Yamashita and Maeda reunite for slacker dramedy

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Nobuhiro Yamashita has used a variety of sources for his films since his 1999 feature debut “Donten Seikatasu (Hazy Life),” including his own experiences as a struggling indie director. But the inspiration for his latest, “Moratorium Tamako (Tamako in Moratorium),” is out of the ordinary by any standard: 30-second ads for the Music On! TV cable station.

Filmed by Yamashita, the ads featured Atsuko Maeda, who had appeared in Yamashita’s 2012 black comedy “Kueki Ressha (The Drudgery Train)”; in the ads she played a slacker named Tamako in cute, goofy situations at various times of the year. This don’t-care character was miles apart from the energetic image Maeda had projected in her former incarnation as a leader of girl group AKB48.

“That was the start; I was asked to make shorts showing the four seasons,” Yamashita tells The Japan Times in an interview at the offices of Sony Music Group. “Maeda was involved from the beginning. We had done ‘Kueki Ressha’ together, so I knew what she could do, and the character (of Tamako) came from that.”

Since the ads had nothing resembling a story, Yamashita and Kosuke Mukai, a scriptwriter he had worked with since “Hazy Life,” had to cobble one together from scratch. Their first concept, Yamashita says, was to “put Maeda together with children.”

“We had the idea that (her character) had graduated from college and returned home without a job,” he explains. “From that came the sporting-goods store run by her father, as well as the junior high kid who is also a photographer. He took the place of the kids in the original story.”

Also, though the film has its share of laughs, Yamashita did not want make what he describes as “a fast-paced comedy.”

“I wanted people to laugh, but more than that I wanted to thoroughly and leisurely depict everyday life and the relationship between the father and daughter,” he says. “(When I was starting out) I wanted to make the audience laugh at the sort of hopeless guys me and my friends were, but I didn’t have that sort of masochistic intention this time.”

Japanese films with a father-daughter theme are common, though Yamashita confesses that until someone pointed out the resemblances, he hadn’t seen the one best known abroad, Yasujiro Ozu’s “Banshun (Late Spring)” from 1949. “I finally caught it after I finished ‘Tamako,’ ” he adds with an embarrassed grin. “The big difference is that in the Ozu film the daughter takes care of the father, but in mine it’s the opposite. In that way, the relationship (between Tamako and her dad) is very contemporary.”

At the same time, Yamashita never worried about the audience falling out of sympathy with Tamako’s lazy, selfish behavior. “That was not a concern, really,” he says. “When a 23-year-old woman comes home (from college) like that, I think it’s only natural for her not to do anything for a while. It’s not going to last forever. Maybe it’s because I’m a guy but I’m not so worried about her. If she were a guy I might worry, but she doesn’t strike me as hopeless. Instead, she’s kind of lovable. Also, she has this expression that says, ‘I can’t go on this way forever.’ She may be depending on her dad now, but she doesn’t look like a loser.”

The film also contrasts the contrary Tamako, who talks back to her father at each and every opportunity, with the sweet-tempered lady he starts dating, played by 1980s idol Yasuko Tomita.

“We had a senior and junior idol,” Yamashita says with a grin. “I liked Tomita in her idol days, so I was really happy to have her and a present-day idol like Maeda together in the same frame.”

“Moratorium Tamako” had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in October, but though Korean college grads face an even tougher job search than their Japanese contemporaries, the Korean audience, says Yamashita, didn’t see the film as addressing a familiar social problem.

“They were more focused on the father-daughter relationship,” says Yamashita. “They told me that the father’s way of viewing (his daughter’s situation) was warm-hearted. I don’t have any children myself, so I’m curious as to how fathers (of daughters) see the film.”

What this father of a grown daughter saw was realistic enough, including the funny (to outsiders) father-daughter tiffs, but to Yamashita, Tamako’s dad, played by Yamashita film regular Suon Kan, “overdoes it.”

“He cooks and cleans for her — he does everything,” Yamashita explains. “If I were him I’d make her do the work,” he adds with a laugh. “I’d become totally lazy.”

Joking aside, Yamashita had no concerns about Maeda, in real life a workhorse as an actress and as an AKB48 pop star, connecting with a character that can barely bother to change out of her pajamas: “She’s had a great career, but as an actress she can totally empty herself out. She brought nothing of her AKB48 persona to the set.”

Maeda herself comments via email that, after leaving AKB48, she also had a period of “wondering what I should do … and, like Tamako, I knew that I would definitely do something eventually, so in that respect I could identify with her.”

She also has high praise for the script by Yamashita and Mukai: “There was not a single word that I wanted to change,” she says. “When I saw the finished film, I thought, ‘This is Yamashita’s world, and I was glad to have been a part of it. For me Yamashita is someone who can do no wrong. He shows me the direction I should be heading in.”