By the numbers, the Japanese film industry appears to be thriving. According to Unijapan’s yearly publication ‘Japanese Film’, the local film industry reported ¥222.5 billion from 169.2 million audience admissions in 2018. 1,192 movies were released with more than 31 grossing over ¥1 billion. The MPAA’s THEME (Theatrical & Home Entertainment Market Environment) report ranked Japan in second place behind China in international box-office (excluding North America) that year. The figures suggest Japan’s film industry is indeed strong. So why are there only a small handful of Japanese filmmakers who are well-known on the world stage? At international film festivals–particularly major festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, and Venice–names like Beat Takeshi (before stepping away from directing), Kore-eda, Miike, Sion, Yamada Yoji, Miyazaki Hayao (before stepping away from directing), Kawase Naomi, and recently the re-emergence of Kurosawa Kiyoshi and Tsukamoto Shinya are fixtures in their programming. A deeper dive into those figures reveal a few interesting realities.
169.2 million admissions is actually down from 2017 and perpetuates a downward trend from a peak in 2016. Total box-office receipts also declined further since 2016’s record high of ¥235.5 billion resulting from the performance of "Your Name" (Makoto Shinkai). Looking closer at the 31 movies grossing more than ¥1 billion, the top-grossing movie was the cinematic follow-up to a popular television series. There were 9 anime and 2 hero movies–five released during the summer school break aimed at families and children. 7 of the top 10 were movies released by dominant studio Toho. Cannes Palm d’Or winner "Shoplifters" placed 4th with a respectable ¥4.6 billion, but trailed the number one movie by ¥5 billion. Indie sensation "One Cut of the Dead" was 7th with ¥3 billion. Despite their international praise, both of these were lumped together as “surprise” domestic hits by Bunka News reporter Matsumoto Takanori who also categorized the industry’s 2.7% year-to-year decline as indicative of the “stability of the Japanese industry” (p.174, Japanese Film 2019). Such “stability” could in fact be fostering and/or sustaining filmmaker proclivities contributing to the diversity problem of Japanese cinema abroad specifically with regards to independent movies and filmmakers. These are: a focus on the local market due to the self-sustaining nature of the industry; ever falling budgets creating an environment where stories are created to fit budget constraints; and a festival strategy fixated on their local marketing potential rather than the ancillary benefits of connecting with industry figures and movie fans. Elaborating on each of these as they relate to the shortage of globally known movies and filmmakers is the purpose of this essay.
The issues at hand fundamentally break down to risk versus reward and the mitigation of the former while optimizing the latter. When Matsumoto points to -2.7% year-to-year decline as a “stable” industry, and most general consensus agrees, this could be indicative of the self-sustaining nature of the local industry. Therefore, movies aimed at the local audience are able to recover their budgets in the least or perhaps even become smash hits. Adam Torel of UK distributor Third Window Films often professes his love and enjoyment of the plethora of indie movies playing in art house theaters especially in urban centers such as Tokyo and Osaka. For cinephiles like Adam, such ready availability of yet unheralded movies would certainly seem like paradise. Yet, an environment in which small movies can attain such small releases and filmmakers can build a local fan following could also lead to satisfaction at attaining weekend or limited release, late night showings in 30-50 seat capacity theaters. Of the 1,192 titles released in Japan during 2018, 613 were Japanese productions. Not all of these could have been and were not box-office successes, yet achieved a theatrical release in one form or the other. Some are regional productions touting the captivating qualities of the area’s culture and scenery in hopes of luring more tourism. Others are produced by talent agencies (big and small) looking to draw attention to potential or current stars on their roster. For a significant percentage of such releases, there is little risk exposure by focusing specifically on the local market primarily because there is a modicum of success returned. It is important to note that many studios and distributors rarely detail budget figures for their lineup making analysis of actual cost versus actual earnings quite difficult.
Naturally, all cinema from every region in the world are made for local consumption by that country’s filmmakers. It might even be safe to suggest international breakout hits are just as much a rarity for these countries (the U.S. aside) as, for example, Ueda’s "One Cut of the Dead", but there is certainly room to debate whether his follow-up will be aimed at the international audiences which quickly caught on to the uniqueness of his movie, or the local audience which placed it 7th at the 2018 box-office. Must Ueda once again pour his talents and love of cinema into creating a film on a “low-risk” budget with local market appeal? Or will backers allow him to firmly step onto the world stage after the foothold gained with his previous work?
Filmmaking is an expensive proposition for major studios and for small to independent productions alike, relatively speaking of course. Continually declining budgets (i.e. the risk willing to be taken by producers and production houses) are creating difficult conditions for diverse stories to be told. Even the usually “inexpensive” genre of horror is languishing in Japan with many low budget productions cashing in only on run-of-the-mill movies with local appeal allowing other countries to take up the mantle abroad such as Spain and increasingly the U.S. again in genre redefining works which are captivating attention globally and elevating their filmmakers to brand status much in the same way Nakata, Shimizu, and Kurosawa catapulted Japanese style “mood” horror onto the world stage in the late 90s and early 2000s. Sadly, genre movies are not the only ones affected by the overall decline in viable budgets for Japanese movies as stories are being handcuffed by an aversion to audacious material. Bold, original storytelling about topics the majors can not or will not tackle is the backbone of independent cinema and pervasive unwillingness to push the boundaries of themes and technique could be a reason why Japanese independent cinema may look and feel the same. In fact, budget levels may be dictating the type and scale of stories being made.
Kikuchi Takeo stated he made stylistic choices based on his understanding of cinematic history when Asian Film Vault asked him why he chose the "typical" Japanese indie style of "...relatively slow pace, not so much dialogue, lack of music, focus on realism and attention to detail" for "Hello Goodbye" but then added “[…] On the other hand, the budget of Japanese films is surprisingly low, so the reality is that we need to come up with ideas under limited circumstances.” In essence, Japanese independent filmmakers have become accustomed, perhaps even resigned, to compromising their vision to fit into those constraints rather than envisioning stories in spite of those limitations. However, chance may be at hand. Mainichi Newspaper reporter Katsuta Tomomi notes of 2018’s figures: “…films based on hit formulas such as best selling novel adaptations, teen love stories starring idols, etc. performed poorly…As it [the Japanese film industy] gropes for direction, there will be greater freedom than ever before to realize audacious projects." (p.176, Japanese Film 2019) Fortunately there are people like Adam Torel and festivals like Nippon Connection, Japan Cuts (at the NY Asian Film Festival), Raindance, Udine, and Camera Japan among others actively searching for audacious works. Their efforts can not be emphasized enough as festival strategies by local filmmakers tend to favor brand name festivals for marketing purposes.
Bringing the notion of the focus on local audiences full circle is the strategy taken with international film festivals. As a means to an end, appearing in festivals is a method of advertising. When major studios and their production committees are able to parade stars on numerous television shows across various media, how does a smaller production attract attention? (that is not to say the majors do not use festival screenings and awards to their advantage). Seeking to exploit festival berths and/or awards is a matter of fact for all filmmakers, but in addition to the publicity such achievements can bestow on a domestic release, there are opportunities to be gained such as securing foreign distribution deals, meeting with international filmmakers and press, etc. . However, the language deficiencies of most Japanese filmmakers prevent them from engaging at festivals in this manner outside of post-screening Q&As with the help of local interpreters. “Hustling” (the term for the meetings, parties, and self-promotion also involved in filmmaking) is a matter of course for filmmakers abroad as is attending workshops and skill development programs held at festivals around the world about such subjects. These are less of a priority for Japanese filmmakers, producers in particular, due to their (lack of) English speaking skills thus their focus turns to the marketing power gained by screening at and winning a trophy from a festival; the more prestigious the festival, the more potent the publicity. Therefore local filmmakers are unfortunately inclined to concentrate on the “Big 4” festivals: Cannes, Berlin, Venice, and Toronto (plus Tokyo International Film Festival, of course). Due to the familiarity of these festival among Japan’s populace the reward gained by any type of visibility at these high-profile festivals ironically far outweighs the risk presented by the extraordinary competition there.
Yet a Palm d’Or for Kore-eda’s "Shoplifters" could not propel it beyond tried-and-true family fare and a television series. Conversely, consecutive showings and awards at Sundance for Makoto Nagahisa yielded commercial placement and some talk show attention on late night television for "We Are Little Zombies" he may not otherwise have acquired normally. Similarly, Matsugami Genta’s "Demolition Girl" will open in Japan in limited, late-show screenings starting in August after making a splash at Slamdance 2019. Nevertheless, the lack of familiarity with these two festivals among the general public also explains the almost “discreet” nature of the publicity and scale of release they are afforded. Clearly festival results offer opportunities for Japanese filmmakers at home. However, a shift must take place by filmmakers and local audiences alike toward broader interest in and knowledge of the myriad of festivals that exist in the world if Japanese cinema hopes to expand awareness of all that Japanese cinema has to offer. And in turn the international attention gained could begin to reveal the viability of more diverse subject matter and change their domestic-centric mindset.
Though these circumstances are side-effects resulting from the Japanese film industry’s idiosyncratic environment, the international film community can harness them to help Japanese filmmakers see the benefits of managing risk for greater return. The pivotal role of festivals in new territories hungry for Japanese cinema such as Five Flavours can not be stressed enough. While the majors may court the same personalities, Five Flavours and others must continue to show lesser known, independent Japanese filmmakers their movies can and do attract a following at many more cities and countries. Providing an environment where an audience hungry for interesting, and bold stories can encounter such works and their creators may foster a shift in prevailing attitudes among Japanese filmmakers regarding the potential their movies possess beyond local art house late shows despite their low budgets. Budgets spent on Japanese titles may not necessarily increase as a result, but at the very least a more venturesome spirit can be sparked. A key element to triggering this spark will be Japanese filmmakers’ sense of their own brand identity. Since they are not acclimated to the social aspects of film business, particularly self-promotion, the international community must build a rapport with them and help them realize the importance of engaging with fans, filmmakers, and industry figures from other countries. As a result a new generation of young directors may recognize their international potential and seek to study not only English but perhaps even film production abroad in preparation for a more internationally active career. Like all endeavors, however, the idea is more easily stated than accomplished. This special program of Japanese independents at Five Flavours is a welcome addition to the efforts to affect change. But international film fans and industry professionals must try to embrace more from Japanese cinema beyond the filmmaking of the aforementioned directors. Taking a chance (risk) on non-compromising story craft from more diverse perspectives will benefit (reward) filmmakers and audiences alike over the course of time.
Author: Ben Dimagmaliw, editor of a magazine devoted to independent Japanese cinema Indievisual.
The "Japan: Out of Focus" section will be presented at the 13th Five Flavours Asian Film Festival on November 13-20, 2019.