The titles of Fukada Koji’s films almost drip with bitter irony. “Sayonara” seemed to be a farewell to human actors. Rather than being harmonious, Cannes Un Certain Regard jury winner “Harmonium” was pitch black and steeped in quiet violence.
Fukada’s latest competition title at the Venice Film Festival is nicknamed “Love Life”. But her theme is loneliness.
The story begins in a familiar way, about a married couple, where suddenly the woman’s ex-husband appears and possibly stages the melodrama of a love triangle. But things are colder and more painful in Fukada’s hands. The newcomer is troublesome, deaf and homeless. His arrival does not trigger love, but fragmentation, individualism and loneliness.
“We come into life alone and we die alone. Along the way we try to forget this loneliness by having families, taking lovers or sometimes even religion. But loneliness is at the core of humanity,” says Fukada diversity.
“We use processes that help us forget. But sometimes events happen that remind us of our loneliness.”
Fukada explains that some intrusions might have inherent meaning — like the sudden arrival of Asano Tadanobu’s character Yasaka in “Harmonium” — but others, like a natural disaster or a car crash, have no intrinsic value. Instead, like Park’s arrival in Love Life, they are disruptors who are important to the reactions they evoke.
“Love Life” shares other connections with “Harmonium”. The inspiration for both films came about twenty years ago when Fukada was dividing his time between studying history and studying film at night school and working as an actor.
The idea for the film came from a song by jazz musician Yano Akiko and Fukada quickly saw its potential. “The synopsis I wrote twenty years ago was very, very short. When I recently started developing the actual scenario, it only took me two to three years.”
Meanwhile, has been diligently spent developing a voluminous body of work—features, shorts, and animation—that the Tokyo International Film Festival deemed worthy of a retrospective as Fukada reached the ripe old age of 40. He also remains true to acting.
“With the future so unpredictable ahead of us, now is the time to get in touch with films that meticulously capture the world,” Kohei Ando, Tokyo Festival’s program advisor, said of Showcase 2020.
In this sense, Fukada embodies the 21st century Japanese spirit of French new wave director Eric Rohmer. Fukada encourages naturalistic performances, narrative ambiguity, and a dash of suffering. Happiness has to be earned.
“Eric Rohmer is a director I absolutely love. Sometimes there’s always a part inspired by him. And even when I’m busy shooting a movie, I always look at some scenes from Rohmer’s films to play out in my process,” says Fukada.
Among the upcoming projects Fukada hopes to film next year is Love on Trial, in which an actress faces pressure to have a boyfriend in violation of her strict agency contract. The issue has contemporary resonance in a patriarchal Japanese entertainment industry that is now beginning to experience its own #MeToo backlash.
“We talk about the whole business that revolves around Japanese idols and how they can be exploited, even sexually,” says Fukada. But he tries to distance the project (previously presented at Rotterdam’s CineMart) from his own direct exploitation experiences.
Away from the camera, Fukada has become an active campaigner for economic and social justice in the film industry.
“People from the US or Europe don’t realize how archaic the situation of Japanese women in the entertainment industry can be. Compared to France or Korea, I think Japan is maybe twenty or thirty years behind,” says Fukada.
He also advocates the creation of a body he likens to France’s CNC or Korea’s KOFIC that would regulate the sector, reallocate revenue back to filmmaking, and provide a type of justice that encourages creativity.
“In Japan, we already have a low culture budget. But beyond that, we don’t even have a system. Money doesn’t circulate well at all.” Fukada isn’t bitter, but determined to earn his fortune.