A truly maverick filmmaker, Kôji Fukada has enriched Japanese filmmaking in his emergence as part of a new generation of the region’s top filmmakers who threaten to topple the long-standing dominion of the Japanese cinema veterans – primarily “4K” team comprised of Hirokazu Koreeda, Naomi Kawase, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takeshi Kitano – who first garnered success in the 1990s. While Fukada’s extant directorial catalogue consisting of no more than seven credits – including four feature-length productions – his films have made a profound impact through their innovative contributions to cinema which have added a refreshing sense of vitality into the Japanese film industry.
Born in Tokyo in 1980, Fukada began his formal studies in filmmaking at the age of nineteen between the walls of Tokyo’s College of Cinematography, after which he promptly commenced his directorial career with his involvement in the TV series, Steel Angel Kurumi (2000), an animation comedy set in the early 1900s following a scientist named Ayanokoji who develops a robotic organism with superhuman characteristics – the Steel Angel – for which the Fukada directed the first episode entitled, “Mata imouto ga dekita da desuu”. The signature features of Fukada’s filmmaking style – his nuanced, sensitive approach and strong influences from French cinema – could already be found in traces in his early work, particularly in his inaugural feature film, Human Comedy in Tokyo (2008). The perspicuously poignant work places a penetrating spotlight on three ordinary, unassuming figures who reside in the city, employing numerous dialogues and tales which subtly highlight the acute sense of alienation which plagues the modern citizen of a cosmopolitan city.
Illuminatingly, Fukada once declared, “What matters is not a filmmaker’s technique so much as how they themselves view the world.” This viewpoint speaks volumes to the intricate, realist conception of the human condition that the director seems to possesses, as his second feature, the slapstick yet sombre family drama, Hospitalité (2010), mirrors the solemnity of Human Comedy in Tokyo in several ways. Set in the suburbs of Tokyo, Hospitalité follows the droll gaieties and vexing strains which emerge between two families: Hanataro and Annabelle Kagawa (Kanji Furutachi and Bryerly Long) live in a cosy apartment with their daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa), above their family printing press. Unexpectedly, they find themselves to be sharing their home and lives with Mikio – the son of their father’s old friend – and his wife Natsuki Kobayashi (Kenji Yamauchi and Kiki Sugino), after which a jumbled melange of droll mishaps and sharp social insights ensue, garnering the film the award for Japanese Eyes: Best Film at the 2010 Tokyo International Film Festival.
In 2012, Fukada collaborated with other filmmaking professionals to create the Independent Film Guild, an organisation which began as a small study group with the focus of sharing different perspectives and has now grown to nearly 160 members, with 30 of these meetings have taken place thus far. The following year Fukada co-produced his fourth directorial project, Au revoir l’été (2013), a bitter-sweet romantic drama set in the fukushima nuclear disaster-period that depicts the experiences of Sakuko (Fumi Nikaidô), a young, brown-tressed high-school student who spends her summer holiday at her aunt’s residence in a picturesque seaside town. The drama depicting the young girl’s maturation as she becomes romantically involved with an old acquaintance named Takashi (Taiga) garnered the film a nomination for Best International Feature Film at the 2014 Edinburgh International Film Festival and earned the auteur the Jury Prize for Best Director at the 2013 Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.
That same year, Fukada also released the short film, Inabe, a slow-burning, sensitive drama depicting the experiences of Tomohiro (Hiroaki Matsuda), a pig farm worker in the city of Inabe who unexpectedly – for the first time in 17 years – encounters his sister Naoko (Qtaro Suzuki), who is now with child. Under odd circumstances in which the estranged siblings work together to dig a hole, a deluge of childhood memories, repressed emotions and deep alienation begins to reveal itself, all behind the backdrop of their hometown. Subsequently, Fukada re-adopted his role as a producer in his dystopian film, Sayonara (2015), depicting a future Japan where the now uninhabitable region has experienced another catastrophic nuclear explosion which has threatened the safety of its population with the risk of radioactive poisoning. The drama of the film centres on the mass evacuation of the entire population which is achieved through the implementation of a ticketing system requiring the designation of ‘high-priority’ individuals, a shrewd narrative crux which critiques the pertinent social tensions and prevalent hierarchies which exist in Japanese society – the film was selected in competition at the Tokyo International Film Festival where it was nominated for the Tokyo Grand Prix.
Fukada’s latest feature, Harmonium (2016), explores the degradation that relationships are prone to through an examination of the dynamic between former convict, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), and an old associate of his, Toshio (Kanji Furutachi), who both become embroiled in a deep conflict after the latter hires his now unemployable acquaintance in his workshop. The slow-burning narrative is emblematic of the auteur’s character-driven dramatic style which has certainly garnered him considerable success – Harmonium was presented in the Un Certain Regard at the 69th Cannes Film Festival, subsequently winning the Jury Prize and earned him a nomination for Best Director at the 2017 Asian Film Awards. The fact that Fukada’s films are not easily categorised within conventional genre groupings emerges as one of his great filmic successes, demonstrating his profoundly nuanced approach to storytelling on the big screen: indeed, Fukada’s star is projected to continue its ascent only in Japan but also internationally.