Ex-janitor cleans up with comic gem

by Mark Schilling

Winner of the Grand Prize in the short film section at the 1987 Torino Film Festival in Italy, Yosuke Fujita may have been making films for more than two decades, but it’s only now that audiences have the chance to see the director’s first full-length feature. “Zenzen Daijobu (Fine, Totally Fine)” is a comic gem of high, flaky brilliance — albeit one that is rather low-key.

In the intervening years, the Hyogo Prefecture native has filmed stage performances for the Otona Keikaku comic-theater troupe and worked on outside film projects with troupe leaders Kankuro Kudo and Masuo Suzuki.

He’s also done many a day job, including a long stint as a hospital janitor, and utilized his experiences when writing the award-winning script for “Zenzen Daijobu,” which centers on the comic rivalry of two close-but- constantly-bickering brothers (played by Yoshiyoshi Arakawa and Yoshinori Okada) for the same misfit, but artistic, girl (Yoshino Kimura).

In person, Fujita said he was nervous because this was his first interview with a foreign journalist. But he quickly grew in confidence as he discussed his latest movie and his philosophy of comedy.

Your realist approach to comedy is quite different from that of your former collaborator Kankuro Kudo, whose directorial style is more cartoony. Were you conscious of any influence?

Not really. The style of the film came from what I was feeling at the time. I didn’t think about trends in Japanese films today. I’ve worked for a long time in Kudo’s troupe, as well as with the star of the film, Arakawa. I know Kudo’s flashy style quite well, but it’s not to my tastes. I like watching his films, but now that I’m 45, his sort of extreme (comedy) gets tiring quickly.

You got your start making 8-mm films. How did that shape your approach to filmmaking?

There’s a feeling of freedom you can only get from an 8-mm film. Somebody going directly into commercial films without that experience wouldn’t be able to create that kind of feeling. So I think it was a plus for me. It taught me freedom of expression.

There are a lot of sight gags that I imagine weren’t in the script. Did you dream them up on set?

Once the script was finished, I started thinking about how to expand on it. I thought of ideas right until we finished shooting. I wasn’t going strictly by the script — quite the opposite.

Eighty percent of the script came from what naturally popped into my head, the other 20 percent came from thinking more logically. When a script is written with logic alone, it turns out boring. At first I write naturally, then the rest is logical thinking. Otherwise the script doesn’t work — balance is important.

The core of the film is Yoshiyoshi Arakawa’s character. He reminded me of a silent movie comedian — he can get laughs without saying a word.

I’m happy to hear that. I believe that silent movies are the basis for all filmmaking — making an impact through visuals alone is very cinematic. The first film I made had no dialogue — just music. I think it’s good when you can enjoy (a film) with the sound turned off.

Arakawa surprised me in this role — he isn’t just playing his usual cartoon, but creating a character.

When he plays minor roles he’s mostly there for his comic-book face, but that’s not enough for a lead role. You have to express more complex emotions. I think he did that quite well.

There is a lot of detail in the comedic scenes. Did that require detailed instructions from you?

Yes, I made a lot of detailed requests (to the actors). I wanted to create an ambivalent feeling. I really wanted more rehearsal time but because of the tight schedule, we could only rehearse the day before we started filming. I gave acting suggestions at every opportunity, doing retake after retake. We shot on high-definition video, which is a lot cheaper than film.

It looks as though you spent a lot of time casting. All the actors are perfect fits for their roles.

I was really insistent about the casting. Even if they were to appear in only one scene, the actors had to audition as though they were going to play the lead role. I want to film people in a certain way for my films, so choosing the right actor for the role is very important. The naturalness of the performance is what I emphasize. If you’re goofing around from beginning to end it’s not funny. You need the natural, normal feel of everyday life as the basis — then when the weird stuff appears, it’s funny.

As when Akari (Kimura) is pressing the elevator button — and her finger bends.

Yes. That kind of thing, where her finger bends 90 degrees, can’t happen in reality. That kind of extreme joke is funny only if the surrounding environment is portrayed naturally. If it’s one extreme joke after another, you get tired of it, distanced from it.

It’s very realistic how the secondhand book shop and the hospital are portrayed.

I’ve actually worked as a cleaner in a hospital, so I know the feel of it. I did that sort of job for eight years. An operating room gets bloody and slippery (just like in the film). I also like going to secondhand book shops — the kind of place where you’re the only customer and the radio is playing and the owner is staring into space. I wanted to show that kind of situation in a film. If you’re never in the sunshine and get no exercise, you’ll probably become depressed like the bookshop owner in the movie (laughs).

Speaking of detail, even the props and sets play important roles in getting laughs.

I put a lot of effort into the props and sets. The audience can’t enter the world of the film if the props and sets are slapdash. When I make a movie, I pay close attention to the tiniest detail.

The horror figures that look like Arakawa make the biggest impression.

Yes, they look more like him than he does (laughs). They were crafted by a person famous in the world of figures, who is very good at real-life representations.

“Zenzen Daijobu” opens Jan. 26. Read Mark Schilling’s review on tomorrow’s RE:FILM page.