Yoshida’s ode to a distant Okinawan island

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Many directors hit everything from the books to the streets in preparation for their next film, but for his second feature, “Tabidachi no Shima Uta — Jugo no Haru (Leaving on the 15th Spring),” Yasuhiro Yoshida went far further than most — to one of Japan’s most remote locations in fact — in traveling to tiny Minamidaito Island in Okinawa Prefecture. There he found the real-life models for the film he was planning about a teenage girl’s last, momentous year before leaving the island for high school in Naha.

His inspiration, however, was a TV documentary spotlighting the island girls belonging a traditional music circle called Borojino.

“The documentary gave me a number of good moments that I constructed into a new film,” Yoshida tells The Japan Times. “At the same time, I didn’t feel that I was in some sort of competition with it and had to somehow surpass it.”

Soon after he arrived on Minamidaito with the producer who had alerted him to the documentary, Yoshida decided that he wanted to shoot all of the film’s island scenes there.

“The scenery on Minamidaito is different from other islands: It really has a character all its own that is totally different from other islands. There’s no beach, just a rough sea and rugged bare coral rock,” he explains. “If you were to leave that out, you wouldn’t have a movie set in Minamidaito.”

Also, as Yoshida learned more about the island on several visits, talking with everyone from oldsters to kids, his concept of the film changed from a drama about a “normal” family to one about family members forced by circumstances and driven by desire to live apart, such as the mother (Shinobu Otake) who lives in Naha with her lover, unbeknownst to her younger daughter.

“Doing my research, I came to feel the pain of these separate lives for the island’s families, as well as to sense the big distance between Minamidaito and Naha,” he explains. “I changed my thinking — I still wanted to film a story about a family, but a family that lives on the island and shares the island’s fate.”

At the same, Yoshida kept his original focus on the bond between the family’s younger daughter, Yuna (Ayaka Miyoshi), and her father (Kaoru Kobayashi), rather than the more usual mother-daughter relationship.

“I thought a story about a father and daughter would be more dramatic,” he says. “Mothers and daughters can share words and touches, but a 15-year-old girl is not going to get touchy-feely with her father. Also, 15 is an age that doesn’t lend itself to (father and daughter) conversations. I wanted to make a film that expresses the parent-child bond without words, so the father-daughter relationship better suited the purpose.”

Once he had committed to shooting on Minamidaito, Yoshida encountered another sort of pain: transporting cast, crew, equipment and supplies to a rocky island with no proper harbor or even a beach, relying on a boat that made the trip once a week or less, depending on the frequently uncooperative weather.

“There were many, many hassles, such as having to bring in enough food for several weeks for 30 or 40 people,” says Yoshida.

One problem Yoshida did not have, however, was a miscast lead in Miyoshi. A model-turned-actress who won newcomer prizes for her work in the 2012 family comedy “Gumo Ebian (G’mor Evian),” Miyoshi had what Yoshida described as a “naiveté and sensitivity” that made her a good fit for the role of Yuna.

Instead of sitting her down with a book on island history, Yoshida sent Miyoshi to Minamidaito before the start of shooting to experience the place for herself.

“She played kick-the-can and hide-and-seek with the island’s kids, and when she was tired she bedded down with them,” he says. “I thought breathing the island’s air like that would have the most meaning for her …More than someone who thinks things through, she was a kid who understood intuitively, so as much as possible I wanted to her to run free on the island. In that way she could intuitively become an island girl.”

This desire for authenticity was not limited to the character of Yuna, but informed Yoshida’s entire approach.

“A film is something that depicts people’s lives,” he says. “Since people’s lives and lifestyles are linked to a place, if you don’t thoroughly research the individual character of that place, you can’t write a story about the people of a real island.

“This time, especially, I wanted to do my research properly and make a realistic film that would not fall into mere dramaturgy. Since I was aiming for a documentary feeling, I couldn’t stay in Tokyo and write some sort of fantasy. I had to go to the actual place and listen to the views of the people living there while writing my story. I wanted to make a film that saw Okinawa from the inside, not the outside; a film that Okinawan people themselves could understand and accept.”