When Yosuke Fujita’s debut feature “Zenzen Daijobu (Fine, Totally Fine)” started making the international festival rounds in 2008, it charmed nearly everyone who saw it.
This laugh-until-you-hurt comedy about two outsider pals in pursuit of the same socially awkward girl won the Nippon Cinema Award at the Nippon Connection Film Festival in Frankfurt, the largest international showcase of Japanese films, as well as audience prizes at the New York Asian Film Festival and the Udine Far East Film Festival. Third Window Films of the U.K. later released an English-subtitled DVD with a cover blurb from the Daily Express comparing the film to the work of Aki Kaurismaki and Jim Jarmusch.
Born in 1963, Fujita had already spent nearly two decades learning his trade — beginning with his 1986 debut film “Tora,” which won the grand prize in the 8 mm division of the Torino Film Festival — by the time he made “Fine, Totally Fine.” Instead of following his early successes with more and bigger films, Fujita ended up making stage performance videos and collaborating on other projects with Otona Keikaku, a theater troupe founded by comic actor, scriptwriter and director Suzuki Matsuo. Among his fellow troupe members and boon companions was Kankuro Kudo, a scriptwriting wunderkind who also found success as an actor and director, though his frantic, raucous style of comedy is the polar opposite of Fujita’s low-key, deadpan approach.
Fujita’s latest film, “Fukufukuso no Fukuchan (Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats),” reunites him with Yoshiyoshi Arakawa, the shaven-headed, putty-faced star of “Fine, Totally Fine,” but this time his lead is Miyuki Oshima, a fixture on Japanese television as a member of the Morisanchu comedy trio. She gender-bends convincingly as Fukuda aka Fuku-chan, a pudgy, kind hearted house painter living contentedly in the titular rooming house with his odd-squad fellow residents. But when his irascible if well-meaning boss (Arakawa) tries to hook him up with an eligible female acquaintance, disaster results.
It turns out that Fuku-chan has an allergy to women due to a teenage trauma inflicted by his cruel classmates. Then one of those classmates, a now-guilt-stricken photographer (Asami Mizukawa), re-enters his life. Confronted with an attractive woman albeit one with her forehead pressed to the concrete as she begs his forgiveness, Fuku-chan feels like disappearing, but her sincerity tempts him to stay and form a strange-but-fruitful artistic partnership.
As usual with Fujita’s work, “Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats” goes its own sweet, quirky way with impeccable comic timing, if with a new radiance imparted by Oshima’s vibrantly offbeat presence. After premiering domestically at the Okinawa International Movie Festival in March and internationally one month later at the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, the film has played widely at festivals here and abroad, while earning kudos from audiences and critics.
At the Kyoto International Film and Art Festival, where the film screened, Fujita said he couldn’t have done the movie without Oshima.
“She was the starting point, just as Arakawa was in ‘Fine, Totally Fine,’ ” he explains, looking like one of his slacker characters with his tousled hair and hoodie. “If I have one actor like that, I can populate the film with supporting characters.”
His model, he admits, was Tora-san, the wandering peddler played by Kiyoshi Atsumi in Yoji Yamada’s enduringly popular comedy series.
“I’m a big fan of Tora-san,” Fujita says. “Oshima even looks like Kiyoshi Atsumi. I bet she could play a good Tora-san. Atsumi wasn’t just happy-go-lucky, you know; he was very sensitive and had a dark side to his personality. That shows in his portrayal of Tora-san — there’s a lot of pathos in it. Oshima also has that quality, I think. She was bullied as a child. She brought that darker side of her personality to Fuku-chan.”
When I say Yamada once told me he viewed the Tora-san films as almost period dramas, reflecting a vanishing Japan, Fujita says that his own film is relatively “more realistic.” There are, he adds, “a lot of lonely people” like Fuku-chan and his FukuFuku Flats pals, living marginal lives out of the middle-class mainstream.
“Even now I’m on the same page as these characters,” he adds. “I projected myself onto all them. Not just Fuku-chan; even Mizukawa’s character is a projection of me. I can relate to all them and they share similarities with me.”
His comedy also derives from a very personal place — and not a sunny one.
“Comedy comes from the pain and sadness you feel in day-to-day life,” he explains. “People who are happy and satisfied with their lives can’t produce comedy, I think. They have no need to make a movie that inspires laughter. Charlie Chaplin grew up in poverty. Woody Allen has an extremely negative personality — he’s a depressed guy who needs to create laughter to live. Laughter is a form of salvation for negative people.”
After seeing the film with audiences at festivals in Italy, Taiwan, Canada, the U.K. and Canada, Fujita is satisfied that its humor has traveled well, despite the occasional Japan-specific references and gags.
“The film has many elements other than the comedy,” he says. “But when the audience laughs, that’s the clearest indication I’m communicating effectively.”
At the same time, Fujita admits that there are a few parts he could have done better.
“It’s painful to sit through screening after screening and face the same failed bits over and over. But I have fewer regrets about this film than the last one. I hope that trend continues.”
He is currently working on a synopsis that he plans to turn into a script — a process that has taken years in the past, but he intends to do it faster this time.
“I’m cooking up a story now that Oshima can star in as a woman,” he says. “The story is separate from this movie, but it might be thematically linked. It will be a comedy with serious elements.”
“Your films are hilarious, but they also have their dark side, don’t they?” I comment. Fujita flares up at the unintended criticism in “dark.”
“I have no interest in making a straightforward happy comedy,” he says emphatically.
I should hope not.