A quarter century of Japanese films in review

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

In 25 years of reviewing Japanese films and interviewing Japanese filmmakers for this newspaper, I’ve written 1 million words, give or take a few. This is clearly something no normal person would do, but for me it beats working.

The idea that writing about movies could be as fun as watching them was first planted in my brain by Neal Gabler, a reviewer for my college newspaper. His verbally dextrous, madly cinephilic inspiration, famed critic for The New Yorker Pauline Kael, later became mine as well, but the possibility of doing what they did seemed vanishingly remote. I thus feel incredibly lucky to have had a chance to follow, however uncertainly, in their footsteps.

I filed my first film review for The Japan Times in July 1989, on “Bakayaro! 2: Shiawase ni Naritai (Bakayaro! 2: I Want to be Happy),” a four-part omnibus comedy scripted by Yoshimitsu Morita. The choice was mine — I liked the films Morita had directed, and also liked the film’s predecessor, “Bakayaro! Watashi Okottemasu (Bakayaro! I’m Plenty Mad),” another four-part omnibus, made by four little-known young directors. One was Tetsuya Nakashima, who went on to direct the 2010 hit revenge drama “Kokuhaku (Confessions),” selected as Japan’s nominee for the best foreign film Oscar. Another was Yukihiko Tsutsumi, whose long list of hits includes “20-Seiki Shonen (20th Century Boys),” a 2008-9 sci-fi/fantasy trilogy.

Back then, however, few were hailing Nakashima, Tsutsumi and their fellow indie directors as future saviors of the Japanese film industry. The view shared by both industry insiders and reviewers of Japanese films for English-language publications was that Japanese cinema’s best days were long behind it, and that the local film industry had little chance of beating back Hollywood.

I didn’t disagree. Who was I — then a new reporter for a movie-trade magazine — to question the pessimism of veterans with decades of experience in the business? Also, my fellow reviewers, particularly the late Alan Booth, who wrote for the Asahi Evening News, were gleefully (and, I was sure, rightly) skewering idol movies, monster epics and other films made from tired formulas by studio hacks. Shortly after I started, Booth finally threw in the towel, saying in a farewell column that he had enjoyed only a handful of the hundreds of films he had reviewed in the past decade.

As one of two reviewers for The Japan Times I wrote about foreign films, from “Jurassic Park” to “Farewell My Concubine,” in addition to my Japanese film reviews. However, in the first half of the 1990s I shifted to reviewing only Japanese films. I was frustrated being the 1,000th reviewer to the latest Hollywood blockbuster or Cannes prize winner, usually months after their first release. I was also becoming more interested in the work of new Japanese directors.

Late ’80s: Beginnings of a boom

First, a bit of background. Japan’s bubble economy put more money in the pockets of young people during the ’80s, who used it to travel the world and otherwise indulge their curiosity in all things foreign, from food to films. This encouraged the rise of so-called mini theaters — art-house cinemas that screened the type of non-Hollywood foreign films ignored by major distributors. The Japanese film industry took notice of this trend and began developing a mini-theater sector for Japanese films.

One model was Art Theater Guild (ATG). Founded in 1961 with the backing of Toho, ATG became a producer, distributor and exhibitor of independent Japanese films, including those by New Wave auteurs such as Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda and Yoshishige (later Kiju) Yoshida. At their peak during the ’60s and ’70s, ATG films were both daringly experimental and uncompromisingly uncommercial, but in the ’80s the company backed young directors who provided the admixture of entertainment bubble-era audiences preferred. Yoshimitsu Morita’s “Kazoku Game (The Family Game),” from 1983, made a pointed critique of the Japanese middle-class family, but it was also a laugh-out-loud black comedy. ATG ceased production in 1986 and distribution in 1992.

Taking a more populist approach from the start was Argo Project, a company founded in 1990 by six independent producers. Argo produced, distributed and screened films in its two theaters in Tokyo and Osaka. But Argo directors also pushed boundaries of subject matter and treatment. One was Shun Nakahara, a former pink film (soft pornography) director whose first straight feature was the 1990 ensemble drama “Sakura no Sono (The Cherry Orchard).” Unfolding in real time in the two hours prior to the start of the titular Anton Chekhov play at a girls’ high school, the film was both structurally bold and sharply observant, examining its four principal heroines without the usual seishun eiga (youth film) filters, including the ones for sexuality.

Audiences, unfortunately, did not come to these films in the numbers Argo hoped for (though I tried to do my bit for Argo films in The Japan Times) and in 1993 Argo was restructured into a production and distribution company. When the Japanese economy stalled in the early ’90s, other indie companies and producers — as well as the mini theaters that screened their films — faced an uncertain future as box-office revenues and production budgets declined.

Ironically, some of the most prominent new directors of the ’90s, including Takeshi “Beat” Kitano, Takashi Miike, Hirokazu Koreeda and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, began with the support of major media companies, rather than struggling indie producers and distributors. Kitano distributed “Sonatine” (1993) — the blackly funny, starkly violent yakuza film that became his international breakthrough — through the Shochiku studio (and had a well-publicized falling out with its head of production, Kazuyoshi Okuyama, who thought the film was self-indulgent). Koreeda’s feature debut “Maboroshi no Hikari (Maborosi),” an elegiac drama of loss, mourning and recovery selected for the 1995 Venice Film Festival competition, was funded by TV Man Union, a large TV production house that employed the director.

Both Miike and Kurosawa launched their directorial careers via the V-Cinema line of straight-to-video genre films backed by Toei, another major producer and distributor. Coincidentally, V-Cinema is also celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. These directors initially flew under my radar since their early films were only given brief runs (if that) in theaters, though I did review Kurosawa’s “Cure” — a 1997 thriller that made brilliant use of minimalistic atmospherics to impart a mood of creeping dread. I also praised Miike’s “Gokudo Kuroshakai (Rainy Dog),” his 1998 action film about a Japanese hit man (Sho Aikawa) working for a Taiwanese gang. For all its coolly stylish violence, the film foregrounded the hero’s feeling of isolation as well as a ungangsterlike tenderness toward a boy left by an ex-lover.

These and other talented directors who rose to prominence during the ’90s — including Shunji Iwai, Jun Ichikawa, Makoto Shinozaki, Ryuichi Hiroki, Rokuro Mochizuki, Nobuhiro Suwa, Shinji Aoyama and Shinya Tsukamoto — convinced me that the doomsayers were wrong. Beginning with a 1994 essay for Japan Quarterly titled “New Signs of Life in Japanese Cinema,” I wrote about what I called the New Wave of the 1990s.

I wasn’t the only one to notice this revival; British critic and programmer Tony Rayns was an early champion of Kitano, beginning with his 1989 debut “Sono Otoko Kyobo ni Tsuki (Violent Cop).” Even my mentor and friend Donald Richie, who had little good to say about Kitano and Miike, became a warm, early supporter of Koreeda, whom he regarded as a successor to the best traditions of Japanese humanist cinema.

Late ’90s: Years of wonder

All in all, 1997 — the same year Kitano won a Venice Golden Lion for his cop-on-a-mission drama “Hana-bi (Fireworks)” — was an annus mirabilis for Japanese films and the rising generation of filmmakers. That list ought to include Hayao Miyazaki, whose animations had regularly topped charts since his ’89 hit “Majo no Takkyubin (Kiki’s Delivery Service).” When his “Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke)” was released in Japan in ’97 it became the most popular Japanese film of all time, with distributor revenues of ¥11.3 billion. Miyazaki ascended into a box-office stratosphere of his own, where he stayed to the end of his career. My praise for the film in The Japan Times (I called it a “highly individualized work of animation art”) was but part of a large and swelling global chorus.

Also making a worldwide impact about the same time was the genre that came to be known as J-horror. The Japanese film industry had been making horror movies for decades, notably Nobuo Nakagawa’s shockers of the ’50s, which mixed elements of Western horror with local folklore about ghosts bent on revenge. Also, Kiyoshi Kurosawa was beginning to attract overseas attention for films that seemed to come from the director’s own troubled psyche — or nightmares.

The true breakthrough, however, came in 1998 with “Ring” — Hideo Nakata’s gripping psychological horror featuring a mysterious videotape that kills anyone who watches it. Released early in 1998, “Ring” was screened widely abroad and later remade in Hollywood as “The Ring,” with Naomi Watts as a journalist trying to uncover the tape’s deadly secret, a role played in the original by Nanako Matsushima.

By the late ’90s, the genres and directors that were to dominate overseas discussions of Japanese films through the first decade of the new millennium were already well established. Even today, surprisingly little has changed in everything from foreign fan adulation to serious critical opinion. This is similar to the once-frequent citing by foreign critics and journalists of Oshima and other New Wave directors as challengers to the Japanese film establishment, long after much of their work had taken a more commercial turn.

This was certainly true of Kitano, who lost his critically successful (i.e., box-office failure) reputation with the period action film “Zatoichi” (2003). This quirkily entertaining reworking of an iconic series, featuring Kitano as a blind swordsman, earned a resounding ¥2.85 billion. Miike also evolved from a straight-to-video rebel to a reliable director of commercial hits, with his 2004 horror film “Chakushin Ari (One Missed Call)” being a crucial turning point. The films of both Kitano and Miike, however, were arguably more interesting when their budgets were smaller.

New millennium

Since the turn of the millennium, the Japanese film world’s biggest success story, at least in terms of international reputation, was Sion Sono. Once a maker of indie exercises in minimalism — see “Heya (The Room),” from 1992, for a soporific example — Sono became a global cult sensation in the early 2000s with films that combined extreme violence, black humor, Christian imagery, Western classical music and other disparate elements in ways unpredictable and unique. His most entertaining film to date, 2008′s “Ai no Mukidashi (Love Exposure),” took nearly four hours to tell its absurd story of an upskirt photographer who finds religion and romance. Sono’s most bone-chilling is “Tsumetai Nettaigyo (Cold Fish),” from 2010, which is mostly set in two tropical-fish stores, one run by a human piranha who preys on his weaker competitor. Directors, actors and other elements of most commercial releases in Japan are as interchangeable as Lego blocks, but it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Sono conceiving and making these films.

Another big industry story of the current millennium is how those commercial films vanquished their Hollywood rivals in Japan, taking a majority market share for seven of the past eight years. The blockbuster films of Miyazaki are one big reason for this reversal of fortune. Another is the rise of franchises, usually based on a hit manga, novel or TV show, from which canny producers such as Fuji TV’s Chihiro Kameyama have generated income through a variety of media streams. The so-called production committee system they developed, in which a consortium of companies share the risks and rewards, has been criticized as destructive to creativity but has also proven effective at drawing audiences.

More heartening to me is the emergence of a growing cohort of talented female directors over the past decade. Filmmakers such as Miwa Nishikawa, Mika Ninagawa, Yuki Tanada, Momoko Ando, Yong-hi Yang, Mipo Oh and Ayumi Sakamoto are not only finding a foothold in an industry that long marginalized women, but are also making some of Japan’s most interesting films.

So, have the events of the past quarter-century proven the Japanese-films-are-dead crowd wrong? Not quite. Miyazaki’s retirement from making feature films last September, as well as the lack of successors with anything approaching his box-office clout, left a market opening that has been brilliantly exploited by Disney’s “Frozen,” whose ¥25 billion gross makes it the third-highest earning film ever in Japan. Hollywood may yet re-establish the dominance it lost in Japan in the middle of the last decade.

Also, the newer directors who have received critical and popular acclaim in the past decade, including Nobuhiro Yamashita, Yoshihiro Nakamura and Mamoru Hosoda, have yet to attain the high international profile of directors such as Kitano or Miike. Instead, overseas attention has shifted to other regions and countries, such as Korea, whose bureaucrats and businessmen have made the export of Korean films and other popular culture a national priority in ways their Japanese counterparts are fumbling to duplicate.

After all this time, I’m still curious to see how it plays out.