As Love Life hits UK cinemas, Japanese writer-director Kōji Fukada talks about his tale of grief, loneliness, deaf culture and his enduring love of French cinema
“Whatever the distance between us, nothing can stop me loving you,” sang Akiko Yano in her 1993 pop ballad Love Life. Three decades later, Yano’s lyrics serve as the melodic inspiration for one of the year’s most devastating dramas, Love Life, an exploration of grief, loneliness, and deaf culture. “I first heard the song when I was 20, and I listened to it over and over,” says the Japanese writer-director Kōji Fukada, via an interpreter, during a colourful Zoom call. “It gave me the idea for the relationships and how I could use the song in the film. I just love the song so much. Too much.”
Whereas Yano’s vocal delivery is soft and gentle, Fukada’s feature strikes hard, delivering tragedy within the opening minutes. In a slightly cramped Japanese home, Taeko (Fumino Kimura) and her husband, Jiro (Kento Nagayama), live with six-year-old Keita, a child from Taeko’s previous marriage. After a bathtub is left running, though, Keita slips without anyone watching, and the unimaginable becomes imaginable. First, Love Life tackles the taboo that one parent might care more than the other when a child dies; then the arrival of Park (Atom Sunada), Keita’s biological father, adds the complications that enrichen the agonising narrative.
A deaf Korean man, Park abandoned Taeko four years prior, and when he arrives at Keito’s funeral, he reveals he’s also homeless. For Taeko, it’s not just that an excruciating love triangle emerges, but there’s a new male figure in her life requiring assistance. All the while, Jiro is left excluded by Keito interacting with her ex-husband via Korean sign language. In Fukada’s early writing stages, though, Park wasn’t deaf, and he was going to speak French or Spanish. “Around the time I was writing the screenplay, I had the opportunity to meet more deaf people,” the director says. “I thought that rather than asking why I have chosen to make this character deaf, actually the question is: why have my films, in the past, never had a single deaf person in them? That’s a stranger thing, and a weakness of my films in the past.”
Jiro, it’s revealed, is a poor communicator, a man who involuntarily turns his face away during intense conversations. In contrast, Taeko finds that, with Park, the enforced eye contact of sign language results in a different, if not far closer, form of engagement. “I tried to learn a bit of sign language,” says Fukada. “In that process, I realised how little I look at the people I talk to in everyday life.” Throughout, the director consulted with Japanese and Korean sign language speakers. “It’s not just a case of moving your hands. The facial expressions and movement of the eyebrows contribute to the language. If a deaf person watches a hearing person speak sign language, often that’s something they feel is missing. Which is why I wanted a deaf actor playing Park.”
While Park is an outsider who receives xenophobic abuse as a Korean man in Japan and strikes a sympathetic figure, he’s arguably the closest Love Life has to possessing a villain – he’s a compulsive liar who breaks up a marriage. I say “arguably” because Fukada disagrees. “Although it’s most obvious with Park, Taeko and Kiro are also betraying somebody. They’re all lying. We all do it in different ways. We’re kind to one person but, at the same time, hurting someone else. That’s essential to the human condition.”
Fukada, 42, was born in Tokyo and has been making films for two decades, though, in the UK, he’s best-known for Harmonium, which won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes in 2016. Also a family-drama about a marriage disturbed by an outsider, Harmonium dissects the gender dynamics of a mother and father when their daughter requires full-time care; in Love Life, it’s further examined as Taeko, an otherwise career-driven woman, often gives up her wants and needs in order to aid Park, a man who frequently betrays her.
“Taeko can speak her mind,” says Fukada. “When her father-in-law criticises her, she stands up to him. But even so, a woman as strong as that is still subjected to these traditional patriarchal pressures of Japanese society, and that’s something that comes across in the film. Admittedly, Japan is now a lot better at gender equality than it was 50 years ago, but [patriarchal pressure] still exists, and we are still lagging far behind internationally – even though there has been progress.”
Like Harmonium, Love Life explores the role of dramatic coincidences, the kind that only exist in movies to keep up the momentum. For example, when the core trio run out to search for a runaway cat, it’s by chance that, at that moment, they bump into a mailman who’s delivering a significant letter to Park, meaning that these plot points unfold in a single scene. “I love coincidences in films,” says Fukada. “Hamaguchi made a film [Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy] about coincidences. Éric Rohmer said coincidence is a kind of myth that’s not just there to move the film along, but a destiny to bring characters together and make us realise things.”
The Rohmer name-drop is apt as Fukada is openly a fan of French cinema, to the extent that Love Life is a Japanese and French co-production. “For both myself and Kore-eda [who shot The Truth in France], one reason why we work with France so much is financial,” he explains. “For a country that produces so many films, Japan has very little financial support for filmmaking. If you want to make arthouse-type movies, you look elsewhere. France is one country that offers support. In order to get that support, half of the film needs to be made in France.” Subsequently, Love Life was largely edited and scored in France, incorporating several French artists behind the scenes. “If the UK were to offer that kind of support for production, then a lot of Japanese directors would suddenly start making their movies in the UK.”
Either way, in the UK, Fukada may gain new fans, not just through Love Life but through a mini BFI retrospective of three of his earlier films: 2010’s Hospitalité, 2013’s Au revoir l’été, and 2016’s Harmonium. The BFI are also releasing Love Life alongside a Yasujirō Ozu season, an attempt to, according to a BFI programmer, present a conversation between the past and the present. “I’ve grown up with his films since I was a teenager,” says Fukada. “Having my film released at the same time as his retrospective is fantastic and nerve-wracking.”
Ultimately, though, it’s all been building up to Love Life – or, rather, the slotting of Love Life, the song, into the closing moments of Love Life. “What I’ve always had in my mind is: what’s the best way to play this song in a cinema for an audience to hear and appreciate it? It’s the reason I’ve managed to maintain the motivation for the last 20 years to make this movie. It really exists because of the song.”
Love Life is out in UK cinemas now and will be available on BFI Player from November 6.