Japan’s film industry is slowly opening up to embrace international influences

Not so long ago, the Japanese film industry was locked into 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 kind of after-dinner mint – a nice touch, but not essential.

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.

More Variety

The most notorious example was the sacking of Kurosawa Akira after two weeks of filming the 1970 WWII epic “Tora, Tora, Tora”. More recently, uber-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 managed to make a profit. for the Shochiku. studio, despite finding relatively few overseas fans.

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

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

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 theater for a week, the zombie comedy Ueda Shinichiro “A cup of the dead”Received a PR boost with an audience award at the 2018 Udine Far Eastern Film Festival – Europe’s largest showcase for Asian popular cinema – and became a mouth-watering sensation. ear 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 filmmaking, but also painfully slow decision-making that frustrated overseas partnerships.

Directors higher in the industry hierarchy such as the Palme d’Or winner Koreeda Hirokazu and colleague accustomed to Cannes Kurosawa kiyoshi were able to escape some of these obstacles. They not only enjoyed box office success abroad, with France being a particularly welcoming market, but were also filmed abroad.
Koreeda filmed the 2019 Franco-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.

To the end of the earth.  Credit: ENBU Seminar - Credit: Courtesy of ENBU Seminar / Berlin Film Festival

To the end of the earth. Credit: ENBU Seminar – Credit: Courtesy of ENBU Seminar / Berlin Film Festival

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 foreign audiences, directed the 2017 nine-part horror thriller series “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” with Amazon Prime and, in its first foray in Hollywood, the 2021 Western horror “Prisoners of the Ghostland” starring Nicholas Cage. Sono’s heart attack in February 2019 forced a production relocation from Mexico to Japan and a rewrite that however brought Japanese actors into the 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-to-life stories about the adventures of a porn producer-director in the 1980s and 1990s, now in its second season, and “Alice in the land of borders”, A sci-fi and action series that was also renewed for a second season, shortly after its arc in December 2020. Boosted by its curvy survival game story and jaw-dropping stunts, directed by the veteran of the 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 abroad once to Vienna, in her three decades on the road, isn’t there to share the ride.

The best of variety

Sign up for Variety newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Marie A. Evans