“Since I was a child, I always wanted to devote my life to film as my father did,” Kenta Fukasaku said during a recent chat in which his late, great role model, the charismatic movie director Kinji Fukasaku, often figured.
Yet, despite having made dozens of movies himself, this famous son — whose name intentionally combines those of the screen stars Ken Takakura and Bunta Sugawara (whose recent deaths rocked the nation) — is currently hard at work on a stage production of “The Swan,” an absurdist 1993 work by U.S. playwright Elizabeth Egloff that has its Japan premiere this month.
And indeed, since his theater debut directing French writer Robert Tomas’ mystery “The Trap” in 2010, 42-year-old Fukasaku has been in great demand to do stage work between movie-making.
“With ‘The Swan,’ I will have directed five plays this year and I suppose it will be the same next year, including my first opera — Richard Strauss’ ‘Die Liebe der Danae,’ ” he said. Then he explained that, “While film projects take ages even before shooting — and many end up not happening — once a producer decides to stage a play and books a venue, it’s never long before it opens. So gradually, my theater schedule is taking over from films.”
That’s quite a shift, he said, for someone “born just before that 1973-74 period when my father made his smash-hit masterpiece at a studio in Kyoto — the five-film “Jingi naki Tatakai” (“Battles Without Honor and Humanity”) series about yakuza conflicts in postwar Hiroshima.
“My mother and I would often visit him there and I was so surprised by his enthusiastic and lively face, which was entirely different from my image of him at home. There was always a dynamic liveliness in the studio and it was like Disneyland for me.”
Later, as he became an assistant director in his early 20s, his father scaled new heights in 2000 with his epoch-making movie “Battle Royale.” Based on the eponymous 1999 sci-fi horror novel by Koshun Takami in which junior high school students play a game in which they fight until only one is left alive, the film was a blockbuster hit — but also drew strident criticism in Japan and worldwide for its alleged “glorification” of youth violence.
Then, when his father died of cancer at the age of 72 in 2003, just after he’d started to make “Battle Royale II,” Kenta — who’d often worked with him on scripts — stepped up to finish what became another hit project.
“Of course I’d been pleased for my father about the success of ‘Battle Royale,’ but I was annoyed that such a subcultural film could be a huge box-office hit,” he said. “However, I was even more angry about the way films were becoming just part of a production-line industry into which many of Japan’s major TV companies had moved and stripped existing film companies of their power and individuality.
“Consequently, I decided to give “Battle Royale II” a clear anti-U.S. — meaning anti-globalism and anti-capitalism — message, and to ask through it why people mindlessly blamed ‘terrorism’ for everything like the 9/11 attacks in 2001, without ever thinking what drives it.
“Obviously, the film was panned,” he said with a laugh, “and nowadays, most films and TV programs just aim to satisfy the majority without troubling them. As a result, they only feature light subcultural content and it’s becoming more difficult to say really important things in any media in this country.
“In theater, though, I still feel able to make works that will remain for a long time in some people’s memories,” this very eligible bachelor declared last month when we met in the small studio where he was rehearsing Egloff’s “The Swan,” a supernatural fantasy with a cast of just three that’s inspired by the Greek myth “Leda and the Swan.”
The story concerns a divorcee named Dora (played by Maki Ichiro) who lives alone in a house in rural Nebraska but is having a dead-end affair with a married milkman named Kevin (Kenya Osumi). One day, a swan crashes in through a window and, after she cares for it, changes into a young man (Kei Hosogai) who gradually starts to speak. Then, after Dora and the swan-man become intimate together, the love triangle heads toward a tragic finale.
“This play has the universal theme of women’s independence,” Fukasaku said. “Dramatists have often raised this issue, as in plays such as “A Doll’s House” (Henrik Ibsen, 1879) and “A Streetcar Named Desire” (Tennessee Williams, 1947), but women still face many problems and handicaps in today’s society.
“Here, Dora needs to depend on a man to live, and then in a flash a swan enters her humdrum life — though I think the bird is a metaphor for an angel. In the late 1980s, films and plays such as “Wings of Desire” by Wim Wenders and “Angels in America” by Tony Kushner were full of angels, so in ‘The Swan’ I think an angel disguised as a beautiful young swan appears to rescue a loser from being stuck in the middle of nowhere in the big, prosperous United States.”
“The Swan” plays Dec. 6 & 7 at Hyogo Performing Arts Center in Nishinomiya and Dec. 13 & 14 at Art Tower Mito in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture. It then runs Dec. 17-23 at Kinokuniya Hall in Shinjuku, Tokyo. For details, call 0570-00-3337 or visit www.cubeinc.co.jp.