A Foggy Paradise was one of three Japanese entries selected for the prestigious Competition section of the 2023 Tokyo International Film Festival. This year, only 15 films out of 1,942 submissions worldwide made the cut. It marks a huge step for director Yohei Kotsuji, who says his "hands shook" when he learned that his first-ever feature film had earned this honor.
As an independent filmmaker, Kotsuji had to rely on his personal funds and a grant from the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs. On top of that, he needed to balance filmmaking with his job as a special needs teacher. "I reached my limit many times, both physically and mentally," Kotsuji says.
Matters of Life and Death
A Foggy Paradise explores the themes of life and death through two unrelated narratives. In one, a man named Tatsuya (Yuya Okutsu) lives with his mother (Yasumi Yajima) who has mobility issues. He grapples with a monotonous job and feels increasingly suffocated by his mother who is at once doting and dismissive.
The other narrative focuses on two young adults, Kurage (Masatoshi Lee) and his childhood friend Ame (Haru Naito). Kurage confronts the reality of death as he cares for an elderly man in a vegetative state. The three eventually embark on a journey after Ame notices an old photograph of a lake in the man's room.
During a post-screening Q&A session, an audience member inevitably asked why the two storylines never intersect. Kotsuji responded, "Life is incongruent and unknowable, and in that regard, Kurage's story is about life and Tatsuya's is about death."
It should be noted that the film's title 曖昧な楽園 directly translates to "an ambiguous paradise." This is key as the concept of ambiguity plays an important role in the film's storytelling.
During a scene on an apartment rooftop, Kurage says, "Sometimes I don't feel like I'm living or dead." But his words are more like a passing remark than the unloading of a burden. Ame's response is equally nonchalant: "Isn't everybody like that?"
The film avoids defining life and death as either good or bad. Therefore, it is neither a lamentation of death nor a celebration of life. It instead offers a quiet compassion to all those who, like the characters, are on a vague quest for answers.
The exact nature of the characters' burdens and conflicts also remains implicit, with only occasional hints provided throughout the script. Their inner lives are primarily conveyed through observational shots, stillness, and silence, in line with the slow cinema style. In fact, there's only one emotionally charged scene in the film — and it's absolutely arresting.
The director leaves ample space for the audience to formulate their own interpretations of both the narrative and the characters' inner lives. Kotsuji articulated this by saying, "Instead of imposing a narrative or plot, I encourage the audience to come up with their own interpretations. I want to 'co-create' the story with the audience."
As both the director and screenwriter, Kotsuji fostered an environment where ideas could evolve organically between him and the cast. Inspirations that surfaced during rehearsals often found their way into the script. In fact, the film's ending was entirely improvised by actor Masatoshi Lee, who portrays Kurage. "We really appreciate the director's willingness to embrace our input," said Lee.
Haru Naito, who plays Ame, echoed this sentiment. "The director created a space for us to engage in extensive dialogue. He also welcomed improvisation, allowing ideas to continually build upon one another."
Kotsuji explained his emphasis on improvisation, saying, "I find joy in making unexpected discoveries from the cast. I envision the filmmaking process as a relay of ideas bouncing back and forth."
This also sheds light on why A Foggy Paradise is almost three hours long. As some reviewers have noted, some scenes could have been shortened without compromising the film's impact. Nevertheless, Kotsuji's reluctance to trim the material evidently stems from his deep appreciation for the collaborative moments shared with the cast.
Capturing the Ordinary
Kotsuji's knack for capturing special moments in his cast's interactions aligns with the film's overarching theme of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Most scenes in A Foggy Paradise would be familiar to urban dwellers in Japan like myself. While they may not be able to pinpoint the exact locations, the sounds and ambiance will resonate with them.
"My hope is that when people watch this film, it will seamlessly connect with their reality," explained Kotsuji. "I want the sounds in the film to blend with the sounds in their everyday lives, fusing the two worlds."
And sure enough, while I was chopping up vegetables the other night, the sound reminded me of a scene in which Tatsuya's mother cooks in the kitchen.
The quest to discover the extraordinary within the ordinary holds a deep personal significance for Kotsuji. "I used to visit my grandfather in his hospital room when he was bedridden due to dementia and muscular dystrophy," he explained. "All we could do was share quiet moments together. These moments are not remarkable, but they are etched in my memory."
A Foggy Paradise, as the title suggests, invites its audience to embrace ambiguity. Rather than providing definitive answers, it prompts viewers to find the special moments for themselves. That means the film may not resonate with those who want a clear-cut resolution.
Finally, I confronted Kotsuji with a question that had been weighing on my mind. "You say your film captures extraordinary moments in ambiguity," I said. "But do you truly believe people living in the real world can encounter such moments?"
"That's a challenging question," Kotsuji admitted, looking down pensively. After a brief pause he answered, "Yes, I certainly believe so. There are moments in life that defy description. Perhaps we can find them in shared experiences with our loved ones. So yes, I believe extraordinary moments are there for all of us to experience."
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Author: Miruka Adachi