First-time director Yoko Yamanaka says no to 'kawaii' in coming-of-age drama 'Amiko'

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One of the standout films at the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival, Yoko Yamanaka’s debut feature Amiko (review here) tells of a teenage girl who runs off to Tokyo in pursuit of the object of her affections, a “he’s a popular soccer player, but he’s deeper than he looks, really” type who ran away from home to live with his pretty, “it girl” girlfriend.

Amiko is in love with Aomi, or at least obsessed with him, but that doesn’t mean she’s lovelorn—some suffering waif crying over the absence of her crush’s attention. The poster for Amiko, simple and striking, tells you what you need to know about the character. Played by Aira Sunohara, Yamanaka’s teenage protagonist stares dead into the camera. She’s uncompromising, almost angry, devoid of makeup with a challenging gaze peering up through a sharp sweep of bangs. Alongside her face is scrawled the word “PURE.”

Films about teenage girls often frame their heroines as lacking in self-confidence and needing outside validation. There’s a good reason for this: being a teenage girl sucks. But Amiko gives us a different kind of coming-of-age story, one where its heroine, through all her conflicts, never doubts her own value. That’s perhaps a reflection of Yamanaka’s own self-confidence; she was 19 years old when she dropped out of school to make Amiko on a budget of roughly 2,500 American dollars. “I didn’t have to pay the actors,” she says. “I just paid for transportation.”(Some subsequent prizes, happily, have since put her finances in the black.)

Teenage heroines in Japanese films, Yamanaka explains through a translator, are often kawaii—cute, made-up, and very, very girly. Their confidence, the director argues, comes from their outside appearance. With Amiko, “I wanted to show confidence coming from the inside.”

Young people in Japan, the director continues, “are not used to seeing independent movies.” In total, they maybe see a movie in a theatre “once a year.” The movies they flock to are “easy to understand. Very cute.” That’s not Amiko, which doesn’t fall into easy genre labels like “romance” or “comedy.” It’s an extremely low-budget drama about an atypical heroine on at at-times meandering journey through Tokyo. Though the film has yet to be released theatrically in Japan, it has screened there, and Yamanaka says that some people don’t “understand what they are watching at first. I think that’s a good thing. I didn’t want to make a film that’s technically clean, like TV. I wanted to show more the passion inside the character.”

It took passion to make Amiko, too. Low budget aside, Yamanaka and her crew—mostly friends, plus one ex-boyfriend, playing an unhinged man whose diatribe (“Herd of lies! Herd of lies! Herd of lies!”) Amiko happily joins in with—had to steal shots for the half of the film set in Tokyo.  “For Tokyo, there were a lot of [scenes] we had to shoot at [metro] stations, where we usually cannot get any permits. We were shooting and it was very fun, becomes sometimes people were mad at us and we had to run.” In a particualr subway scene, Amiko and two strangers engage in a choreographed dance routine. The scene was decided on the spot and took six takes to shoot, because “when we started to dance, there were people coming in and dancing with us, especially foreigners. If it was Japanese [people], like workers passing, they were not interested in seeing the scene. They would just pass like nothing was happening.” (Perhaps fittingly, immediately after the dance scene ends, Amiko remarks to her partners that “It’s impossible for the Japanese to start dancing spontaneously.”)

Given that Amiko is such a fascinating, uncompromising heroine, and one whose relationship to unrequited love is so different from what we see in other media, it’s interesting to speculate as to where she’ll end up as she exits her teen years and moves on into adulthood. Yamanaka thinks she “will try to find a compromise with the rule of society. She would feel that if she shut herself off completely from society, she would lose something. She will always try to find the right answer.”