Is change sweeping away the sclerotic Japanese film industry?

Dramatic changes in the Japanese film industry occur about as frequently as dramatic changes in Mount Fuji, which last erupted in 1707.

Each year the top 10 at the box office is dominated by Toho releases, which are mostly new episodes of proven anime franchises or live action movies based on TV series or manga. And as surely as the sunrise, the graying industry numbers weigh on the dismal state of Japanese cinema, with some predicting its imminent demise. Yet the industry continues to walk, like a dinosaur oblivious to the giant meteor in the sky.

A long-standing symbol of this conservative mindset is the Japan Academy, an industry organization that awards annual awards, similar to the Hollywood Oscars. Since its inception in 1977, the Japanese Academy’s Award for Best Picture has typically gone to films by industry mainstays backed by major studios, including Yoji Yamada (director of Shochiku’s long-running “Tora-san” series. ), Kinji Fukasaku (creator of Toei’s seminal action series “Battles Without Honor and Humanity” yakuza) and Hayao Miyazaki (creator of many successful animes distributed by Toho).

One of the reasons, critics say, is that the voters for the Japan Academy awards include employees of the said studios, who automatically tick the box for their company exits. “Shochiku, Toho, Toei and sometimes Nikkatsu pass (the awards),” director and comedian Takeshi Kitano said at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 2014. Kitano’s comment may have been sour – he never did. won the Japanese Academy’s Best Film Award. – but it’s also more good than bad.

So when Eiji Uchida’s LGBTQ-themed drama “Midnight Swan” won Best Picture honors this year, and its star Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, who plays an aging transgender nightclub performer, was named Best Actor , it was as if Mount Fuji was starting to rumble.

The film’s distributor, Kino Films, is a mid-sized player in the local market, while Uchida, born in Brazil in 1971 and arrived in Japan at the age of 10, is an industry outsider. He made his international breakthrough with the 2013 black comedy “Greatful Dead” and won invitations to overseas festivals with his subsequent films. However, he was still working in independent, low-budget wineries when he made “Midnight Swan”.

Additionally, Kusanagi, who was once ubiquitous on television as a member of pop group SMAP, had a rough time after the group disbanded in 2016 and he, along with two other former SMAP members, left the powerful Johnny agency. & Associates. The television job dried up, as did the leading roles in the movies.

But the strong bond which develops between the character of Kusanagi and his young niece ballerina, interpreted by the newcomer Kisaki Hattori, found an echo with the public, which made of “Midnight Swan” a hit surprise which earned around 717 million yen At the box office. However, compared to the 21 Japanese films released by major distributors last year that grossed 1 billion yen or more in 2020, including the 36.55 billion yen made by the hit anime “Demon Slayer”, the triumph of “Midnight Swan” was relatively modest. Despite this, voters at the Japan Academy chose the film over its more commercial competition.

The ground also shook when the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) announced on March 15 that it was major changes for its 34th edition, scheduled for October 30-Nov. 8. The most significant was the appointment of Shozo Ichiyama, respected producer and co-founder of the Tokyo Filmex festival, as director of programming, replacing Yoshi Yatabe, who had held this position since 2004.

Ichiyama, who has worked with renowned Asian authors such as Hou Hsiao-hsien, Samira Makhmalbaf and Jia Zhangke, promises to transform TIFF, which has never been able to shake its reputation as a festival run by and for major distributors, with art taking second place to commerce. Its directors and staff have long drawn from the ranks of these distributors, and although Yatabe has made valiant efforts to improve the quality of programming, such as launching a section for new independent Japanese films in 2004, TIFF has long lagged behind its rival. Busan International Film Festival, which is widely regarded as Asia’s most prestigious film event.

After his appointment, Ichiyama told reporters that “TIFF is about to undergo a major transformation. I hope to be able to fully use my experience and knowledge to contribute to it.

There has already been a notable change: on International Women’s Day, which took place on March 8, TIFF officially signed the Gender Parity Charter launched at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, with the commitment promote gender equality in the selection of staff and festival programming.

At Tokyo Filmex, launched in 2000, Ichiyama used his many contacts to secure titles from renowned Asian authors, while also selecting the choice of Venice and other major foreign festivals for the competition section. He and festival director Kanako Hayashi have made Filmex a festival for serious moviegoers, with a strong emphasis on independent Asian cinema. They have also trained promising young filmmakers from East and South East Asia with the Talent Tokyo program for project development and professional training.

The next edition of Filmex will be held at the same time as TIFF, as was the case last year, although with Ichiyama bringing a more Filmex-like approach to TIFF, the rationale for the smaller festival is in question.

With TIFF’s bigger budget and higher profile, Ichiyama may dream bigger dreams than he could at Filmex, although dealing with the local industry, accustomed to using TIFF to promote its fall slates. and winter, can turn into a nightmare. Whether or not he elevates his status closer to that of the Cannes, Venice and Berlin festivals – the aspiration of many TIFF directors but never achieved – the fact of his appointment means TIFF is no longer happy with the status quo. .

Does Uchida’s success and Ichiyama’s rise indicate that the tectonic plates are finally shifting under the industry as a whole, breaking it out of its country-focused dormant state to move closer to the international standard? Expect more rumbles anytime; flares towards real change, however, will take longer.

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Marie A. Evans