Guest Article: Japanese Films Since 2000

By Mark Schilling

The Japanese film industry never seems to change. “Production committees” – consortiums of film studios, TV networks and other media companies – make films based on hit manga, novels and TV series now, just they did in 2000 or 1980. And anime continues to regularly top the local box office, including series like “Doraemon” and “Pokemon” that have entertained kids for decades.

But today’s industry is also different from the one of 2000. The number of Japanese film releases grew from 282 in 2000 to 689 in 2019. Also, the number of theater screens rose from 2,524 to 3,583 in the same period, while total box office increased from JPY170 billion ($1.57 billion)to JPY261 billion ($2.4 billion).

Pre-coronavirus, these figures pointed to a thriving market for Japanese films, but it wasn’t that simple. A few big distributors led by Toho, which also runs Japan’s biggest theater chain, accounted for most of the films making more than JPY1 billion ($9.3 million), the traditional measure of a commercial hit. Meanwhile, the budgets of indie films were shrinking, as was the scale of their releases. That is, the rich were getting richer and the poor poorer.

Also, the list of active Japanese directors well-known outside Japan has grown surprising little since 2000. There is the indefatigable Miike Takashi, who became internationally notorious for his 1999 cult shocker “Audition.” There is also the so-called “4K” group consisting of Koreeda Hirokazu, Kawase Naomi, Kurosawa Kiyoshi and Kitano Takeshi who all made similar breakthroughs in the 1990s and still represent Japanese cinema to the world.

Others, such as one-time cyberpunk rebel Tsukamoto Shinya and cinematic provocateur Sono Sion, have long had cult followings overseas abroad though Tsukamoto, with his ventures into serious non-genre cinema, and Sono, with his successful transition to commercial filmmaking, no longer fit the “cult director” box.         

The shortness of the “Japanese directors famous abroad” list is not due to a lack of talent among younger filmmakers: Directors such as Fukada Koji, Hamaguchi Ryusuke and Nishikawa Miwa have made some of the best Japanese films of the current millennium.

But non-Japanese critics and fans tend to focus on familiar names from an industry otherwise unfamiliar. Just as Kurosawa Akira, Ozu Yasujiro and Mizoguchi Kenji were once the sum and total of Japanese cinema to much of the outside world, so today are Koreeda, Kitano and company.

In the world of anime, however, foreign fans may still rave about Miyazaki Hayao, but they also follow the work of such younger animators as Yuasa Masaaki, Hosoda Mamoru, Hara Keiichi and Shinkai Makoto, all of whom have moved to the industry forefront since 2000. When Shinkai’s 2016 romantic fantasy “Your Name” became, with a take of $358 million, the highest-earning Japanese animation worldwide of all time, even casual fans realized that the mighty Miyazaki now had a rival.  

But while foreign gatekeepers, with their coveted festival invitations and prizes, may still have clout – Koreeda’s win of the Cannes Palme d’Or for his 2018 family drama “Shoplifters” propelled it to the box office stratosphere in Japan  – young Japanese filmmakers now have other ways to grab attention, from crowd-funding campaigns to social media blitzes.

One is Ueda Shinichiro, director of “One Cut of the Dead,“ a comedy about a zombie film shoot that becomes “infected” by the real undead thing.  Made for a budget of $25,000 with the backing of Enbu Seminar, a school for aspiring actors and directors, “One Cut of the Dead” was cast with unknowns and had a publicity budget of zero.

After getting a warm reception at the Udine Far East Film Festival and Nippon Connection, the film opened at two Tokyo theaters in June 2018. With Ueda and his cast heavily promoting it on social media, it soon became a word-of-mouth hit, selling out screening after screening.

After mid-sized distributor Asmik Ace partnered with Enbu Seminar, which had produced the film and first released it, the number of screens quickly expanded, as did earnings. By the end of the year “One Cut of the Dead” had made over 3 billion yen – 1,000 times its budget. Whether Ueda or anyone else can replicate this miracle is still a question mark, however.

Despite starvation incomes and uncertain futures, indie filmmakers like Ueda are releasing far more films now than they were at the millennium’s start. And for all the negatives of micro budgets, such as limitations on story and theme (lots of coming-of-age films, not many historical dramas) they make it easier to recoup – or rather harder to disastrously fail. “One Cut of the Dead” needed only 5,000 admissions to earn back its investment, but finally exceeded the two million mark.

Meanwhile, streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime have aggressively entered the Japanese market, but have yet to achieve a US-level of influence and impact. Instead Japan’s five major networks, as well as big manga and book publishers, still exert more sway over the culture as a whole. And these networks and publishers still back the majority of films that top the box office, year in and year out.

Also, the Japanese film industry is still insular by Western and even Asian standards, with most of its films aimed solely at the local audience, though since 2000 it has become more open to outside influences while more Japanese film production and talent has flowed abroad.

Among internationally minded younger directors are Fujimoto Akio, who went to Myanmar to film his 2017 dysfunctional family drama “Passage of Life,” Fukunaga Takeshi, who shot his 2015 migrant drama “Out of My Hand” in Liberia and New York, and Tomita Katsuya, who set his 2016 relationship drama “Bangkok Nites” in Thailand and Laos.    

At home, Japanese film companies have been remaking more Asian films including “Sunny: Our Hearts Beat Together,” One Hitoshi’s reworking of a 2011 Korean female buddy movie, “You Are the Apple of My Eye,” Hasegawa Yasuo’s take on the 2011 Giddens Ko film about teen romance in Taiwan, and “Memoirs of a Murderer,” Irie Yu’s 2017 detective thriller based on the 2012 Korean hit “Confession of Murder.”

And though not a remake, the 2018 “Ten Years Japan” was inspired by “Ten Years,” a 2015 Hong Kong omnibus that speculated about the state of the city in ten years’ time. Supervised by Koreeda Hirokazu, the film features segments by five young Japanese directors set in a near-future Japan.

 All this ferment does not mean the Japanese film industry will ever open as widely to the world as Hollywood. Ultimately it exists to serve the domestic market first and foremost. And for reasons cultural and linguistic, native Japanese will always have significant advantages over non-Japanese in catering to that market.

But with freer exchanges of investment and talent come greater opportunities to not only make films that appeal beyond Japan’s borders, but also for outsiders to work with their Japan counterparts, be it as a producer on an indie comedy or as a star in a commercial drama. And as Japan’s population continues to age and decline, the local industry will continue to look for new ways to escape its demographic doom, with internationalization high on the list.

Still another trend signaling greater inclusion is the emergence of women directors since 2000. The pioneer was Kawase Naomi, who became a Cannes regular after winning the festival’s Camera d’Or prize in 1997 for her debut fiction feature “Suzaku.” Based in her home prefecture of Nara, far from the industry’s power centers, and making films of a personal, even autobiographical nature, Kawase has nonetheless opened the way for women filmmakers with a variety of outlooks and approaches.

At the top of the list is Nishikawa Miwa, who worked as an assistant director for Koreeda Hirokazu, but has since carved out her own directorial identity while taking aim at human duplicity (“Dear Doctor”), the elusiveness of truth (“Sway”) and the potential for serial liars to redeem themselves (“The Long Excuse”). She also has her own work style, starting with the writing of a novel, proceeding to a screenplay and finally to a film. Not unexpectedly, the gaps between her films tend to be long.

More commercially minded, if equally individual, is Ogigami Naoko. After studying filmmaking at the University of Southern California, she made films about quirky heroines who discover their grooves in a foreign clime (“Kamome Diner”), an island resort (“Glasses”) or by “renting” felines to strangers (“Rent-a-Cat”).  Tiring of hearing that her hit films were a cinematic form of aromatherapy for her mostly female fans, Ogigami changed direction with “Close-Knit,” a 2017 film about a transgender woman who dreams of raising her live-in boyfriend’s neglected niece. The film garnered many overseas festival invitations and awards, including a Special Jury Prize at Berlin.

Despite this sort of critical acclaim and commercial success women are seldom hired to direct big commercial films. One reason: Many of their directors come from the world of TV drama, which is still largely a male preserve behind the camera, though serial drama has traditionally been a scriptwriter’s medium – and many hit dramas have been scripted by women.

But not all films for mass audiences are directed by journeymen from the TV ranks. Former “pink” (softcore porn) filmmaker Hiroki Ryuichi has become the industry’s go-to director of romantic dramas, starting with his 2009 hit “April Story,” while continuing to make much-praised indie films, such as the 2018 Fukushima-disaster-themed drama “Side Job.”  

 Also, Sato Shinuke has built his brand as a master of effects movies with such hits as “Gantz,” “I Am a Hero” and “Inuyashiki.” His latest film, “Kingdom,” a period actioner filmed in China and Japan with all Japanese actors, is his first venture abroad.

Meanwhile, Shiraishi Kazuya won acclaim for “Blood of Wolves,” a gritty 2018 crime film starring Koji Yakusho as a roguish cop who works on both sides of the law. A major inspiration, according to Shiraishi himself, was Kinji Fukasaku, a maker of realistic yakuza movies for Toei in the 1960s and 1970s.

In 2018 Shiraishi also released “Dare to Stop Us,” an un-blinkered, if affectionate, look at rebel filmmaker Koji Wakamatsu and his circle in his 1960s and 1970s heyday. A former assistant director to Wakamatsu, Shiraishi has inherited his mentor’s scrappy, no-compromise mantle.     

The king of comedy over the past two decades has been Yaguchi Shinobu, who had his first box office smash with “Waterboys,” a 2001 comedy about a high school boys’ synchro swim team. The film’s zero-to-hero storyline became an industry template, but after directing “Swing Girls,” a 2004 comedy about a high school girls’ swing band, Yaguchi turned his fertile imagination to other themes. His 2016 “Survival Family,” about an ordinary Tokyo family forced to live by their wits on the road during a worldwide power blackout, was funny, chilling and, given the current dystopian situation, prescient.

While drama, action and comedy are flourishing genres domestically, horror has yet to produce successors to Kurosawa Kiyoshi (“Cure”), Nakata Hideo (“Ring”) and Shimizu Takashi (“Ju-on: The Grudge”), instigators of the worldwide J-horror boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Both Nakata and Shimizu went to Hollywood hoping to replicate their Japanese successes but returned home chastened, if still in demand. Neither has re-ascended to the peaks of their J-Horror popularity, now two decades in the past.

Meanwhile, Kurosawa has continued to unsettle audiences with his unique atmospherics, which rely more on rustling curtains and ghostly figures in the background than CG monsters. Also, he has diversified his themes and settings beyond J-Horror limits, from the alien invasion of “Foreboding” to the Uzbekistanian backdrop of “To the Ends of the Earth.” All this and more has found favor with festival programmers, especially at Cannes where Kurosawa has long been a regular.

His 4K colleagues have also enjoyed warm welcomes at the world’s most prestigious festival. Koreeda won its biggest prize, the Palme d’Or, for his 2018 family drama “Shoplifters while Kurosawa received the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize for his 2008 dysfunctional family drama “Tokyo Sonata” and Kawase, the Cannes Jury Prize for her 2007 drama “The Mourning Forest.” Only Kitano is still prize-less at Cannes: His 2010 gang actioner “Outrage” screened in competition, but left with only brutal reviews. He submitted his follow-up “Beyond Outrage” to the friendlier purviews of Venice.          

Cannes has not totally neglected younger Japanese directors: Fukada Koji took the Un Certain Regard Jury prize for his 2016 dark family drama “Harmonium,” while Hamaguchi Ryosuke’s 2018 relationship drama “Asako I & II” screened in the Cannes competition. Even so, of the many Japanese filmmakers who have submitted their films to Cannes, relatively few have been chosen in the current millennium.

As frustrating as this may be for said filmmakers and their backers, they have more ways to get their films out in the world than two decades ago. The Tokyo International Festival, Tokyo Filmex and the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival are among the many Japanese festivals now screening work by young directors – and launching some of them on the international festival circuit. Meanwhile, Nippon Connection, the Udine Far East Film Festival and the New York Asian Film Festival are among the growing number of foreign festivals that program Japanese films in the whole indie-to-commercial spectrum.

Japanese films will no doubt continue to be seen abroad by a far wider audience than was thought possible when I started reviewing them for “The Japan Times” in 1989. Streaming, whether by legitimate rights holders or pirates of various sorts, will see to that.

Harder to predict is how the films themselves will change. Adaptations of manga, bestselling novels and TV dramas forever? Perhaps, since films have relied on other media for inspiration since their start. More films by members of other disadvantaged groups, including LGBT filmmakers? Almost certainly yes, though Hashiguchi Ryosuke, an out gay director whose 2015 film “Three Stories of Love” won a shelfful of awards, is not just a stand-out but almost a stand-alone.    

And will Japanese documentaries, which in Japan play in small theaters for limited runs, move closer to the mainstream, as they have in the West? Perhaps, but the signs are not encouraging. A crusading director with a sense of drama like Hara Kazuo, whose 2017 “Sennan Asbestos Disaster” is an in-depth look at a decades-long legal struggle by asbestos poisoning victims, bears comparison to Michael Moore, but Hara faces higher barriers to the mass audience than his American counterpart. For one thing, big Japanese distributors, fearful of controversy, hesitate to release Hara’s sort of anti-establishment documentary. They are, in fact, not fans of controversy in general — and neither is the industry as a whole.

So it was somewhat of a surprise when Koreeda’s “Shoplifters” earned JPY4.6 billion ($42 million) in 2018 – the fourth best total of the year for a Japanese film. “Shoplifters” was criticized for both its content — posters on rightist message boards complained that its focus on society’s underbelly sullied Japan’s image — and Koreeda’s stance of distancing himself from the current government, exemplified by his rejection of an invitation from the culture minister following his Cannes win. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned the favor, issuing no public message of congratulations.

More heartening was the success of “The Journalist,” Fujii Michihito’s 2019 drama about a woman reporter (Shim Eun-kyung) who investigates a government cover-up with the aid of an elite bureaucrat (Matsuzaka Tori). Based on the true-life exploits of “Tokyo Shimbun” journalist Mochizuki Isoko, the film was a surprise hit, while winning Best Picture, Best Actor (Matsuzaka) and Best Actress (Shim) Japan Academy prizes.

This year the biggest live-action sensation has been “Fukushima 50,” Wakamatsu Setsuro’s action/drama about frontline workers at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant following the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. Released on March 6, 2020, the film topped the box office not only due to stars Watanabe Ken and Sato Koichi, but also for its perceived parallels to the unfolding coronavirus crisis, from government bumbling to the life-risking heroism of the workers.

 With the crisis intensifying, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo declared a state of emergency for Tokyo and six prefectures on April 7, extending to the whole country on April 16. In reaction, theaters closed and film and TV production shut down, leaving many theater owners and small film companies on the brink of financial catastrophe.

On April 13 directors Fukada Koji and Hamaguchi Ryusuke launched the “Mini-Theater Aid” crowdfunding campaign to help ‘mini theaters’ or arthouse. By the end of the campaign, on May 14, they had raised JPY330 million ($3.06 million) or more than three times their original goal.

This, together with other industry initiatives and government stimulus money for individuals and businesses, is helping the industry hang on until the return of normality – or the resignation to a ‘new normal’ of living with the virus.

On June 5, Toho reopened 23 theaters in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures, bringing all theaters in Japan’s largest chain back into business. Meanwhile, other theaters across the country, from multiplexes to mini-theaters, have opened their doors while offering fans a safer viewing environment with socially distanced seating.

But they are not yet showing what were supposed to be the big summer movies, such as the latest “Pokemon” installment or the last two entries in the “Rurouni Kenshin” samurai action saga, which are now scheduled for a 2021 Golden Week release. This is bound to hurt box office returns, which are already bad.

According to numbers compiled by veteran industry journalist Otaka Hiroo the Japanese box office for January-April was JPY32.02 billion, a drop of 53 percent from the same period in 2019. The total for April was JPY690 million – or 4 percent of the same figure the previous year.

Also, now that many film fans have become used to watching new films at home on Netflix and other streaming services, “a lot of people in the film business feel a sense of crisis,” Otaka comments. “They’re wondering if they can draw fans back to the theaters.”

Distributors also have to fill their pipelines with new product, but film production in Japan is slowly emerging from a shutdown. On May 14 Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan (Eiren), an industry body whose members are Japan’s four major studios, announced guidelines for a production restart aimed at reducing what the government describes as the “three C’s”: closed spaces with insufficient ventilation, crowded conditions and conversations at short distances. “Everything has come to a stop in the film world, from upstream (production) to downstream (theaters),” Eiren Secretary General Naotaka Kacho said. “We’ve been totally handcuffed, but we’ve finally started to move. There are still a lot of problems, but we want to take a first step.” 

Despite all the changes a post-corona new normal will bring, Otaka believes that fans will always want the theater experience. “You can’t really replace what a movie theater gives you: a space where you can laugh and cry and be moved together with many other people,” he says. “The appeal and charm of movie theaters are deeply rooted in human nature. That’s never going to go out of style.”

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