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Fukada’s filmmaking a breath of fresh air

Young director steadily works to change Japan's movie industry one film at a time

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Special To The Japan Times

Koji Fukada’s black comedy “Hospitalite” (“Kantai”) won best film in the Tokyo International Film Festival’s Japanese Eyes section in 2010 and since then he has become accustomed to stepping up on stages to receive prizes for his work.

Fukada is part of a new generation of Japanese filmmakers challenging the long-held primacy of directors often referred to as the “4K”: Naomi Kawase, Takeshi Kitano, Hirokazu Koreeda and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The 4K rose to prominence in the 1990s and have dominated international discussion of contemporary Japanese cinema ever since.

Even though his profile at home is still relatively low, Fukada has been catching up to the 4K in terms of respect overseas. His human-centered, multilayered films, strongly influenced by French cinema, have garnered raves from foreign critics (including this one).

The 37-year-old director’s most recent feature is a dark drama titled “Harmonium” (“Fuchi ni Tatsu”), about an ex-con (Tadanobu Asano) who destroys the family of a former associate. Last year, it won the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. And it has been nominated for three prizes — best director, film and actor (Asano) — at the 11th Asian Film Awards (the winners will be announced in Hong Kong on March 21).

“It’s a first for me and I’m really happy about it,” Fukada tells The Japan Times. “The fact that the film has been nominated not just for Japan, but for the entire Asian region shows that it has universality.”

“Harmonium” has been released in cinemas in France, Taiwan and Hong Kong, is set to open in China and South Korea, and is set to open wider in the United States and Great Britain this year.

“The balance has been unexpectedly good,” Fukada says. “It has gone everywhere just about equally.”

He denies, however, setting out to make “international films.”

“It bothers me when people here dismiss a film like (“Harmonium”) with a word or two, saying I was aiming for acceptance by European audiences or trying to make something ‘Cannes-like.’ I’m not making films for Cannes. What I most want to do is deal with subject matter I feel is universal,” he says.

Films by the 4K crowd, and maverick directors such as Sion Sono and Takashi Miike, are still getting invitations to Cannes and other major festivals, but recently the major prizes have flowed elsewhere. Fukada believes that the reason for this lies less in how well a given film is made and more in the person making it.

“It all hinges in whether the film has a signature that only one director can make,” he explains. “What matters is not a filmmaker’s technique so much as how they themselves view the world.”

That signature, he believes, can be seen more clearly in films that don’t stick to genre formulas, with the mass market in mind — and “in Japan there tends to be a kind of faith in genre films. It’s OK to make interesting genre films, but they have a limit.”

Making films that aren’t easily labeled with a genre and can compete at Cannes and elsewhere, Fukada acknowledges, “is not easy here.”

“The Japanese film industry needs to quickly come up with a structural plan for making a wide range of films,” he explains. “An environment for making and seeing a wide range of films is more important for society as a whole than whether a certain film is interesting.”

To help create that kind of environment, Fukada and like-minded film industry professionals — including producers, festival programmers and film distributors — founded the Independent Film Guild (Dokuritsu Eiga Nabe) in 2012. Originally a study group for sharing information and views, the IFG has since grown into an organization with nearly 160 members.

“We’ve had about 30 of these study meetings to date,” Fukada says. “Little by little we’ve been making progress toward building a foundation for making our proposals for future film production a reality.”

The director says that one of the biggest problems facing indie filmmakers in Japan is that most can’t make a living at their profession, no matter many festivals they attend or accolades they receive.

“I’ll use myself as an example,” he says. “I’m 37, but my former classmates who are working for ordinary companies have 10 times the savings I do. It’s not an amount on which you can live an ordinary life.”

IFG has joined forces with the MotionGallery crowdfunding site to support this method of fundraising among its members (and not incidentally improve their income prospects), but Fukada believes it has its dangers.

“If you have a system in which films can only be made via crowdfunding, in the end you won’t have the money to make real feature films. (Crowdfunding) is really just a partial support for film production.”

Another source of funds for independent filmmakers is the government, but support from this quarter, Fukada contends, is “still inadequate.”

“The budget for culture in Japan is overwhelmingly small,” he explains. “The Agency for Cultural Affairs uses around ¥2 billion ($18 million) for films.

Its counterpart in Korea uses around ¥40 billion ($356 million), while in France the Centre national du cinema et de l’image animee (CNC) has an annual film budget of ¥80 billion ($713 million).”

The government’s Cool Japan initiative, he notes, has a similarly substantial budget, of ¥20 billion ($178 million), but it goes “to all of Japanese culture, including anime and food, not just to films.”

“The amount of money it devotes to films is probably not that great,” he adds.

The reason for this relative lack of support, Fukada believes, is the government’s inability to decide “whether films are an industry or culture.”

“In France, the government’s film budget is thought of as a way to protect cultural diversity,” he says. “Diversity is not just films that millions of people see. Those films should co-exist with films that hundreds of thousands of people see.”

In that sense, Fukada says, Japan is still a developing country when it comes to budgeting and planning to support culture.

“In Japan films are considered an industry, so you just have support for what sells. It’s the Hollywood business model. Hollywood movies sell around the world as a matter of course. Japanese films are in the Japanese language, so they’re a kind of minority — you can’t sell them abroad like Hollywood films. It’s a mistake to stick only to the Hollywood model.”

Fukada admits to sometimes being pessimistic.

“The situation of films in Japan today is like a burned field,” he says, “but there’s also a lot I want to do about it. It will be a life-long job.”

WIDE ANGLE

One thing that film awards have in common with their Western counterparts is that the best of the screen isn’t always acknowledged.

One example is Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” (1953). Listed on the film school syllabuses worldwide and sited by Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch as one of the greatest films of all time, “Tokyo Story” remains uncrowned. When it came out in 1953, it ranked second on the Kinema Junpo Best 10 List (the grand first place went to Tadashi Imai’s “Nigoriye”).

Kinema Junpo was first published in 1919 and is Japan’s oldest movie magazine. Affectionately known as “Kinejun,” it handed out some of the world’s first movie awards in 1924. The most recent winner of the coveted Kinejun first prize was Sunao Katabuchi’s “Kono Sekai no Katasumi Ni” (“In This Corner of the World”) — a feat that is said to have coaxed Hayao Miyazaki out from his three-years-in retirement. Miyazaki announced his intentions of getting back to work last month and, if all goes well, in less than a year from now we could be looking at a new Studio Ghibli flick competing for the Kinejun crown.

It’s an open secret that the Kinejun prize carries a lot more weight than the Japan Academy Prize, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last week. Also known as the Japan Academy Awards, the red-carpeted affair is, unlike Kinejun, fun! The awards ceremony is televised (multiple times, including the pre-award roundups) with celebrity presenters and emcees (this year, it was hosted by Toshiyuki Nishida and Sakura Ando). The venue is the Grand Prince Hotel Takanawa and, if you’re willing to spring for the ¥40,000 ticket, you too can see the stars shine while enjoying a full-course dinner.

The country’s film industry has traditionally insisted that the Japan Academy Awards is the “Japanese equivalent” of the Oscars, but that argument has faded in the face of Takeshi Kitano’s indictment of the awards in 2015.

Another heavy-hitter in the awards field is the Mainichi Film Concours, sponsored by Mainichi Shimbun. The newspaper is famed for its extensive arts coverage with a particular slant for Japanese films. Last year’s winner for best film was “Shin Godzilla,” while “In This Corner of the World” received an award of excellence.

Other awards include the Japan Movie Critics Award, which happens every year on the heels of the Cannes Film Festival, and the Hochi Film Awards, sponsored by a sports tabloid. (Kaori Shoji)