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The ever-evolving digital movie world

by Mark Schilling

JAPANESE CINEMA IN THE DIGITAL AGE, by Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano. University of Hawaii Press, 2012, 178 pp., $47 (hardcover)

The world film industry, including Japan’s, is now completing a changeover from traditional film stock to digital substitutes.

Actor-director Takeshi Kitano recently commented that, of the 18 films screened in completion at this year’s Venice Film Festival, only two, including his own “Autoreiji: Biyondo” (Outrage Beyond), were shot on film. As if to confirm the end of film’s century-long reign, Fuji Film announced in September that it was discontinuing the production of movie film, which it had been making since 1934.

So, Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano’s book would seem to be timely indeed. Instead, it illustrates the limitations of academic publishing, with its years-long gap between manuscript submission and publication, in dealing with a subject like the digital revolution, in which yesterday’s speculation is today’s fait accompli.

Problems begin early on when Wada-Marciano refers to the video compact disk (VCD) — a format that arose in the 1990s as an alternative to VHS tape — as a “significant new medium,” though it passed the peak of its popularity in its core market of Asia in the mid-2000s and has since been losing ground to the DVD. It’s somewhat as if a fresh-off-the-presses book on computer technology were to discourse on that “significant new software” Windows XP.

References to similar technological advances, and the industry’s responses to them, mostly end around 2007, reinforcing the book’s dated feel. More seriously, the author’s analysis of those advances betrays misunderstandings of how the Japanese industry operates — and how that operation impacts her arguments. For example, she claims that Japan’s major studios “remain heavily dependent on program pictures,” using the “Ringu” (Ring) series, which launched the J-horror boom in 1998 with the Hideo Nakata shocker of the same title, as an example, though the succeeding three films are more properly described as Hollywood-style sequels. To use another cross-cultural comparison, it’s like saying the “Stars Wars” films are “program pictures.” They may have been inspired by the real articles — low-budget sci-fi serials for kids that Hollywood churned out in the 1930s — but they are a different, vastly more profitable, beast.

In fact, the last true program pictures made by the majors were Shochiku’s “Tsuribaka Nisshi” (Free and Easy) series about a fishing-mad “salaryman” and his best-fishing-buddy boss, which ended in 2009 with episode 20 because stars Toshiyuki Nishida and Rentaro Mikuni were getting too long in the tooth.

Wada-Marciano notes J-horror’s “compatibility with new media, especially DVD,” but this was also true of the hundreds of films in other genres the Japanese industry starting mass producing in straight-to-video versions in the early 1990s and continued making as DVD became the dominant format in the early 2000s, without missing a beat.

Furthermore, films such as “Suito Homu” (Sweet Home, 1989) and “Doa 3″ (Door 3, 1996) by J-horror pioneer Kiyoshi Kurosawa were released well before DVDs became widespread — and undermine Wada-Marciano’s claim of J-horror’s “symbiotic relation with the new digital technology.” J -horror’s rise in the late 1990s and early 2000s happened to coincide with the wider diffusion of DVD, but saying that the latter somehow enabled the former is to misconceive how Japanese genre films have actually been produced and consumed, starting with the still-analog video revolution of the late 1980s.

The box office success of the “Ringu” series and other J-horror films of the 1990s gave local producers hope that this once lightly regarded genre, which was first made mostly for the video (not DVD) shelves, might become a profitable theatrical staple not only in Japan, but around the world.

The dwindling of audiences for J-horror in the mid-2000s, following a flood of formulaic product, forced a change in these plans. What Wada-Marciano regards as a triumph — “J-horror’s assimilation with new digital technology enabled it to cross market boundaries” — was in fact an admission of defeat by J-horror producers who, instead of making blockbusters for the multiplex masses, returned to grinding out straight-to-DVD cheapies for local and foreign horror otaku (geeks).

Her later chapters on Japanese documentaries and animation, as well as so-called transnational films made mainly for the Asian and Japanese markets, are on more solid factual and methodological grounds, though her choice of films for case studies, such as Yutaka Tsuchiya’s “Atarashii Kamisama” (The New God, 1999), Mamoru Oshii’s “Tachiguishi Retsuden” (Amazing Lives of Fast Food Grifters, 2006) and Shuta Takahata’s “Hoteru Binasu” (The Hotel Venus, 2004), tends toward the minor and the fringe rather the commercial and critical mainstream. (“The Hotel Venus,” a film made with Japanese actors speaking only Korean dialogue, was a flop in its intended “transnational” market of South Korea — a fact Wada-Marciano chooses not to mention.)

The last chapter, which is devoted to an extended analysis of the 2005 Yoichi Sai film “Blood and Bones,” offers acute observations on Japanese perceptions of zainichi (resident-in-Japan) Koreans, marred by a bizarre comparison between a brutal fight scene in the film and professional wrestling as practiced by 1950s Korean-born superstar Rikidozan.

The chapter also has little to say about the title thesis, strengthening the impression of the book as loosely organized, patchily argued and by-now dated grab bag, rather than a fresh, informed, inside examination of how the Japanese film business has met the digital challenge.

Mark Schilling is the senior film reviewer for The Japan Times and the Japan correspondent for Variety.