in public in contemporary Japan. Do you feel that film, and art in general, has a more important role to play in Japanese society in terms of discussing important taboos or social issues?
For sure, I have sympathy for those fighting the struggle against this taboo. At the same time, I can’t stop feeling that there's a sense in which we don't realize exactly how happy we are, precisely because of the fact that there is this taboo. Maybe that wasn't clear, so let me try and articulate it better... Because something is forbidden, it gives a tremendous pleasure to those who pursue it, and that creates a great, in-depth drama. I don't think films like this can be created if everything is excessively open. On the contrary, when people know it is forbidden, a drama is born, even if it is a tragedy. So my goal is to take every possible aspect of any topic or theme, not just the taboo, into consideration.
Jellyfish is set to open August 31 at Cinemart Roppongi.