Place: New York

Neither Dream Nor Reality

Art Categories:  Film

In poet and film director Kenji Fukuma’s latest feature “A Fairy Tale,” twenty year-old Yuki (Saori Kohara) gives you the impression of wandering about with no place to go. While “You only have to be alive,” the words her missing father said, still linger in her heart, she has begun to sense a small heartbeat in a direction that is covered by mist. In the midst of economical and political unrest, what is it like for youth, newly fledged from adolescence, to grow into adulthood? Interweaving expressions of poetry, fairy tale and choreography, the film fleetingly and gracefully illustrates the vague feeling of being one step away from becoming an adult and the confusion caused by the sudden sprout of will or creed. This is a story that is neither dream nor reality – a Utopia that’s floating through film. A mystic fruit twinkles only if you get lost in it.



COOL sat with director Kenji Fukuma who, for the first time in 35 years, visited New York City for the screening at New York University.

In the opening scene, poet Yumi Fuzuki says, “Children nowadays, on trains or buses, it seems they’re always preoccupied, shutting out their own world listening to music or using cellphones.” How do you see youth nowadays?

Generally speaking, youth nowadays are having difficulties of going outside of the country. However, I believe there are young people who want to go abroad and want to have various experiences. Yumi Fuzuki has been a poet since she was a junior high school student, so she grew up as a genius. But in this movie I wanted to illustrate without judging what it’s like for young people who aren’t like her to become adults.


Could you talk about the youth around you when you were in your teens or twenties?

From the late 1960s until around 1970, Japan was in a revolutionary atmosphere; the youth wanted to destroy the old Japan and make something new. I think the youth were sucked into that air. And after entering the ‘70s, Japan was destroyed by the wall and probably has been destroyed since then. It might be just a dream for youth to change the world, but there were many young people who believed that dream.

What was the reason that you were attracted to expression?

When we were young, society still had a seniority system, so that we didn’t want to follow the same path as it was. There was a movement to search for a way to live by not following the path. During that period, I was fascinated by poetry and film – I guess film is easier to understand. When I was in the darkness of a movie theater alone, I was able to imagine my future possibilities. That’s how I got into expression.


Was director Koji Wakamatsu your biggest influence in terms of film?

Not only Mr. Wakamatsu, but during that period the ‘60s’ sub-culture was blooming, and I wanted to ride on it and was baptized by it. However, when you step aside from the standard of society, you feel insecure. But in a movie theater, that’s accepted. Mr. Wakamatsu was a very simple example: “Snobby assholes of our society must be all executed.” I liked that kind of attitude they had. Other Japanese filmmakers like Nagisa Oshima were all outsiders or badasses; film was the place that accepted all those.


“I was born in orphanage,” a passage from Agota Kristof’s poem is in the film. What do ‘orphan’ and ‘orphanage’ in the poem symbolize in the film?

The youth today rely on their parents and they don’t even try to resist their parents’ opinions. That might be one of the reasons that they are not free. If so, it’s possible for them to have this feeling of “I wish I were an orphan.” In the case of Yuki, she is not an orphan but was abandoned by her parents, and Yuki B (Makiko Kawano) symbolizes Yuki if she were an orphan; she wouldn’t have to care about her parents, and what kind of person she would be. About Agota Kristof’s poem in the film, it’s read by Yuki A (the lead) at first and read by Yuki B the next time it comes out.


Yuki B says, “I approached you to tell what you lack.” What are the things that Yuki B has that Yuki A doesn’t?

In other words, what Yuki B doesn’t have is the fortunate environment that Yuki A is in. That Yuki A doesn’t know the true fear of reality. To me Yuki B has been having fear in her life and symbolizes the difference of experience.


Could you explain about Yuki B more?

Actually I think Japanese cinema today depicts characters like Yuki B. To explain, there was something unfortunate in their background: they grew up in poverty or harsh circumstances. But I think like Naturalism, which lasted until the ‘50s and came before the French New Wave, says “the environment is terrible” and “the society is wrong.” However, if you can live strong and have nothing to do with that matter, that is also questionable. For example, if I myself am similar to Yuki A, it’s criticism towards myself from something like Yuki B. Moreover, until now Japanese cinema tends to have young protagonists who cut their wrists or who are autistic because it’s easy for people to understand.


It’s easy to recognize them as heroes.

I think this view is old. If you say that this terrible environment created this person, then humans won’t be able to open their destiny by themselves. However, there are many films like that.


There is a line, “When you start to go in different directions, it proves a will has sprouted in you.” Why did you include a conversation about will?

Will is the desire of choosing to do something. And that was professor Sengoku’s improvisation. He spoke about when you struggle between something and another view because you have desire to do something. You might be surprised, but that Yuki has a divided personality was actually inspired by “Black Swan.” That is about a young girl who meets another herself, and it was tricky and shockingly made, and even the dance scenes were painful to watch. However, even if you don’t make a film that way, you encounter a similar situation like “Black Swan” when meeting another yourself.


“Black Swan” has an aspect of fairy tale.

I wanted to make a “Black Swan” that was not too heavy. I knew that Saori Kohara is good at street dance, so I was aware that she was able to dance. Makiko Kawano who plays Yuki B is doing ballet, but she doesn’t practice it to be the best. She does it because dancing is letting go.


There is a line, “Creeds change little by little; if not so, you would be stagnant.” How did your creeds change and how did you reach to that opinion now?

There is a tradition that’s accumulated. I think I had a creed to resist it because it’s more interesting and I didn’t want to be under someone’s thumb the past 40 years while I’ve been writing poems. But I began to have another view that makes me wonder that I might not just do that. You know, it’s also important to accept the value of people who live normally. Japanese people don’t show their opinions clearly, you know. I was wondering if Japanese don’t have their own creeds; they do things without asking themselves this is good or bad. I’ve wanted people to express their creeds, but now I think, “Is it that easy to say so?” When you think about creeds, you reach a point where having creeds is not necessarily superior to those who don’t have them. I’m happy that I’ve made moves according to my creeds, but I realized something wise and deep in people who don’t have creeds. There are always many different aspects to one thing. It would be great to realize that when you are young, but it’s difficult. So that realizing things have many different aspects and seeing things that you didn’t see yesterday make your creeds change I think.


To realize that things have many different aspects connects to what Chiharu (performed by Akira Yoshino) says, “Whatever comes, we don’t really have to get rattled.”

In the ‘90s, in terms of culture and philosophy, that was called After-Postmodernism. But After-Postmodernism is, in the case of Japan, directly inherited from Western Culture, so it probably did not come from Japan itself. There might have been people who thought this is a new idea without realizing that. In a time like that, you don’t have to get rattled if you are able to see many different aspects in a new idea. So I wanted Yuki to be a twenty year-old girl who is not restricted by one side of an idea. Saori Kohara reflects Yuki herself. “Sasaki Yuki-ism” in the film is really hers, and I was fascinated by her quality. She is very intriguing.


Yuki questions this quote “You only have to be alive.” What triggered you to think about that?

My father is gone, and my mother had been in a nursing home but her condition got worse and is hospitalized now. There are filmmakers who make films about elderly care, but when I think about what is a good attitude for elderly people, it is nothing more than just to be alive. There is a title called “Poetry is alive” in my collection of essays on poetry, and it doesn’t talk about what poetry is, but talks about poetry that has not died yet; it has possibilities to keep changing, and that means it’s still got a heartbeat. So, “You only have to be alive” is one of the themes in that. Moreover when you think about “You only have to be alive,” you definitely think what it means to be alive. Even about that, Professor Sengoku explained very well in the film. For my films, the scripts are loosely made because I want to scoop things that naturally come out while shooting. If Yuki asks, “Can you really only have to be alive?” somebody responds to it. And I want audience to think about that too, as they do.


You said that you want to scoop things that naturally come out while shooting, and I thought you left somethings that look like accidents. For example, in the scene when characters pretend to box, their hands crush, and when Yuki is having a meal, the chopsticks roll and drop from the bowl for rice. Could you talk about your obsession to leave those accidents?

I find it fascinating when something beyond this consciousness tries to control expression. The scenes that you mentioned are that, and for example, when the chopsticks fall from the bowl of rice, I did not tell her to do so. Actually I wanted to see more of her face in that take, but the chopsticks naturally fell, then she picked a piece of rice off the chopstick and put it in her mouth, which is impossible to do again. So that even though I thought that I wanted to see her face more, we didn’t shoot the same scene again. There is a long scene where Yuki A and Yuki B are playing karuta, you know? It began because we wondered what would happen if two people played that, but we thought if they played it again, it would have been completely different take, so we didn’t stop shooting. I thought those girls really extracted the qualities of their characters, not just playing their characters. And we tried to edit the whole film to use that scene. What happens during the first take in a scene is very important for me. You know, life is once, because of that, it’s interesting.


All the characters in “A Fairy Tale” refuse when money was offered for their compensation. What kind of wish of you did you want to appeal to?

Actually the aspect of fairy tale in this film emerges in that. In the end, we must not be greedy. This society we live in has been created by people who want to make financial profit, but I believe we should avoid following that. There is a scene where Yuki chooses one of three spoons; it’s important to choose the smallest of all in that kind of situation, and that kind of nuance is always in a fairy tale.  Whoever chooses the biggest one will meet misfortune.


The black and white scene was memorable. What did you want to show by that?

To me, the scenes where Yuki B and another character K appear are a dream. I tried to contrive how to show how differently time flows from reality. For Yuki B’s dancing scene, I used drop frame to make it like an old picture made with film. I synchronized the sense of dream and the touch of the early days of film. For example, an ordinary sign of dreams in old Japanese cinema is the blurry vision. But I find it uninteresting when you make an obvious difference between reality and dream. Even so, I did place a sign of dream. For example, Yuki B and K have the same sign on their feet; I wanted to show that those two characters are created in Yuki’s mind. However, they exist as if they live in reality. I’m curious how people see it.


People want to distinguish what is consciousness and what is unconsciousness, but while unconsciousness is more active, consciousness is definitely still active, and vice versa. I thought “A Fairy Tale” expresses that sense very well.

I have the desire not to distinguish between dream and reality. I don’t want to think, “This is dream, this is something that I imagine in my head, this is not happening for real.” In the Christian precept, if you think about something sexual in your head, that’s a sin. Like that, sometimes you can distinguish what you imagined and what you actually did. And film is a place where dream and reality aren’t separate things.


Yuki says ‘I was lonely in my childhood as well, I was lonely in France as well.’ Besides Yuki, I had an impression that some of the characters also embody loneliness. Is there any connection between poets and loneliness?

I make films, so for me human relations aren’t a burden. But some of the people who write poems have that quality as essential. I believe you wouldn’t meet poetry if you didn’t have the mentality that you don’t have to be in a group; which is not like the mentality that is prominently seen in Japanese youth: they get anxious if they don’t gather or aren’t in a group. You know, as if you don’t feel loneliness when you are alone. To me, expression is like that. You go to a very lonely place and never feel that you don’t live alone. I like to feel that way. I like to write poems on the shore or a riverbank. I think, when you are alone in places like those, it’s the beginning of expression. The desire to connect with someone sprouts when you are in the corner of the world.



text & portrait photos by Taiyo Okamoto

stills by Tough Mama

“A Fairy Tale” Official Blog