By Mónica Delgado
Translation from Japanese to English: Daisuke Akasaka
Keiko Tsuruoka is a 25 year old filmmaker who made her first feature film less than a year ago. Its title is Town of Whales, a story of adolescence and melancholia in post-earthquake Japan. Tsuruoka is still in the process of studying film in Tokyo, where she made her first short film Tsutomete no kaeramichi (2009). With her first feature, this young filmmaker evidences a style that seeks to capture the details of the juvenile sensibility between a group of three friends, from the city to the suburbs, from love to indifference, from closeness to distance. Tsuruoka gets in front of the gestures and claims of three students, two girls and a boy, following one of them in a search of an absent brother, touring parks, streets and plazas.
Tsuruoka captures the conflict of the transition to adult life, marked by the necessity of freedom and the turmoil of attraction. It’s a sublime film, which has a common point with such films which end with shots/answers in front of the sea. But that’s not just it, the film leaves a subject in the atmosphere, a subject which has been absorbing the sentiment of nonconformity and sadness in many 2012/2013 Japanese films, the irreparable damage of the 2011 tsunami, a thing which the filmmaker communicates through absence and indecision.
Desistfilm: After watching Town of Whales, this being your first work (a remarkable work for a university film) we’ve been wondering which surprises this interesting new Japanese filmmaker will bring next. Your particular sensitivity to the subject of adolescence is very special. It is inevitable to ask the common question: How was Town of Whales born?
Keiko Tsuruoka: The starting point for the story of Town of Whales was the fear of “all of people are missing” that I have had since I was a child. And when I wondered where those missing people have gone, that stirred my imagination, and it is an opportunity of making it, too. And then, I had the idea to write a story of a girl who is looking for her missing brother. I made the heroine and her friends high school students who are in the prime of youth because it was easy for me to imagine her character from my experience and I wanted to describe a high school student who can’t support herself but begins to have an independent spirit.
Desistfilm: There are many films that describe this adolescent world in a harsh way, meaning that, they emphasize the crisis, the alienation, the disconnection; but in Town of Whales we see peaceful characters, with the desire to find new equally peaceful sensations, transparent sensations, not leaving behind their particular impulses of that age. How did you built the characters in your film?
KT: When I was a high school student I spent my youth calmly and happily with family and friends while living in the country and having admiration for the city, in the same way the characters in this film do. A flow and an atmosphere of the time when I had experienced may be reflected in the whole work. However, my own experience does not come up in the story. The characters do not have the model in it. When I say daringly, originally three actors who played Machi, Asahiko, and Hotaru were close friends, so I made their characters by collaboration with them. Their personalities were reflected by actors’ own personalities.
Desistfilm: Your characters watch the sea as a medium for catharsis, for salvation, for encounter or purpose. Many films depict the see as the place where the protagonists find freedom, for example The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959). How did you come upon that finale?
KT: I think Machi goes towards the sea at the end because she finally becomes the existence as same as the whale appearing as a symbol. In the scene of Machi’s brother appearing in her dream, he talks about the whale and says “Machi became the same one” and leaves. After that Machi comes into her brother’s room, looks at the sloppy interior, and says “everyone may go back again.” Finally she goes to the sea because everyone went back there. Until I got to this finale, various struggles were going within me (I was concerned deeply with the massive earthquake in Japan in 2011). When I found such the end of this story, I was content with the conclusion.
Desistfilm: The subject of California, the sea, the whales, the runaway, the arrival on Tokyo… in that entire trip we perceive evocations of grief for the recent tsunami. In movies like yours it’s impossible not to be reminded of the disaster of Fukushima. Is that so?
KT: You’re right. As I mentioned before, the disastrous earthquake of 2011 affected me deeply since I had started making this film. I thought making this film as my last work at the university, but then the earthquake happened. While I watched the images of tsunami attacking day after day in news over and over again, and read newspaper articles about the people who have disappeared, I had said to myself “Is it worth making a movie in 2011 if I neglect this reality?” However, I strongly felt the risk to talk about the earthquake disaster as a story by easy interpretation and it conflicted within me. After all, my friends helped me and I could make this film from my thoughts at that time. As for Fukushima, the problem still continues after two years have passed, so I think that will still be a concern in my future films.
Desistfilm: What are your inspirations in cinema? Any particular filmmakers you’d like to mention?
KT: The experience of seeing a superior film always encourages me. When I see a superior film, I think film can really do anything, so the desire that I want to make a film is becomes heated. Encounters with splendid films which can teach their possibilities always encourages me. Shinji Somai’s films influenced me when I made Town of Whales. When I saw Somai’s films I was deeply impressed with the body of girls when they were running through the world. And I always remember poet Kenji Miyazawa. Just after an earthquake, I read an article by the artist Takashi Murakami and I was very impressed. He said, “the Japanese should remember a modest heart of Kenji Miyazawa now”. I think that the inspiration from Kenji Miyazawa is a certain identity that you should have as a human being, for those of us making artistic work in Japan.
Desistfilm: You’re very young, we understand that you’re still studying cinema. What is it like to make films in such a young age in Japan?
KT: In Japan, the universities where we can study cinema are increasing very much, and many young people can make a film in school. However among them only handful of people can become a professional director and continue making their own films. Generally young people who want to continue making films, enter the graduate school like me, or apply for film festivals and competition for plan. A big problem is that there are very few opportunities for the general audience to see independent films made by young people. Now we have to try to get a wider audience for our films.
Desistfilm: What are your next projects? Will the adolescent world still be a subject in your films?
KT: As for my next film, I finished shooting it in February of this year, and am editing now. The film describes an adolescent boy and his first love, so in a sense this film follows the previous film and has a subject of youth, but it is different from the previous work in atmosphere. I hope that many people will be able to see this film, too.