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Working on a tough shoot

by Setsuko Kamiya

Whether it’s a movie, a TV show, a commercial or even a music video, a key decision is choosing where the cameras will roll. To that end, members of film crews are often dedicated to hunting down locations that will satisfy both the directors and producers, and this is where film commissions can play a leading role.

Often set up by local municipalities with support from local tourism industry and other private businesses, film commissions act as nonprofit, neutral middlemen that offer a variety of services — from providing information on location sites and aiding crews to acquire permission to shoot in public areas to tasks such as recruiting extras.

In Western countries where the motion-picture industry has significant economic and cultural influence, film commissions that make life easier for crews have existed for decades. In Japan, however, until about five years ago, filmmakers were on their own when it came to securing locations.

“Film commissions are not just targeting Japanese productions, but are also aiming to get those from overseas,” said Tetsuji Maezawa, executive director of Japan Film Commission Promotion Council. “It used to be difficult to find information about filming in Japan, but now that the doors are opening, there will be more foreign productions coming.”

While these young film commissions still have many obstacles to overcome, including training personnel who can communicate in foreign languages, many in the industry unanimously agree that the process of finding a location and then shooting is easier than it was before.

While improvements have been seen in rural areas, where even the local police can be supportive, Tokyo is still regarded as a “tough shoot.”

Officials at Tokyo Location Box, located in the Metropolitan Government Building, say they’re actually doing their best to support filming in public spaces controlled by the city government. One recent example is Yoichi Sai’s latest movie, “Chi to Hone (Blood and Bones),” whose temporary film set was constructed on an empty lot in Fuchu City owned by the metropolitan government. The same set was later reused by the crews of “Rikidozan,” a joint Korea-Japan production that will soon be released in South Korea. In the past, Tokyo has even allowed film locations inside the Metropolitan Government Building, and shootings around the area are a common sight.

However, TLB officials said there are limits in a highly populated city such as Tokyo. “There are only two full marathons here because, according to the Metropolitan Police, it’s just too difficult to close down the city’s streets,” said Mayumi Furuya, a TLB official. “Under such circumstances, I doubt that Tokyoites would appreciate it if a TV drama stopped the traffic every day,” she said.

Similarly, railway companies rarely accept proposals to film inside commuter trains.

Often, if a film production wants to include scenes of real-life crowds in Tokyo, they have no choice but to take risks and shoot without permits. In fact, some producers of foreign movies that included busy urban scenes confessed that they have sent “secret missions” to get that footage.

Despite the difficulties, Tokyo is still very attractive for location hunters.

At the Film Commission Convention 2004 held in Tokyo in October, Ray Pang, a Chinese production manager for the Hong Kong movie “Initial D” said his crew was able — under several conditions — to shoot a car chase in Niigata Prefecture. In Hong Kong, however, the support of local police and film commissions enable them to do location shoots, even ones involving guns, on crowded streets. He said he’d “love to shoot a similar scene in at the corner in front of Tsutaya in Shibuya someday.”

Whether that will happen is probably up to whether the Japanese can become tolerant to motion-picture location shoots. “If the public agrees to cooperate, police may become more flexible,” said Yoshihiro Kume, head of the Culture Promotion Division of the metro government. “[For now] I think there are many social differences that will have to be overcome.”