My second selection from the Japanese Film Foundation Independent Film Festival (JFF+ Independent Cinema) is a film set in an unusual location. Minami Daitō is the largest and most populated of three islands in an archipelago some 360 kilometres east of Naha, the capital of Okinawa, the main island of the Ryukyu Islands and the southernmost of the main Japanese islands. Minami Daitō is an oval coral island which has lost all its tree cover and is now devoted to agriculture, traditionally sugar cane. It has a population of around 2,100. There is only elementary schooling on the island , so when teenagers reach the age of 15 they have to move to Okinawa to take up a high school place or stay on the island where only sugar cane or fishing offer jobs.
Director Yoshida Yasuhiro was shown a short documentary about the island and asked if he could write a script exploring some of the issues about life on a remote island. He managed to put together what I think is an affective family melodrama that uses a ‘coming of age’ moment for 15 year-old Yuan (Miyoshi Ayaka) as its driving force. Miyoshi is a very experienced young actor having signed to the talent agency ‘Amuse Inc.’ as an 11 year-old, becoming part of a girl group aged just 14. She was around 16 when she made this film but I note that she was one of the schoolgirls in Confessions, a major hit film in 2010.
The family melodrama is built around the idea that the children leave for Okinawa at 15 and don’t necessarily come back. Adults also leave, though there is pressure on them to always think about their children. The tiny island community is presented as a collective identity where everybody knows everyone else. There is a strong feeling of adherence to local traditions and local culture. Yuan plays the sanshin, the local version of the shamisen which she has learned for several years, taking over her mother’s instrument. Together with a group of other girls she is part of a music group called the ‘Borojhino Girls’ named after the Russian ship, the Borodino which brought the first surveyors to the island in 1820. Japanese settlers from Hachijō-jima island in the Izu archipelago south of Tokyo came to Minami Daitō in 1900 to start sugar cane cultivation. Later, seasonal workers from Okinawa and Formosa (Taiwan) came to work in the cane fields. The island was occupied by the Americans from 1945 to 1972 as part of the Okinawa occupation. This film therefore celebrates 50 years since the island returned to Japan. Remaining on the island is important. If everyone left, Japan’s territorial waters would shrink.
The family melodrama deals with Yuna’s family. Her brother has stayed in Okinawa but her married sister has temporarily returned with her small child. The child’s father is in Okinawa. Yuna’s mother is also in Okinawa and has found a job she enjoys. Only her father, who works on the sugar plantation is permanently at home in Minami Daitō. Yuna finds herself torn when she considers her future. She will go to high school in Okinawa but rather than staying with her mother, as everyone expects, she wants to try being independent and living on her own. But secretly she wants her mother to return to her father. He may be left on his own. There is also a potential romance for Yuna with an athletic boy who lives on the other populated island in the group, Kita Daitō. This possibility is worked into the melodrama.
If I understood the director (interviewed on the festival website) he used some Tokyo-based actors and crew members but also tried to recruit locals fromOkinawa and from Minami Daitō to support them. Some of the filming was also done on an island nearer to Naha but overall this seems to have been accepted as a valuable representation of life on Minami Daitō. Yoshida says his main concern was to offer a realistic presentation of island life. One of the aspects of this is that there is mobile phone network on the island and young people have more time and possibly more inclination to participate in sports and music. I found watching the film very enjoyable and I was moved by Yuna’s story. There is a music score as well as several diegetic performances of the Borojhino girls but the emotions of the melodrama are repressed and the feeling tends towards sadness about the issues which divide families. The pacing is slow (and the film is quite long at 114 minutes) which seems right for this rural community and I felt the tension in the trade-off between the sadness and the tenderness. I was reminded at some points of Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Our Little Sister (Japan 2015). The director has not yet developed Kore-eda’s deft touch for melodrama but he has captured the feel of a small community. It does make me wonder though why, for these affecting stories of young women like Yuna, there are few young women as directors getting a chance to make films in Japan – or at least that is how it feels from this UK perspective. I thoroughly recommend Leaving on the 15th Spring. It’s still available to watch FREE until March 15th from the JFF Independent Cinema website.