Japanese film industry opens up to international influences


Not so long ago, the Japanese film industry was locked in a narrow domestic bubble, with local filmmakers mostly making local films for local audiences. Japanese studios enjoyed international recognition, but viewed overseas sales as a sort of after-dinner mint – a nice bonus, but not a must.

One of the reasons for this “only in Japan” mentality was the size of the local market – still the third largest in the world in terms of box office – which allowed local films of all budget levels to comfortably recover at home. Another was the long list of missteps and failures of Japanese filmmakers and studios when venturing overseas or trying to target overseas markets.

The most notorious example was the sacking of Kurosawa Akira after two weeks of filming the 1970 WWII epic “Tora, Tora, Tora”. Most recently, former super-producer Sento Takenori lost his production company Rumble Fish in 2008 after his strategy of making art films for the international festival circuit failed to generate the expected returns.

In contrast, director and screenwriter Yamada Yoji produced all 48 episodes of the Tora-san series – hand-crafted comedies about a wandering peddler, still played by Atsushi Kiyoshi, who, from 1969 to 1995, rarely made a profit for it. Shochiku. studio, despite finding relatively few overseas fans.

Welcome to Tora-san
Copyright: (c) 2019 Shochiku., Ltd.

Since Tora-san made his last bow, however, the industry has taken hold of the world more proactively and successfully, driven by an explosion in the number of non-Japanese sites and platforms serving Japanese content. , from Asian specialty festivals to streaming giants. like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Thus, Japanese filmmakers no longer have to win the lottery of an invitation to Cannes or Venice to make themselves known internationally and strengthen their influence at the box office in Japan.

Produced for $ 25,000 and originally screened in a Tokyo movie theater for a week, Ueda Shinichiro’s zombie comedy “One Cut of the Dead” received a PR boost with an award audience at the 2018 Udine Far East Film Festival, Europe’s largest showcase of popular Asian cinema. – and became a word of mouth sensation in Japan, grossing over $ 30 million.

Stumbling blocks still remain for Japanese filmmakers. The first is the absence of co-production treaties with other countries. Another is the risk-sharing production committee system among more than half a dozen companies from different corners of the entertainment world. This not only led to risk-averse movie making, but also painfully slow decision-making that frustrated overseas partnerships.

Directors higher up in the industry’s pecking order, such as Palme d’Or winner Koreeda Hirokazu and Cannes regular Kurosawa Kiyoshi, have been able to escape some of these channels. They not only enjoyed box office success abroad, with France being a particularly welcoming market, but were also filmed abroad.
Koreeda shot the 2019 French-Japanese co-production “The Truth” entirely in France with stars Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke, and is now in post-production on “Broker”, her first all-Korean film.

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To the ends of the earth. Credit: ENBU seminar
Courtesy of ENBU Seminar / Berlin Film Festival

Kurosawa directed the 2019 road movie “To Earth’s End” on location in Uzbekistan with local star Adiz Rajabov appearing in a major supporting role.

Meanwhile, veteran provocateur Sono Sion, who has long been a cult favorite with overseas audiences, directed the 2017 nine-part horror thriller series “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” with Amazon Prime and, in its first foray in Hollywood, the 2021 horror “Prisoners” of the Ghostland “starring Nicholas Cage. Sono’s heart attack in February 2019 forced a relocation of production from Mexico to Japan and a rewrite which, however, brought Japanese actors into the cast. Amazon is currently showing the film, following theatrical releases in the United States, Japan and other territories.

Rival broadcaster, Netflix quickly ramped up local production in Japan, from cartoons to live action movies and series. Among his biggest hits are “The Naked Director”, a series of true stories about the adventures of a porn producer-director in the 1980s and 1990s, now in its second season, and “Alice In Borderland “, a sci-fi action film series that was also renewed for a second season, shortly after its arc in December 2020. Boosted by its winding survival game story and jaw-dropping stunts, directed by the veteran of action Sato Shinsuke, “Alice In Borderland” ranked in the “Ten Most Watched Shows” on Netflix in nearly 40 territories in its first season.

Too bad Tora-san, who has only been to Vienna once overseas in her three decades on the road, isn’t there to share the ride.


About Monty S. Maynard

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