Born in Tokyo in 1980, Koji Fukada released his first film in 2004, but his breakthrough was 2010′s “Kantai (Hospitalité),” a witty black comedy about a mysterious stranger who talks his way into a job at a small Tokyo printing shop and is soon insinuating himself into the lives of the shop’s proprietor and his family. Premiering in the Tokyo International Film Festival’s Japanese Eyes section, “Hospitalité” won the best film prize and was widely screened abroad, while its French title and story called up comparisons with the 1932 Jean Renoir comedy classic “Boudu Saved from Drowning.”
For his new film “Hotori no Sakuko (Au Revoir l’Eté),” Fukada drew on French cinema for inspiration yet again, specifically the oeuvre of Eric Rohmer. And once again his film made its debut at the Tokyo festival, this time in the main competition of the 26th edition. In an interview with The Japan Times in the rooftop room of a recording studio (a first for this reporter), Fukada admits that Rohmer “is a director I respect; I was also conscious of (his films) when I was making ‘Kantai’ and ‘Tokyo Ningen Kigeki (Human Comedy in Tokyo)’ (2009). But the subject matter of my new film — a young woman spends her summer vacation in a small seaside town — may make it especially easy to understand the Rohmer influence.”
Similar to Rohmer, Fukada creates the surface appearance of casualness and discursiveness, but he also carefully weighs the stylistics of each shot. “I’ve decided that you can really only shoot the surface of people, so I’m a director who’s really picky about style, about getting the surface right,” he says.
By “style,” however, Fukada does not mean slick camera moves or editing tricks. Instead, his approach is to simplify in the name of clarity. This means few to no close-ups. (“A bust shot is about as close as I get,” he comments). It also means that his camerawork is relatively stable and straightforward. (“I don’t like funny-looking shots,” he comments. “I want to create a simple relationship between the subject and the camera.”)
This comes from what he calls his “puritanism.” “I think that shooting people with a shaky cam or shooting them from below or above distorts the relationship between them and the camera,” he explains “I try not to do that.”
Fukada also prefers not to let an existing work, be it a novel or manga, get in the way of his own relationship with the film.
Instead, as he did for his previous films, Fukada wrote an original screenplay for “Au Revoir l’Eté.” “I’m always asked how I come up with the script,” he comments. “And every time I say, ‘I don’t know.’ That’s the only thing I can say — every time I write a script, I really feel desperate, wondering how I can make it interesting. It’s something like a potter kneading clay, thinking, ‘This won’t do’ and ‘That won’t do.’ If you were to ask a potter why he adds clay to this part or that while he is kneading it, he probably couldn’t answer. I’m the same way.”
Fukada’s usual method is to focus on a group of characters, rather than try to make the audience invest all its emotional capital in one. “I want to make the drama so that the audience can imagine this person is happy or that person is sad by observing the relationships and communications of the whole group,” he explains.
In “Au Revoir l’Eté” he may have only one heroine, the 18-year-old Sakuko (Fumi Nikaido), but she is, Fukada says, “a blank slate.” “We see the world (of the film) through Sakuko’s eyes,” he says. “Through this blank sheet of paper called Sakuko the audience can imagine various things, as events unfold around her.”
In devising a drama about this girl who sees all but says relatively little about her own dreams and desires, Fukada played what he describes as “a kind of word-association game, with one thing leading to another.”
“My first idea was to have a girl come to a certain place on vacation,” he explains. “Once the story had that type of drama, I could create something with a Rohmer flavor.”
At the same time, Fukada saw no point in making an imitation Rohmer movie. “I thought I had better distance myself from Rohmer,” he adds with a wry smile.
He diluted the film’s Rohmer quotient by adding his own favorite motifs and themes, from a beloved children’s song that one character plays to fluster and frustrate another (“I’d wanted to use that song as a gag for a long time,” he says) to the ambiguous relationship of the characters with the truth.
“I enjoy writing lies into movies,” he explains. “But more than just depicting lies, I wanted to show how none of us are always expressing our true feelings. Instead, everyone speaks from within a certain web of relationships. Everyone has a certain position in society to uphold, depending on circumstances, be it as a father or a company employee. I give interviews from my position as a director and sometimes I am not speaking my true feelings.”
I decide not to ask where the current Q&A falls into the fudging the truth category.
In writing “Au Revoir l’Eté,” Fukada was careful to not only separate the truth from lies, including social fibs, but also to differentiate and add complexity to his characters. “If you have two characters who are the same, the drama comes to a halt,” he says. “Making them different can, depending on how you do it, give birth to real drama.”
Fun fact: Despite playing a reluctant student in “Au Revoir l’Ete,” Fumi Nikaido is currently in New York studying English, while planning to enter Keio University — whose alumni include 1950s megastar Yujiro Ishihara.