Sunday, September 26, 2021

The Films of Kôji Fukada

Hospitalité (2010)
Harmonium (2016)
A Girl Missing (2019)
The Real Thing (2020)

Harmonium is Kôji Fukada’s fifth film but one that thrust him in the spotlight after it won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes 2016. Prior to that, Fukada’s films were often found at Film Festivals around the world so his name wasn’t unknown. Yet, Harmonium showed a distinct change and ruthlessness that wasn’t the case with his earlier films especially Hospitalité which has some common elements.

In both Harmonium and Hospitalité, a stranger arrives to live in a household and ends up upending the family dynamics of that household. One reason that the stranger is able to impact the family is because he is able to exploit vulnerabilities which highlight that the family is one in name only but otherwise a collection of individuals.

In Hospitalité, the stranger is Kagawa (Kanji Furutachi) who arrives to a house where a couple run a printing press owned by Kobayashi (Kenji Yamauchi) and his wife Nitsuki (Kiki Sugino). Kagawa first manages to get a job at the printing press, then manages to stay at the house before eventually taking things over like a gangster.

Kôji Fukada's smart inspired bit of casting is highlighted by Kanji Furutachi who played the stranger in Hospitalité but plays the house owner in Harmonium.

In Harmonium, Toshio (Furutachi) offers Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano) a job and accommodation in his house without telling his wife Akie (Mariko Tsutsui). The difference is that unlike Hospitalité, Yasaka isn’t a complete stranger. He and Toshio shared a past which is something that Toshio neglects to inform Akie about. At first, Akie isn’t comfortable with Yasaka’s presence but gradually warms up, especially after Yasaka teaches Akie’s daughter how to play the harmonium. However, Yasaka starts making too many inroads in Toshio’s family, an act that threatens to derail Toshio’s perfect family.

The two films may share a common key element of a disruptive stranger but they are vastly different in tone and execution. The tone in Hospitalité is uneven, a mix of absurd comedy and drama. After Kagawa takes over the house and printing press, things get comical even though the inclusion of a few scenes and glances indicate a calculated plan. On the other hand, Harmonium removes any humour and ventures into a darker territory. The film is packed with plenty of jaw-dropping scenarios which question the complex relationships each family member shares with another. The film’s original title Fuchi ni tatsu translates to “on the brink”, words that perfectly describe the mental state of the characters as they navigate through their daily lives.

Harmonium is a kick in the guts, sharp, relentless and is an ingenious twist on the traditional Japanese family drama. Naturally, after a film like Harmonium, my expectations were high from Fukada’s next film. As it turns out, it wasn’t one film but two that arrived in quick succession.

A Girl Missing

As the title indicates, A Girl Missing is about a kidnapping. But unlike other movies that deal with such topics, the movie isn’t about the kidnapper or victim but instead about a character (Ichiko played brilliantly by Mariko Tsutsui) who chooses not to act. In the film, Ichiko recognizes the kidnapper but doesn’t divulge that information to the police as she fears it might implicate her. However, Ichiko’s secret is revealed and unravels her reputation and relationship. She is angered and driven to thoughts of revenge. The film falls a few steps short of what Harmonium shows. While Harmonium shows the execution of dangerous thoughts, A Girl Missing shows how such thoughts can simmer inside a character and force them to take matters in their own hands. The film can be considered the idea that is realized in action by Harmonium.

The Real Thing
On the other hand, The Real Thing is a reset, a reset of themes and ideas. Based on a manga, the film is about two characters who are clearly wrong for each other. When the two are together, bad things happen. Yet, they can’t stay away or instead the universe can’t keep them away. The Real Thing is 3 hours 52 minutes long but it originally ran as a 10 part mini-TV series. The TV series format is apparent even in the almost 4 hour film as events repeat, progress in a predictable format. The tone of the film is devoid of any melodrama which results in the material presented with a dryness that mixes absurd, comedic and dark scenarios.  The almost 4 hour version was supposed to play at Cannes 2020 but since the Festival was postponed due to the Pandemic, the film was announced as an Official Cannes Selection. The film did have a festival run in Fall of 2020 including showing at the Tokyo International Film Festival.
Overall, even though there are elements to admire in A Girl Missing and The Real Thing, neither film can match the heights of Harmonium which feels like a perfect calibration of all the elements found in his movies. Still, there is no doubt about Kôji Fukada's stellar credentials as a director. The varying treatment between Hospitalité and Harmonium shows the evolution of a filmmaker from a good director into a great one. It is still early to know if the adaptation of a manga will be a new direction for Fukada or how it fits in his filmography. Oddly, there is a quote from Fukada that the Japanese film industry needs to stop depending on manga adaptions which feels ironic given that he has done one himself. So this adaptation may be a one-off only but I am looking forward to see what he does next.