In a two-decade directing career that began with the 1997 relationship drama “Open House,” Isao Yukisada has made everything from the critically acclaimed “Go” (2001), with its rebellious Zainichi Korean hero battling his way through a Japanese high school, to the smash hit “Crying Out Love in the Center of the World” (2004), with its story of high school lovers separated by a fatal disease.
But the 49-year-old director had never made a manga adaptation (a local industry stand-by) prior to the turbulent coming-of-age drama “River’s Edge.” When I meet him at the office of distributor Kino Films, he is about to leave for the Berlin International Film Festival, where “River’s Edge” is set to screen in the Panorama section.
Tall and lanky, with wavy long hair and black-framed glasses, Yukisada is instantly recognizable from his photos, especially after he takes off the surgical mask he’s wearing. (“I’m worried about catching the flu,” he later explains.) First on my list of questions is, why the manga blank in his filmography?
“I didn’t have a lot of interest in translating something that was already visual to the screen,” he explains, adding that he is a long-time fan of the artist who created “River’s Edge,” Kyoko Okazaki. “When I was in my early 20s she was the author I read the most. She gave her work a real literary flavor. It became part of the blood and bones of what I later did as a director.”
“River’s Edge,” he says, is “a return to my roots, as well as being something new.”
The manga, he notes, is set in the two years prior to the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 in which nearly 6,500 people died. That same year, Aum Shinrikyo cultists attacked the Tokyo subway system, killing 13 people and sickening thousands.
“The values of many Japanese people, myself included, changed after that,” he says. “We directly confronted the unpredictability of death; it no longer felt like a remote possibility. Our views of life and death had been vague and then, (in 1995), it all suddenly changed. ‘River’s Edge’ foresaw that change. In the manga, young men and women think about how to live while confronting death.”
Yukisada says he wrestled with the problem of what it means “to feel alive in the presence of death,” as exemplified by main character Haruna’s encounter with a dead body. “I made the film to communicate that feeling to the audience.”
Despite the significance of the year 1995, the director admits he thought about setting the film in present-day Japan.
“The contents and themes might have been the same, but I would have lost something,” he says. “All traces of the original manga’s mood would have disappeared. I thought the best way was to reconstruct the manga’s original world view was to keep it in the early 1990s.”
Despite the passage of a quarter century, Yukisada points out that some social ills are still with us, such as the film’s depiction of brutal bullying that a gay teen endures at the hands of his classmates.
“That sort of story is not in the distant past, it still happens now,” he says.
To make the film fully of its period, Yukisada felt he needed to strengthen the connection between his young cast and the characters they were playing. To do that, he interviewed them in character and on camera and had them improvise their answers.
“That was my own idea; the interviews aren’t in the manga,” he says. “They had to think for themselves. Sometimes their answers overlapped with their real lives; that was really interesting.”
The film’s teenage characters — including the chain-smoking, emotionally distant Haruna, played by Fumi Nikaido — are a mix of good and bad. This mix, Yukisada observes, is common in literature but not in mainstream Japanese films about youth.
“They end up being jun’ai (pure love) dramas,” he says with an embarrassed grin. As a maker of such dramas himself, he adds, “It hurts to admit it.”
The characters, Haruna and her gay friend Yamada (Ryo Yoshizawa) included, also seem more mature than how they’re typically portrayed in the genre.
“I have kids about Nikaido’s age and when I look at them I really feel they’re surprisingly adult,” Yukisada says. “When they’re at home they seem like kids, but when they’re out with other people …
“I started as an assistant director when I was 18, still a kid, but in my own head I wasn’t so different than I am now. That age is really interesting: They may seem grown-up but they’re kids. The kids in ‘River’s Edge’ are the same way.
“But I wondered why they had to hurt people more than necessary, why they had to bully and be violent. That’s not something exclusive to youth, a lot of people continue doing that sort of thing even after they become adults.”
Yamada is the victim of violent bullying in the film, though Yukisada points out he also sees himself the most clearly.
“He doesn’t expect anything of anyone, though he may expect something of himself. But out in the world, he tries to act adult, as though he doesn’t expect anything, period,” the director says. “I’ve always thought that when you expect things of others, the one who gets hurt is you, no question.
“When others don’t rate you as highly as you rate yourself, or don’t behave the way you think they should, you feel hurt and betrayed. Being hurt like that goes with being young. Everyone that age is expecting certain things of people, expecting certain things to happen. Then when their expectations are not met, they become violent, exclude and hurt others, and become alienated from themselves.”
What’s the solution? “Don’t expect things of others,” Yukisada says. “Expect things of yourself. I think that’s the best way to live.”