Film

Kohei Oguri’s ‘Foujita’ struggles to win over foreign audiences

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Veteran auteur Kohei Oguri’s first film in 10 years, “Foujita” is a biopic of artist Tsuguharu “Leonard” Foujita. The toast of prewar Paris for his elegantly drawn women and cats, Foujita radically switched styles on his return to a militarized Japan and his propaganda art for the war effort was heavily criticized following Japan’s 1945 defeat.

Joe Odagiri, known as “Japan’s Johnny Depp” for his offbeat role choices, brings Foujita to eccentric — if essentially serious — life, while uncannily resembling the artist, whose fashion trademarks were his pudding bowl hairstyle, round glasses and Charlie Chaplin-esque moustache. But Oguri’s deliberately paced, highly stylized approach to his subject makes “Foujita” less a movie than a series of dreamy tableaux vivants, gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Hiroshi Machida.

Premiered in competition at last month’s Tokyo International Film Festival, the film divided audiences and critics and left without a prize. Some were puzzled by the abrupt transition from the opening scenes in a stereotypical “Gay Paree,” where Foujita, nicknamed Foufou (“Nutty”), lives it up in arty bohemian splendor, to the scenes set in a grim wartime Japan, where a soberly clad Foujita and his kimonoed Japanese wife (Miki Nakatani) escape to a countryside remote, beautiful and mysterious.

Oguri says that from the beginning he had no intention of making a standard biopic. “(Foujita) had two lives and lived in two cultures, so that’s how I thought (the film) should go,” he said in explaining the film’s bifurcated structure.

Oguri had always wanted Odagiri to play his offbeat hero.

“He has a Foujita-like quality,” Oguri says. “Like Foujita he speaks in a bit of a mumble and is something of an otaku (geek). … Also, an actor doesn’t construct a performance in his head. In the end, he does it with his body, and Odagiri’s body resembles Foujita’s.”

The film’s two locations and eras — the free-spirited, decadent Paris of the 1920s and the politically oppressed, deeply traditional Japan of the 1940s — are starkly different, but Oguri insists that Foujita “always remained the same person inside” in both. “He was a realist whose approach to life was to overcome differences of culture, thought and history,” he adds.

This adaptability, Oguri admits, hardly came easy for a Japanese man born in the Meiji era (1868-1912), when Japan was just emerging from centuries of isolation. “It’s really amazing that he could sell so well, even though 19th-century Japonism and other such factors laid the groundwork for his acceptance,” Oguri says. “But he tried too hard — and the strain definitely showed.”

At the same time, major transitions in Foujita’s life, be it a change of lovers or countries, occasion no laments or regrets. Switches in style and subject matter, from the pale white nudes of his Paris period to the dying soldiers of his wartime masterpiece, “Honorable Death on Attu Island,” faze him not at all. He is instead gratified when a woman viewing the later painting collapses in tears. “My art can move people,” he tells a friend.

“Foujita didn’t care what people called him, be it war collaborator or whatever,” Oguri says. “The only thing that really mattered to him was his art.”

Nonetheless, after his successful encounter with Europe, Foujita undergoes a sort of reculturation when he returns to Japan. Living in a world of mountains, rice paddies, clouds and fog, whose inhabitants are still in touch with ancient folkways, he engages with not only his Japanese roots but the mystery of the land itself.

“I don’t know if the real-life Foujita did that, but in the film I wanted him to experience Japan,” Oguri says. “There’s no decadence like that of Paris, but there are legends that still survive, there is a river to cross in the midst of nature. … I wanted Foujita to cross that river to the other side, to something different from Europe and Paris.”

In illustrating that crossing, Oguri and Machida created stunning images, but Oguri says he can’t take raves about their beauty as compliments. “When you are asked about a film at a screening, if you are stuck for something to say, you usually say, ‘It was beautiful,’ ” he explains. “Saying that the visuals are beautiful is saying that they aren’t really connected to the story, that they stand on their own.

“With a painting you can rearrange the tableau inside the frame with new colors and lines and change the way the work is viewed. The same is true with films, with the difference being that, for better or worse, films have dialogue. If you can tie the images skillfully to a story with dialogue you’ve done a good job. But with ‘Foujita’ I had a hard time doing that — it was really tough.”

Oguri also expresses disappointment over the film’s reception by foreign film festivals to date, despite the support of its well-known French producer, Claudie Ossard. Oguri is no stranger to such festivals, including most importantly, Cannes, where “Shi no Toge” (“The Sting of Death”), his drama of marital discord, won the Grand Prix in 1990. “The foreign festivals didn’t think much (of ‘Foujita’),” he confesses.

One possible reason, he speculates, is the non-Japanese setting. Another is the lack of foreign interest in a Japanese artist who spent the first half of his life in Europe and pre-1945 Japan. “I really don’t know,” he concludes. “I thought that (Foujita’s) time in France would make his story a bit more familiar (to non-Japanese), but basically it didn’t go over as well as I had expected.”

Festivals, he says, have changed — and it’s useless to protest their choices. “They can decide however they want,” he says. “You’ve just got to get on their good side the way (Naomi) Kawase and (Kiyoshi) Kurosawa have. But still it’s odd — I thought the film would do a little better.”