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Six years after his 2016 film Harmonium won Cannes’ jury prize in the Un Certain Regard section, Japanese director Koji Fukada is taking the big step up into Venice’s main competition with the emotionally intense family drama Love Life.
Fukada’s rise to the top tier of the international festival circuit has been telegraphed for some time. His breakthrough family comedy Hospitalité won best picture in the Japanese cinema category of the 2010 Tokyo International Film Festival, and in 2020 that same event featured him as its director in focus with a mini-retrospective. Effectively, the Tokyo festival’s organizers were arguing that Fukada was worthy of the type of top-level industry attention that Venice has now bestowed upon him.
Fukada’s ninth feature, Love Life tells a taut domestic drama about a newly married Japanese couple (Fumino Kimura and Kento Nagayama) enjoying a peaceful existence when a tragic accident befalls their young boy (Tetsuta Shimada) — the wife’s son from an earlier marriage — and plunges their lives into emotional turmoil. The loss brings the wife’s first husband, a deaf man from Korea (Atom Sunada), now destitute and homeless, crashing back into their orbit, testing and revealing the true nature of the bonds between the various finely drawn characters.
Love Life was produced by Chipangu, Nagoya Broadcasting Network and Comme Des Cinemas. MK2 Films is selling the film to international buyers during Venice.
Ahead of the film’s premiere, THR spoke with Fukada in Tokyo about Love Life‘s inspiration and the carefully constructed formal elements that undergird its bittersweet character studies.
What were the creative origins of this film?
The original idea came from a song with the same title — Love Life — released by [Japanese pop star] Akiko Yano in 1991. The first time I heard it, I was only about 20 years old. It was a song I really appreciated; I listened to it over and over. It’s a love song that seems to be about a couple who have broken up, but who still have a very strong, loving connection. But the more I listened to it, I began to get this feeling that it could also be a song about losing anyone who was really dear to you. Maybe you were broken apart by circumstance, or maybe the person passed away. Then, I thought maybe it could even be about the connection between a mother and her child — and that’s when I felt the first inspiration for a story.
I wrote my first treatment for the film way back then, 20 years ago. It was very vague, and I didn’t really have a plot. What was really important to me, though, was the idea for the moment when the song would play in the film. The scene with the empty room and those emotions hanging in the air, and the song suddenly bursting over the image — I had this exact vision 20 years ago and it never changed.
So this isn’t the first time that one of your films contains a tragedy, or violence, involving a child. How did this element find its way into your filmmaking and what does it allow you to explore?
Well, it depends on the movie and the story I’m trying to tell. In my film Harmonium, for example, it was very different; but in this movie, what I tried to test and think about is what death means in our lives. Death is something that can come very suddenly, and sometimes it doesn’t really have any meaning or aim at all. It just happens. And this is what I wanted to explore.
As well as these existential themes, it felt to me that the sudden death that occurs in Love Life also brings the emotional contours of the couple’s romantic relationship into sharper relief. The extremity of the emotional experience that they go through together makes some of the universal, but usually very subtle, aspects of married life suddenly much more visible.
Yes, thank you, that’s exactly right. I also wanted to depict a very realistic death to show that this is something that could happen at any moment in our actual lives. And I wanted to portray how the people surrounding a death react to that loss — and also how it makes these other people think about how their own death will come. And the loneliness of all people, because in some sense, we are all alone in our own worlds when the end comes.
When the boy dies, the married couple is able to share their sadness, but the sadness in itself is different for each of them. Through the death of the child, a spotlight shines on the gap that already existed between those two. Previously, we probably wouldn’t have detected it, because in many ways they are a normal, happy couple.
I liked how the mother-in-law character initially seems like a sweet but somewhat silly grandmother, but later you realize she’s also a person of considerable thoughtfulness and depth, who is wrestling with existential questions of her own.
Yeah, that’s also something I was aiming for, but the actress, Misuzu Kanno, did a tremendous job of bringing this layered character to life.
When I’m writing characters, I don’t sketch them out by saying, “This is their personality, hence they will be speaking or acting in this way.” I usually develop chracters according to the different situations and people they end up facing — and these things change, hence we see many different sides of the character.
Do you write characters that way because that’s the way you think people are in real life — context dependent rather than having like a core, consistent identity?
Yes, it’s something I do very consciously. In Japan, there are a lot of beginner manuals for screenwriting out there, and they usually suggest that you should develop your characters by creating a sort of CV or resume for them, which includes their core traits and how they react to certain situations. But I don’t believe people in real life really behave that way. We never have such strict guidelines, and we don’t comport ourselves that way. We are all much more flexible and susceptible to situations and the power of other personalities.
How did you decide to make the ex-husband Korean and deaf, and for the mother and son to share a fluency in Korean sign language?
Well, when I first thought of these characters 20 years ago, I didn’t have this detail at all. In Tokyo, we have an international film festival for the deaf that is held every year, and in 2018 I was invited to be a speaker at one of their workshops. Honestly, that was the first time in my life that I really came into close contact with deaf people. And I quickly discovered that sign language is not just a means for the deaf to communicate in the usual language of their home country — whether English, Japanese, French or whatever. They’re actually very rich languages in their own right, and the sign language of each country has its own visual particularity.
So, when I was reviewing these key characters — the ex-husband, the wife, the son and the new husband — I was thinking about how I could add more tension in the relationship. And the idea came to me of having sign language be the missing element that the new husband doesn’t share with the rest of them. I thought this could be interesting.
It seems to highlight the theme that these three characters have a shared past and special connection that the new husband can’t really understand or grasp — but using sign language acheives this in a very visual and visceral way.
Exactly. It allowed me to convey an important idea that’s at the heart of the triangle relationship, but to do it with images. Another thing that I found interesting is that normally a deaf person is in the minority in everyday life, but here sign-language is the majority language. Again, I just thought it was interesting.
The physical environment of the film is also presented in a unique visual way, with the new husband’s parents living in an apartment directly across from the young couple in an opposite residential tower in the same block. And then the couple also work in the same office, but in different wings of the same building, which is also right across the street from their apartment block. Why did you decide to structure the world of the film in this compact way?
Well, one of my first concepts for the film was how I would depict space and distance. I paid very close attention to how these different environments would be laid out and the distance that would exist between them. That’s why in Love Life whenever you see someone going from one flat to the other, or going across the street to work, I do the whole sequence in just one cut, so that you can see the true distance that is covered and how much time it takes for the characters to move between these spaces.
This kind of functioned for me as fun little surprises, where you suddenly realize, “Oh, the parents live right over there.” Or, “Oh, the husband and wife actually work in the same building.” But the way you do it, it’s something you feel physically, rather than something you’re just sort of told, in usual movie language. Was there any thematic reason for having the characters be so physically proximate to each other?
Well, it was all to create a feeling of drastic change at the end, when the wife suddenly follows the ex-husband to Korea. By having all of the characters live and work in a really compact area, I could create a greater sense of shock when the wife suddenly teleports very far away.
The depiction of distance and motion in movies is actually very complicated. Hitchcock was a big influence for me in the way I pursued this. I also really adore Hayao Miyazaki, and he has said that horizontal distance is something that movies are usually very poor at depicting. Years ago, he contributed work to an animation called The Great Adventure of Horus (1968), and beforehand he created a whole map of the film’s world to show where the character would going on his journey.
But when the film was complete, he said he felt that the audience wasn’t really able to understand where these locations where in relation to one another on a horizontal plane — at least not nearly as clearly as he had hoped. But later, he discovered that vertical distance was something that is quite easy for a film audience to grasp.
When he made his film Laputa: Castle in the Sky, the first scene starts in the sky on an airplane, then we go back to Earth, and then we go back up to the castle in the sky again, and so on — and the relation between these levels is very easy for an audience to feel. I’ve always been really compelled by these ideas, but the reason I focussed on it so intently for this film comes from the lyrics of the original song Love Life.
At some point in the song, she sings, “wherever you are, we can love each other” — so I tried to give the audience a strong sense of exactly where the characters were in physical relation to one another. I wanted to give yet another visual representation to the spiritual distance they are feeling as they transition through these intense emotional experiences alongside one another.
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