Happy endings: foreigners working in Japan’s film industry

We go behind the scenes to look at what it takes to succeed in the domestic movie industry

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Film is supposed to be a universal language, but the film business in any given country is usually run by the locals for the locals. The one great exception is Hollywood, which has been making films for the world since the silent days and is open to talent, preferably English speaking, from around the globe.

The Japanese film industry is not Hollywood; the big media companies that dominate it focus almost exclusively on the domestic market, with the foreign audience an afterthought. Japanese filmmakers occasionally venture abroad, but their stories typically center on Japanese characters, with the natives serving as a comic or exotic backdrop.

Even so, non-Japanese have long worked in and around the domestic film industry, with actor, subtitler and sales agent being common job descriptions. In recent decades, however, outlanders have found other ways into the business, while expanding formerly narrow job descriptions.

Receiving little encouragement from the industry or government, they have nonetheless persevered and, sometimes, thrived — though few make Hollywood-style fortunes. They have also often had to wear more than one professional hat, by choice, necessity or both.

Bryerly Isabel Long is one of the many foreigners who have acted in Japanese films, beginning with a role as the enigmatic girlfriend of the conman hero in the 2010 Koji Fukada comedy “Kantai (Hospitalite).”

But unlike those who regard the job as a lark (and their performances show it), Long is serious about her work. Acknowledging the “Japanese film world has long been closed,” she adds that “I want to challenge preconceptions” about non-Japanese in the business.

Early on, this internationalized American, who has lived abroad since childhood and speaks fluent Japanese, French and German, made a decision not to travel the usual gaitare (gaikokujin tarento or foreign talent) route of appearing on TV variety shows.

Instead Long has established herself in the theater world — an extension of her work as a choreographer and theater director while still a student at Oxford University. As a member of the Seinendan Theater Company, she has won roles denied to gaitare, relegated to playing non-native stereotypes in TV dramas. “On Japanese television, I could never play a Japanese housewife, but in the theater I can — there’s more room for the imagination,” she says.

In Fukada’s latest film, “Sayonara,” Long stars as a terminally ill woman interacting with an android in a near-future Japan devastated by nuclear radiation. Developed from a short play written by Seinendan leader Oriza Hirata and robotics scientist Hiroshi Ishiguro that Long performed around the world, the film will be an international co-production with funding from Japan, Korea and, if a government application goes through, France.

To make it a reality, Long has taken on a new role: associate producer.

“To make an arthouse film like this, we have to look beyond Japan,” she says.

She also believes that Japan is not a big enough stage for her acting ambitions, despite directors such as Fukuda who have what she describes as an “international mindset.”

“I want to learn Korean,” she says with a smile. One more language, one more market for her multicultural talents.

In contrast to Long’s globe-trotting career, Welsh director John Williams has spent nearly his entire professional life in Japan, starting in Nagoya in the 1990s with six self-financed shorts.

“When I came to Japan I had not worked in any capacity in the film industry in the U.K.,” Williams says. “I was very young and so I had to basically do what any young Japanese filmmaker at the time was doing, which was to make a lot of short films with money from my own pocket.”

His seventh film, the 2001 Ozu-esque coming-of-age drama “Ichiban Utsukushii Natsu (Firefly Dreams),” was also his first feature. Screened widely abroad, the film won several prizes, but did not make Williams a bankable director in Japan.

“You really have stand out in some way to attract funding,” he says. “Simply being foreign and talented isn’t enough really.”

He once thought that a mainstream hit might be the ticket, but now regrets time lost on seemingly big box-office projects that came to nothing.

“I shy away from producers or projects where the prime motivation is commercial success, because I don’t think that can ever be guaranteed,” he says. “I try to work on projects, as a writer, director or producer, where I believe the material will make a good film that I would be happy to be associated with.”

Williams put that philosophy into practice in 2013 with “Sado Tempest,” a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” set on Sado Island in a near-future dystopia. In William’s version, a rebellious rock band (the real-life ensemble Jitterbug) is exiled to a stormy island ruled by Caliban in the guise of the island’s brutal warden.

Complexly poetic and moodily atmospheric, Williams’ third feature film won more festival invitations and accolades, including a best fiction feature prize at the 2013 Chicago International Movies and Music Festival.

Despite this success, he still struggles to raise financing — and points to the lack of government funding, in contrast to the relative largess available to filmmakers in Europe. “If you are a young filmmaker in Japan you have to fight hard to get your projects made, and since there is no advantage to being a foreigner, I’d seriously wonder why anyone would want to do it,” he says. His advice to a young British film-school grad contemplating a move to Japan: “Stay in the U.K.”

Unlike non-native directors, who must compete head-to-head with their Japanese counterparts, subtitlers of Japanese films would seem to occupy a securer niche. But one of the busiest, New Zealand native Don Brown, calls subtitling “a very unstable, irregular profession, especially when you’re starting out.”

“There are far more lucrative areas of translation out there, so if you don’t love movies to the exclusion of other specialties, it’s just not worth the grief,” he says.

A Japanese movie buff since his college days, Brown had polished his Japanese-language skills working as a Japan Exchange and Teaching Program teacher and New Zealand Embassy public affairs officer. He networked his way into his first subtitling jobs when his Japanese was already solid and his film knowledge advanced. His recent credits include “Chiisai Ouchi (Little House),” the latest film by industry icon Yoji Yamada, and Yosuke Fujita’s new comedy “Fukufukuso no Fuku-chan (Fuku-chan of Fukufuku Flats),” the opening film at this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

But people skills, Brown learned the hard way, are also vital.

“It can be very easy to get frustrated with clients,” he says. “I lacked awareness of that when I was starting out, and was perhaps a little too vocal with my annoyance at times.”

His advice to neophytes: “You need to be dedicated, resilient and persistent, as there’ll be plenty of disappointments, such as missing out on promised jobs, indifference from industry people who don’t value good translation and, when you’re starting out, a lot of rejection.”

Briton Andrew Kirkham has served as a different sort of international bridge, beginning back in the 1980s as a producer of videos and, later, DVDs.

Launching his own company, Silk Purse Enterprises, in 2002, Kirkham branched out into film sales, acquisition and production, while turning out nearly 300 Blu-rays and 4,000 DVDs.

He has worked with everything from commercial hits such as the “Death Note” science fiction/fantasy trilogy to the films of cult favorite directors Shinya Tsukamoto, Sion Sono and Takashi Miike.

Being on the business side of the industry, Kirkham has found that “people skills with a grounding in professional skills” has been more important than mastering the Japanese language.

“Over the years I have picked up more understanding than actual ability to talk in Japanese,” he says. “I think people will work with or trust you, even without a high degree of language skill, if they believe in you and your abilities.”

Despite decades of experience under his belt, Kirkham still finds that acquiring Japanese films for the international market is an inexact science. He points to the “Nijuseiki Shonen (Twentieth Century Boys)” science fiction trilogy as an object lesson. After buying rights to the films based on what he describes as “25 minutes of rough footage and the Japanese reputation of the manga,” he found British fans less than receptive.

“The manga got delayed so no one knew the series,” he says. “Plus the release pattern did not work well.” The lesson: “Never let my enthusiasm counter facts again.”

Kirkham also acknowledges that the industry is still not welcoming to outsiders, though he does not want to discourage newcomers.

“Do not let the first rejection knock you back,” he says. “And always part on friendly terms. The industry is small and you might encounter the same people at other companies or future projects. Reputation is king here so this and your integrity need to be protected at all costs.”

Another specialist who has found her industry niche is Australian Georgina Pope, whose Tokyo-based company Twenty First City has been providing production and casting services to both foreign and Japanese clients since 1991. She and her team worked on the Japan location shoots of Gaspar Noe’s “Enter the Void” (2009) and Isabel Coixet’s “Maps of the Sounds of Tokyo” (2009), as well as assisted the overseas filming of Isao Yukisada’s 2004 smash romantic drama “Sekai no Chushin de Ai o Sakebu (Crying out Love, in the Center of the World)” and Tomoyuki Takamoto’s 2012 space drama “Hayabusa: Harukanaru Kikan (Hayabusa: The Long Voyage Home).”

While saying that success in her business calls for “people skills, professional knowhow and hard work — elbow grease and grit,” Pope admits that her foreignness was a plus, at least initially.

“Doors opened earlier than they would have if I were a Japanese woman,” she says. “But unless you can deliver the goods, (being a foreigner) does lose relevancy.”

She also warns against trying to break into today’s highly competitive industry with little more than good English and a foreign passport.

“Don’t start here from scratch,” she says. “Turn up with a really strong body of work and a clear reason and direction for why Japan has a role in your work.”

Belgian Luk Van Haute, now a scholar and translator of Japanese literature, totally ignored this advice, but found a job with film production company Sky Planning, despite having zero film background. The year, however, was 1988, at the height of Japan’s bubble economy.

The job interview, he recalls, consisted of three questions: “Do you speak Japanese? Do you speak English? Do you like movies?” He was hired on the spot for the job of international co-productions coordinator.

Despite the important-sounding title, Van Haute spent most of his office time translating correspondence, as well as various treatments and scripts that never got made. When a foreign cameraman told him he was little more than a glorified secretary, Van Haute bristled at first.

“But then (I) had to admit he was basically right,” he says.

One of the company’s most important clients was a 26-year-old real estate tycoon dabbling in the movie business.

“He only wanted to sleep with the actresses,” Van Haute says. One project this mogul was supposedly backing was about a Japanese woman’s adventures in Australia, to which a well-known Hollywood director was once attached, but it, too, failed to launch.

Nonetheless, Van Haute’s boss, a woman who also managed a talent agency that supplied cash and actors to the company’s films, treated the tycoon like royalty. One day, she had an urgent request for her international co-productions coordinator: “‘Luk,” she asked me, ‘Can you clean up the office? He is coming.’” There was no need to specify who he was. That is when Van Haute decided to quit. “Even for a glorified secretary that was a step too far,” he says.

By comparison, the current generation of non-Japanese working in the local industry have moved up a step or two in status. At the very least, handiness with a dustpan and broom are no longer part of the job description.

  • ScottyP

    When I saw the headline “Happy Endings”, I thought this article was about a different entertainment industry….