Japanese auteur Koji Fukada is developing his latest feature film, a look into the frenzied world of Japan’s idol culture, which he’ll be presenting during the Rotterdam Film Festival’s CineMart co-production market this week.
The project will then head to the European Film Market next month as part of the Rotterdam-Berlinale Express, a collaboration between the two markets.
Fukada spoke exclusively to Variety about his tenth feature film, “Love on Trial,” which tells the story of a burgeoning pop star who falls in love with an old schoolmate – only to have her life and career unravel because that romance violates a “no boys” clause in her contract.
The film is inspired by the improbable, real-life court case of a 15-year-old Japanese pop star who was sued by her talent management company for falling into a romantic relationship that violated the terms of her contract. The court ultimately ruled in favor of the plaintiff, with the judge reasoning that “the role of idol singers is to build up their fanbase and any relationship that’s discovered would damage their public image.”
Upon hearing the verdict, Fukada said he had “shivers running up my spine” as he realized the “grotesque implications” of the verdict and its “violent undertones.” “A girl was found guilty of being in a romantic relationship, with no consideration of the unequal power balance in show business and the legal system, which are predominantly men’s worlds,” he said.
That power imbalance, he added, extends beyond the idiosyncratic world of Japanese pop culture, describing it as “a familiar violence all over the world.” But it creates a particularly difficult burden for young female idols in a country where gender equality lags far behind global norms.
Last year, Fukada noted, Japan ranked 120th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report. The country has never had a female prime minister, and women account for fewer than one in 10 executives at leading Japanese companies. The imbalance extends to the film industry: According to a study conducted last year by the non-profit Japanese Film Project, of the 796 directors of Japanese films released between 2000 and 2020 that earned more than 1 billion yen (about $8.7 million) at the box office, just 25 were women.
“Love on Trial” digs into such gender imbalances by examining the complex relationship between female pop stars and their fans. During the dawn of Japanese idol culture in the 1970s, said Fukada, “catchphrases such as ‘a little sister for 100 million’ and ‘my little sister’ were common, symbolically projecting the image of a young woman who should be protected.” Gradually, such phrases came to also suggest a “pseudo-romance” or sexual relationship with the teenage pop stars.
“One of the main motifs of this film is the business strategy of promoting idols, which is mainstream nowadays,” said the director. “It is a way to systematize the pseudo-romance between idols and their fans through events such as handshake meetings and popularity polls and link it to a big business.”
Beyond broader social concerns that are bound to resonate in a post-#MeToo era, Fukada said “Love on Trial” will portray a very human story. “I will simply focus the camera on the dreams and struggles of one woman who wanted to live as an idol in an unequal and violent society, and the transformation of her face. Her eyes on the screen will be a mirror, not propaganda,” he said. “What this film explores and reveals is not the dark side of society, but the gender perspective that lies within each viewer’s heart, in other words: philosophy.”
Produced by Paris-based Survivance and Tokyo’s knockonwood Inc., “Love on Trial” is the director’s tenth feature film. After making an auspicious debut with “Human Comedy in Tokyo,” Fukada received wider acclaim with the 2010 dark comedy “Hospitalité,” before claiming the Jury Prize in the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section in 2016 for “Harmonium.”
Since then, he has made “The Man From the Sea” (2018), followed by the Locarno selection “A Girl Missing” (2019) and the sprawling romcom “The Real Thing,” which was named to Cannes’ 2020 Official Selection.
While doing post-production on another feature film during the pandemic and developing “Love on Trial,” Fukada partnered with acclaimed “Drive My Car” director Ryusuke Hamaguchi to launch a crowdfunding campaign to help independent cinemas in Japan survive the existential threat posed by the pandemic.
The director described the situation as dire, noting how arthouse cinemas “were on the verge of financial disaster even in normal times.” He credited the Japanese government with introducing support mechanisms during the pandemic but added that “unless structural reforms are made to support culture, I believe that the severe situation will continue until we are burnt to the ground.”
Fukada said he often compares the significance of watching a movie on the big screen to the relationship between a work of art and a museum, with the cinematic experience likewise offering an opportunity to come into contact with “original works of art.”
“Even though film is an art form of reproduction, it is in theaters that it can have the greatest effect as an expression, and I believe that what can be seen in theaters is the closest to the ‘original,’” he continued. “In this respect, it is nonsense to argue that we don’t need movie theaters because we have TV, DVDs, and [digital] distribution, and we should create an environment where each of them can coexist while fulfilling their respective roles.”
The Rotterdam Film Festival’s CineMart co-production market takes place online from Jan. 30-Feb. 2.