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PSYCHIC KUSUO (Saiki Kusuo no Sainan)


PSYCHIC KUSUO


October 19, 2017
Q&A guest: Director Yuichi Fukuda


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The director is like a character in one of his own films. ©Mance Thompson

Screening just its second-ever comedy in the past decade, the Film Committee welcomed ebullient director Yuichi Fukuda to a Q&A session that we imagined would focus on his astounding success in Japan and recently, in China — only to discover that he would rather talk about his love of 1970s American sketch comedy and his dream to work on the late-night TV show Saturday Night Live.

“I’ve liked slapstick and gags ever since I was a kid,” he told the FCCJ audience, “since my parents were huge comedy fans and instilled that in me. They would recommend that I watch shows like The Drifters and Oretachi Hyokin Zoku [with Beat Takeshi and Sanma Akashiya] and Owarai Star Tanjo, which my dad used to tell me to cut school early to come home and watch.

“When I was in grade school, I really loved the Zucker Brothers’ Airplane! and the Naked Gun series. They did this 6-episode TV series called Police Squad! that was the basis for Naked Gun, also starring Leslie Nielsen. It was very tongue-in-cheek, and I loved the gags. You would see Nielsen driving in his cop car and they would randomly superimpose these visuals on the rear window, like the Roman Coliseum, or there would a monkey sitting next to him. That kind of throwaway gag isn’t the sort of thing that was often seen in Japan. I wanted to bring an American sensibility to comedy.”

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                     Interpreter Mihoko Imai had difficulty keeping a straight face.   ©Mance Thompson

And that he did, although few realized it until Fukuda appeared at FCCJ. As recently as 2014, one could have imagined that Japan’s beloved gag-comedy king was stuck in a (comfortable) rut, having achieved unprecedented domestic success for his peculiar brand of retro humor. If he did not exactly invent the genre, Fukuda had nurtured it to a fine sheen of ridiculousness. His obsession with the sight gag, the inside joke, the exaggerated double-take, the off-kilter line reading, the non-sequitur and the 4th-wall-breaking meta-commentary has subtly shifted the tenor of the entire comedy industry.

In just over a decade, Fukuda has built an empire of amusement through his stage plays (including adaptations of Broadway hits like Spamalot), his TV series (like 33-Minute Detective and Kid’s Police), and his film adaptations of best-selling Japanese manga (like the HK: Forbidden Super Hero series, in which a high school boy dons women’s panties to gain superpowers).

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©Mance Thompson

And then the director’s Midas Touch led him to Gintama, the gag-manga property from Shueisha (51 million copies sold globally). Creating the first live-action version with his friend (and sometime co-writer) Shun Oguri as the silver-maned, nose-picking samurai hero Gintoki, Fukuda had a certified summer smash.

Gintama is currently 2017’s No. 1 live-action domestic film at the Japanese box office, at $40 million and counting.

Perhaps more significantly, the film got the largest-ever China opening for any Japanese film in history, when it opened on a record 12,000 screens in early September, handily dispatching the former title-holder, Makoto Shinkai’s global juggernaut, Your Name.

But it’s unlikely his newfound box-office clout will change Fukuda’s approach to supremely silly storytelling, both visual and verbal. If his latest film, Psychic Kusuo, is any guide, he continues to be devoted to lean budgets, retro special effects and casts filled with faces familiar from his other work.

Asked about the film’s enormous success and whether he hoped to repeat it with Psychic Kusuo, Fukuda said, “I’m honestly not that interested in box-office results, so I’m not sure how massive a hit Gintama was in China, although I do know it was successful in Japan. I would be happier if it were a hit in the US, honestly speaking, because I want to work there.”

He hastened to add, “I hope my work is universal, and I hope it caters to every nationality. But I’m always saying, ‘Can’t we please bring this to America?’ I believe all my work has been inspired by Western influences, like the Zucker Brothers and Monty Python, and pieces of them have been the basis of my Japanese comedies. I love Saturday Night Live, and it’s been my dream for a long time to live in New York and work as an SNL writer.”

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Teen heartthrob Kento Yamazaki.  ©SHUICHI ASO / SHUEISHA 2017 “Psychic Kusuo” FILM PARTNERS

But first, the prolific multi-hyphenate has new product to pitch, and that would be Psychic Kusuo. An adaptation of the popular gag manga series in Weekly Shonen Jump (5 million copies sold), it concerns a pink-haired teen with unimaginable psychic powers: telepathy, psychokinesis, X-ray vision, teleportation, clairvoyance, walking on air — you name it. Yet Saiki Kusuo (Kento Yamazaki) calls himself “the unluckiest guy in the world,” and longs to lead a normal life.

Saiki’s classmates at the PK Academy are all troublemakers, and he is forever having to secretly use his powers to sidestep all the trouble they cause. It’s the start of the annual school festival, and Saiki’s homeroom teacher warns that one more dangerous incident like last year, and the event will be canceled forever. The excitable red-haired Hairo (Hideyuki Kasahara) decides the class project will be an Exhibition of Interesting Rock Formations on Campus, just to be safe (although one class has cross-dressing waitresses, while another lets kids machine-gun their tentacled teacher, in a nod to Assassination Classroom).

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Yamazaki and Hashimoto.  ©SHUICHI ASO / SHUEISHA 2017 “Psychic Kusuo” FILM PARTNERS

But the black-caped Dark Reunion choose the festival to reappear and issue a dragon-ball challenge to Shun (Ryo Yoshizawa), who’s suffering from chuunibyou syndrome (in his case, he’s a wannabe manga hero). Even worse, the most popular girl in school, Kokomi (Kanna Hashimoto), starts stalking Saiki and very nearly reveals his superpowers. Bombarded with such potentially disastrous situations, it’s no wonder that the young lad starts to panic a little — even if his expression never changes and his hands never, ever come out of his pockets.

Asked whether Saiki’s desire to be normal represented typical Japanese youth, the director responded with a laugh, “Usually, if you have superpowers, you would want to use them or weaponize them. But this particular character is the exact reverse. That’s why I found it so interesting — he’s like the antithesis of the superhero — and that’s why I wanted to make it into a film.”

The casting, as with all Fukuda’s films, is sure to draw in a huge youth crowd. How does he manage to get all the hottest stars? “The casting, I’ll be frank about this, is all done by my wife,” Fukuda said. “She constantly tells me who I should get for all the roles, and I tell the producers, who are very nice, and always cast as my wife wishes. So I do what my wife says, because otherwise, I’ll ultimately regret it. When I’m shooting and I haven’t listened to her advice, I always discover that the actor’s not right for the part. So I’ll tell her and she’ll say, ‘See what happens when you don’t listen to me?’ I’ve found that it’s better to listen.

“For Gintama, 80 percent of the casting was done by my wife. She’s the one who told me to cast Kento Yamazaki for Psychic Kusuo. She noticed him long before he became so popular in shojo (female) manga adaptations. I didn’t know who he was, but I followed her advice.”

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©Mance Thompson

On a roll, relishing the truth, he confessed, “I would go so far as to say that a lot of my work is led by my wife. She often advises me on which projects to do or not to do, like a manager. But she’s never been part of the industry, she’s just a regular homemaker.”

A beat.

“I say ‘homemaker’ but she doesn’t clean, cook or do the laundry,” he laughed. “But she’s a genius wife and I’m like her marionette. I just listen to what she says.”

His wife isn’t the only helping hand in the family. Explained Fukuda, “I went into my eldest son’s room looking for something, and found 5 volumes of the Disastrous Life of Saiki Kusuo manga. My son only ever read One Piece, but there were these 5 volumes. I started reading and found it to be really funny and compelling. And I could tell from the visuals that Kento Yamazaki would be perfect for the part.”

Yuichi Fukuda with posterMance-17
©Mance Thompson

As knowledgeable as he is about American TV, Fukuda did not grow up in the US, and when a prominent entertainment journalist drew clever connections between scenes in the film and the actions of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, and between a character played by the great comic actor Murotsuyoshi and Gene Wilder, circa Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the director said he was pleased, but did not have such homages in mind.

After being told by one attendee that Psychic Kusuo might be considered a bit over the top in the West, Fukuda said, “I think there are two types of comedy, the first being a straightforward ‘well-made’ comedy and the other being slapstick. Billy Wilder’s films were ‘well-made’ comedies, and certain prestigious directors have followed in his footsteps in Japan, such as Koki Mitani. I’m on the other end of the spectrum, and there aren't many who do gag comedy in Japan. Since I was heavily influenced by American comedies, my films have a strong parody aspect. For some reason, we don’t we do much parody in Japan, either.”

But he also insisted that the Japanese audience is “literate” in both types of comedy, and that he doesn’t “look down on or over-explain or dumb down my comedy for the audience. I trust them to get it.”

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Fukuda has fun in the FCCJ photo gallery. ©Mance Thompson

For the past decade or so, every project Fukuda has touched has turned to gold. Big studios line up to work with him, while eminent actors gamely deliver his brilliantly inane dialog and tackle his inspired physical gags. And his legion of followers? They’re the all-important youth demographic (and the millions who never quite grew up). They clearly can’t get enough of him.

In short, no one has his finger on the Cool Japan comedy zeitgeist quite like Fukuda. It seems impossible that he won’t get a shot at US glory. But in the meantime, he is remaking a US romantic comedy hit and will soon begin adapting the popular “Saint Young Men” manga.

Psychic Kusuo poster SHUICHI ASO  SHUEISHA 2017 Psychic Kusuo FILM PARTNERS
©SHUICHI ASO / SHUEISHA 2017 “Psychic Kusuo” FILM PARTNERS

Press Coverage

RADIANCE (Hikari)


RADIANCE Special Screening and TIFF Panel


October 3, 2017

Guests: Director Naomi Kawase, TIFF Festival Director Takeo Hisamatsu
and Japan Now advisor Kohei Ando
 


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Ando, Kawase and Hisamatsu react to a pointed question during the Japan Now session.    ©Mance Thompson

Making her first appearance at FCCJ in 10 years (but not for our lack of trying), Cannes Film Festival favorite Naomi Kawase laughed with delight when a journalist asked her, “What’s your impression of the last 29 installments of the Tokyo International Film Festival? And please, do be frank.”

Kawase was at FCCJ to talk about her participation in this year’s festival, where she will deliver a Master Class and field questions following a screening of her Palm d’Or nominee, Radiance. Everyone knew TIFF wasn’t her usual stomping grounds. After the laughter died down, the room held its breath.

“Something unattainable,” she began, then paused. “Since I was born and raised in Nara, I always had the impression that Tokyo was so filled with bright lights and so unattainable to me. It seemed so distant and so inaccessible. TIFF is one of the major international film festivals, and it seemed out of reach. But being able to participate in Japan Now this year, and hearing about all the other films that are being shown, I’m starting to feel it’s more accessible.”

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Kawase is the only Japanese filmmaker selected for Cannes seven times. This will be her first film in TIFF.      ©FCCJ

TIFF’s Japan Now Programming Advisor Kohei Ando was sitting next to Kawase, and hastened to follow up. “TIFF has always tried to include the brilliant films of master directors like Hirokazu Kore-eda and Ms. Kawase in the past,” he explained, “but because of the timing of the festival, late in the year, they always appeared at Cannes and other earlier festivals. This is why we created Japan Now: to showcase their work each year, without [worrying about] a world premiere.”

Ando and Kawase were joined on the dais by TIFF Festival Director Takeo Hisamatsu, taking over the reigns of the venerable festival from Yasushi Shiina for TIFF's 30th anniversary edition. The Film Committee has been cohosting events with TIFF for nearly a decade, and this year’s panel began with Hisamatsu, who provided an overview of festival highlights. Hisamatsu is a veteran of four decades in the industry, a producer of many award-winning titles, and a former top executive at Shochiku and Warner Bros. Pictures Japan. He has been busy expanding the diversity of programming, as well as lining up some tasty treats to celebrate the past, present and future of TIFF. He quickly mentioned several: the Midnight Film Festival (10 filmmakers addressing 6 different themes on 6 screens, running all night), Cinema Arena 30 (outdoor screenings of 28 vintage films, with bountiful food carts and blankets), the Godzilla Cinema Concerts (the original 1954 film accompanied by live orchestra), and the annual Special Night Event at Kabukiza (Ebizo Ichikawa preforming live plus the digitally remastered classic, The Gate of Hell).

Hisamatsu then elaborated, “Especially worth noting is the Japan Now section, which we consider to be especially important because it introduces the world to contemporary Japanese cinema. This is the third edition of the section, and all the films in the lineup, including Ms. Kawase’s Radiance, are sure to be entering the [year-end] awards race. In the past two years, Japan Now has featured a special Director in Focus. This year, we are instead highlighting four actresses, the Muses of Japanese Cinema, chosen because they have so inspired directors: Sakura Ando, Yu Aoi, Hikari Mitsushima and Aoi Miyazaki. I hope you will enjoy the outstanding films at the 30th TIFF.”

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Hisamatsu is helming his first TIFF (©FCCJ).  Ando returns for his third outstanding Japan Now program.  ©Mance Thompson

Japan Now’s Kohei Ando followed up with a description of the section’s bountiful offerings, ranging from Hirokazu Kore-eda’s acclaimed The Third Murder to a new masterwork from veteran arthouse maestro Nobuhiko Obayashi, Hanagatami. The section will showcase not only films starring the four muses, but also by four female directors. He enthused, “We will be showing two films for each of the four actresses, all of which have marked important turning points in their careers, and we’ll be holding special talk events with the actresses and directors after the screenings.”

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©Mance Thompson (left), ©Koichi Mori (right)

Ando proceeded to unveil an impressive roster of further guests: Along with Kawase, Kore-eda and Obayashi, directors Shunji Iwai (Hana and Alice), Momoko Ando (0.5mm), Lee Sang-il (Rage), Yang Yonghi (Our Homeland), Kei Ishikawa (Traces of Sin), Shinji Aoyama (Eureka), Masaaki Yuasa (The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl), Daihachi Yoshida (A Beautiful Star) and Michio Koshikawa (Life and Death on the Shore) will appear, as will Hanagatami star Takako Tokiwa.

Asked to divulge details about her Master Class, Kawase said, “First of all, I would like to congratulate [TIFF] on its 30th anniversary, because that’s a major accomplishment. I’m organizing the Nara International Film Festival in my hometown, which will turn five next year. So I really recognize what an immense feat it is to keep a film festival running. I think it’s a lot like life and like filmmaking in many respects, because we have to overcome so many hurdles to survive. Festivals are such hard work, so once again, congratulations to TIFF.

“I do not separate my life from my filmmaking,” she continued. “Filmmaking is my life. So in my TIFF Master Class, I would like to touch on a few examples of what emerging filmmakers might do to fuse their lives with their filmmaking. That will probably be my theme.”

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The panelists share another moment of mirth.  ©Mance Thompson

Kawase fondly recalled her earliest festival experiences and concluded, “Festivals are wonderful, because they are platforms for people from many nationalities who bring their films, come together, communicate, and take that back to their homelands. Then they come together again at a different festival. They help us overcome cultural differences and they motivate me as a filmmaker.”

The evening continued with a special screening of Kawase’s Radiance, her fifth film in the Cannes official competition and winner of the Ecumenical Jury Prize, before the writer-director returned for a vastly satisfying Q&A session — with the types of questions one might expect from a European arthouse audience. (Bravo, FCCJ Film Night regulars!)

Radiance is a luminous meditation on loss and salvation, and on the power of art to transform our lives. “Nothing is more beautiful than what disappears before our eyes,” says one of Kawase’s characters, and the line serves both as a metaphor for the film’s story and for cinema itself.

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©2017 “RADIANCE” FILM PARTNERS/KINOSHITA、COMME DES CINEMAS、KUMIE

Misako Ozaki (Ayame Misaki) writes audio commentary for visually impaired filmgoers, and as Radiance opens, her words are the subject of scrutiny from a focus group following a test screening session. The participants offer specific suggestions for improving her script, which is too wordy by far. Only one of them is downright rude about it. “It’s intrusive,” he barks, suggesting she’s robbing them of their own imaginations, and questions her competence. He is Masaya Nakamori (Masatoshi Nagase) a famed photographer who has slowly been losing his sight. Fate will continue to bring the two together, and despite his abrasiveness, Misako will soon find that Nakamori is a kindred spirit.

Both are lost souls — she, since the disappearance of her father and the progression of her mother’s dementia; he, as he loses his calling and his ex-wife prepares to remarry. Nakamori’s photographs, taken on an ancient Rolleiflex, entrance Misako, particularly one of the sun setting behind the mountains. It will eventually solve a mystery from her past. As both emerge, tentatively, from the limbos in which they’ve been living, they learn to see the world through each other’s eyes. In Kawase’s images, it is radiant.

Kawase was asked first how she came up with such an unusual setting for her film. “We had to make an audio guide for An/Sweet Bean, my last film,” she responded, and that’s how I first discovered it. When they showed me the dialog list for the guide, I was very moved by the words. Cinema is essentially visual, but for someone who is visually impaired, words are needed. The way they used the words, the way they described the scenes, were so beautiful. I had the idea that, if I had a protagonist who was doing this kind of work, I could express my love for cinema.”

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Kawase returned to field questions after the screening of her latest Cannes Palm d'Or nominee.  ©Koichi Mori (left), ©Mance Thompson (right)

Pointing out that Misako asks a film director in Radiance whether one of his characters is simply a projection of himself, one audience member asked, “Is this film itself a projection of yourself?” Answered Kawase, “After An/Sweet Bean was a commercial success, I was having a hard time figuring out what I really wanted to depict in my next film. I finally felt that I wanted to depict film itself as the core theme, because filmmaking is so intertwined with the way I live. In depicting my love for cinema, I’ve been able to project myself into the film.”

Asked about the “themes of disability and decrepitude” in her last two films, and how she sees the relation of art to physical breakdown, Kawase said, “I think creators, including filmmakers, are always looking for what’s missing within ourselves. By doing this, we come to realizations that help us grow. For me, being able to make films has enriched my life immensely. Films generally tend to shine a light on things that are to be celebrated or glorified, but I want to shine a light on people who aren’t usually depicted, and on that which is still in the dark or unknowable.”

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Ando, Kawase and Hisamatsu with the TIFF poster, featuring images shot by Mika Ninagawa.  ©Mance Thompson

Another audience member asked about the recurring image of a woman lost in the forest in several of her films, including Radiance, and the role of nature. “I think of nature and the natural landscape as a protagonist in my films. I believe there is nature, and within it, there is mankind. That’s how I see the world, and that’s the approach I take to my filmmaking. I think the natural landscape is sometimes more eloquent than words.”

Discussing her two leads, Kawase said, “I’d worked with Mr. Nagase on An/Sweet Bean, and when we took the film to Cannes, we talked about doing another film together. He’s a photographer in his own right, and I knew he could bring a realism to the role of a photographer losing his sight. I had him live in the apartment in Nara for a while before we shot there, and he wore goggles that impaired his sight. As for Ms. Misaki, I found her to be a very strong-willed, determined woman, especially on hearing about her suffering related to the [1995 Kobe] Earthquake.”

But after an audience member commented that she’d found Misaki to be “perhaps too young to portray the emotional depth” required of the character, Kawase admitted that had been her intention in casting her. “I felt she needed a little more depth, she wasn’t quite there yet,” said the director. “What you’re seeing in the scene with the audio guide [focus group] is based on a guide script that I had Ms. Misaki actually write herself, and her tears are real tears. I wanted to depict a girl who has a limited perspective and is thinking only about herself at first.”

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©Mance Thompson

A professional photographer wondered how Nagase’s character could have let go of his Leica camera in one pivotal scene, since they’re so expensive, and it's clear that the character cannot possibly live without it. “The idea behind that,” explained Kawase, “is that if you rid yourself of that which is most valuable to you, you make room for something even more valuable to come in.”

Finally, she was asked about her new film, currently in production in Nara and tentatively titled Vision. It stars Nagase again, as well as the celebrated French actress Juliette Binoche, making her first film in Japan. “It’s so exciting,” said Kawase, in English. “Working with Juliette is wonderful. She’s an amazing actress and has exceeded my expectations. One of the most wonderful things about her is her ability to improvise. She gives so much more than the script provides. She spends days and days trying to inhabit the character. She’s playing a woman named Jean, and she [created a backstory] about what her parents were like, where she studied, why she came to Japan. I always ask my actors to inhabit the location where their character lives prior to shooting, but I didn’t have to ask Juliette. She’d already done her homework. I felt like, finally I’ve met a [complete] actress.”

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Kawase with Ando and renowned film critic Reiko Kitagawa.  ©Koichi Mori

And then she raised goosebumps around the room, sharing a bittersweet memory from this year’s Cannes: “At the closing ceremony, Juliette was the presenter of the Palm d’Or. As Mr. [Pedro] Almodovar [who was head of the jury] was about to speak, she stopped him and said, ‘Cinema is light.’ She said ‘light’ in every language that she knew, including 'lumiere,' so I erroneously thought, ‘Maybe I’m going to win the Palm for my film!’ To be able to talk with her in Nara, just three months later, about how cinema is light and love, is quite miraculous to me.”

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  ©2017 “RADIANCE” FILM PARTNERS/KINOSHITA、COMME DES CINEMAS、KUMIE

Selected Press Coverage

Selected TV Exposure

  • AFP BB News 河瀬直美監督、東京国際映画祭は「手の届かない存在」都内会見

 

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