Japan Cinema Now: Gag-fest from director transforming the zeitgeist
Is writer-director Yuichi Fukuda on the brink of global success with his new film Psychic Kusuo?
A few years ago, Japan’s beloved gag-comedy king, film director Yuichi Fukuda, seemed stuck in a (comfortable) rut, having achieved unprecedented domestic success for his peculiar brand of humor.
If he did not exactly invent the genre, Fukuda had nurtured it to a fine sheen of ridiculousness. His gleeful obsession with the throwaway sight gag, the inside joke, the exaggerated double-take, the non-sequitur, the off-kilter line delivery and the 4th-wall-breaking meta-commentary soon began shifting the tenor of the entire comedy industry.
In just over a decade, he built an empire of amusement encompassing stage plays, including adaptations of Broadway hits like Spamalot; TV series like 33-Minute Detective and Kid’s Police; and film adaptations of best-selling Japanese manga, like the HK: Forbidden Super Hero series, in which a high school boy wears women’s panties on his head to gain superpowers.
And then 2017 happened. Fukuda’s Midas Touch led him to Gintama, the gag-manga property from publisher 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 also had the largest-ever Chinese opening for a Japanese film, making history by opening on a record 12,000 screens in early September and handily dispatching the former title-holder, Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name.
But it’s unlikely his new box-office clout will change Fukuda’s approach to supremely silly storytelling.
If his latest film, Psychic Kusuo, is any guide, he continues to be devoted to lean budgets, retro special effects and supporting casts filled with familiar faces.
Spend 5 minutes in his presence and it’s also clear that he is a joyride to be around, with the ability to keep himself, and everyone within earshot, in perpetual stitches.
It’s no mystery why big studios are lining up to work with him, and eminent actors vie to deliver his brilliantly inane dialog and tackle his inspired physical gags.
As for his legion of fans, the all-important youth demographic (and those who never quite grew up), they clearly can’t get enough of him.
Prior to the October 21 opening of Psychic Kusuo in Japan, Fukuda screened a sneak preview of the film at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Tokyo, and presided over a Q&A session in which he eagerly peppered the audience with questions.
About the film
Yuichi Fukuda remains devoted to a particular kind of narrative, focused on underdogs and outsiders. Psychic Kusuo (Saiki Kusuo no Sainan) is no exception.
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).
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 (wannabe manga hero) syndrome.
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 come out of his pockets.
Yuichi Fukuda: “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.
“When I was in grade school, I really liked 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. I found it 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, or one-liner, isn’t the sort of thing that was often seen in Japan. I wanted to bring an American sensibility to comedy.
“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. Usually, if you have superpowers, you would want to use them or weaponize them. But [Saiki Kusuo] 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.
“To be frank, the casting is all done by my wife. She tells me who I should get for all the roles, and I tell the producers, who are very nice, and they always cast as my wife wishes. 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 she’s right. I’ve found that it’s better to listen to what she says.
“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, like a manager. But she’s never been part of the industry, she’s just a regular homemaker. I say ‘homemaker’ but she doesn’t clean, cook or do the laundry… But she’s a genius wife and I’m like her marionette. I just listen to what she says.”
Yuichi Fukuda began his career as a writer for such popular TV shows as Waratte iitomo (1982-2014) and SMAP×SMAP (1995-2016). In 1990, he started writing and directing productions for the theatre troupe Bravo, and finally branched into film with his 2009 directorial debut, Chasing My Girl, adapted from his own stage play.
Fukuda has continued to script and direct in all three realms, solidifying his TV fan base with The Brave Yoshihiko series (2011-2016) and Super Salaryman Mr. Saenai (2017). His films have been local hits and international festival favorites, including the HK: Forbidden Super Hero series (2013/2016), Akegarasu (2015), and this summer’s Gintama. He will begin adapting Saint Young Men, another immensely popular manga series, in 2018.
Where it’s on
Psychic Kusuo opens on October 21 in Japan, with international openings to follow.