Tokyo: Auteur Koji Fukada Strives to Remain Independent Despite Studio Dominance In Japan

Koji Fukada - Publicity - H 2020
Mehdi Benkler

Koji Fukada

The Japanese helmer discusses grappling with life and death, doing things his way and the domination of the domestic industry by the major integrated studios.

In the decade since Koji Fukada’s dark comedy Hospitalité won best picture at the Tokyo International Film Festival section for local independent filmmakers, the director has become one of the leading voices in Japanese art house cinema. Fukada, 40, returns as this year’s Director in Focus, with the fest screening a showcase of the maverick auteur’s works.

The director appeared genuinely surprised at being honored by TIFF, calling the decision “brave,” adding, “I haven’t had a hit film in Japan or anything like that, I’m still relatively young and in the early stages of my career.”

The Real Thing, Fukada’s latest production, which was set to compete for the Palme d’Or until the COVID-19 pandemic put the kibosh on this year’s Cannes festival, exemplifies Fukada’s willingness to push boundaries. It started life as a 10-part TV series, and is based on a manga, a common source material in Japan, though a first for a director who had always written his own original scripts.

With the drama only airing on the regional Nagoya TV network, which also produced his 2016 Un Certain Regard jury prize-winner at Cannes, Harmonium (starring Tadanobu Asano and also part of the TIFF showcase), Fukada created a ‘director’s cut theatrical edition’ that weighs in just shy of four hours. As with his other work, the natural performances stand in stark contrast to the melodrama seen in so many Japanese productions.

According to Fukada, traditions of Japanese acting that date back centuries are the root of such melodramatic turns. “[This is] based on the assumption that people have control of their emotions and actions, which are determined by what kind of personality they are or what profession they were,” he says. “Whereas in reality, human beings are not like that and don’t have much control over their impulses; there is little linear relationship between thought and action. And creators, particularly of TV dramas, don’t trust audiences to be able to decipher the subtleties of a character who doesn’t explain their thoughts and actions in a straightforward way,” said Fukada.

Of directing a script based on source material, Fukada adds, “I of course rewrote a lot of scenes to suit my style of directing, but working with someone else’s story means there are ideas and plot lines that I wouldn’t have come up with, so it has expanded my worldview a little.”

There are themes of darkness, loneliness and despair running through many of Fukada’s films and he has talked of being influenced by “everyday violence” despite living in one of the most crime-free societies in human history. He acknowledges the apparent contradiction but says he was impacted as a teenager in the 1990s by a notorious child murder perpetrated by a minor, the Kobe earthquake, and a series of sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system.

“What I as a filmmaker try to depict is questions around why are we born and why do we die. There is a way to rationalize that if you have a religion, but I’m not a religious person, so film is a way to explore such issues,” Fukada observes. “Life is ephemeral, you might die in 10 or 30 seconds’ time, I try to grapple with the absurdity of that and I think that seeps into my films.”

Like other Japanese auteurs such as Naomi Kawase and Kiyoshi Kurosawa — the latter was one of Fukada’s professors at The Film School of Tokyo — the director found acclaim abroad, particularly in France, before becoming appreciated at home. He was made a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by France’s Ministry of Culture and says his films are often shown on five times as many screens in France as they are in Japan.

He laments the harsh environment for independent Japanese filmmakers and the almost total domination of the domestic industry by the major integrated studios and distributors. Fukada says that many working in independent film, particularly women, have to choose between staying in the industry and having a family.

Toho, the biggest studio, is also the biggest distributor and has a huge chain of theaters, something that was outlawed in the US around 80 years ago, points out Fukada.

“The annual box office for Japanese films is around $1 billion [with around the same for imports] and Toho, Toei and Shochiku take around 80 percent of that, and most of that goes to Toho," he says. "If you look at the top 10 films for the year, usually around eight of them are from Toho,” points out Fukada.

The current smash hit anime Demon Slayer — which took a record-breaking $100 million in its first 10 days of release in October as Japanese audiences returned to theaters after pandemic-driven restrictions were lifted — and is distributed by Toho and Sony-subsidiary Aniplex, is a case in point.

Demon Slayer was screened around 7,000 times on its opening day. Of course they want it be a hit, but when it’s on nearly every screen, can you call that fair and open competition?” questions Fukada.

In spite of the headwinds, Fukada says that recognition at this year’s TIFF, 10 years after his first award at the festival, has inspired him to keep following his own path and look ahead toward another decade of filmmaking.