Schilling reels in a decade of film


CONTEMPORARY JAPANESE FILM, by Mark Schilling. Weatherhill, 1999, 399 pp., $24.95 (paper).

Americans flock to subtitled films the way the Swedes flock to church. That is, hardly ever. So when Asian films make their way into the theaters of U.S. shopping malls, it is no small feat.

Mandarin-language cinema can claim the biggest Asian hits in the United States today with Edward Yang’s critically acclaimed “A One and a Two,” and Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which continues to shovel in box-office receipts worldwide after taking four Oscars last week. Is Japanese film poised to achieve similar successes abroad?

Mark Schilling, veteran reviewer for The Japan Times, offers here a detailed look at the Japanese film industry’s output in the last 10 years.

He suggests that, neither set for new heights nor gasping for breath, Japanese film will go strong for at least another decade. But this will happen only on the shoulders of the industry’s new generation, and not by way of the hackneyed production formulas of Japan’s established studios.

More than 40 years have passed since the glory days of Japan’s movie industry.

In 1960, there were 547 new releases. Three years ago, that figure had dropped to fewer than 250 films. Domestic market share for Japanese movies plummeted from 78 percent to 30 percent over the same period.

Yet, as bleak as this seems, Schilling points out that this 30 percent is still much higher than the single-digit market shares claimed by the domestic film industries of, say, Germany or Britain.

In the book’s first of three critical essays, Schilling recounts how a trio of companies has long dominated Japan’s mainstream film industry.

The Shochiku, Toho and Toei firms are Japan’s Hollywood, with their formidable marketing resources and distribution networks, their own range of movie houses, and massive production budgets.

While they largely crowded out independents with their financial muscle, these conservative firms have also long stifled creativity in their own ranks, fearing ingenuity and sticking to fixed formulas.

As Hollywood studios blazed ahead with innovative effects and resulting blockbusters, Japan’s big three were treading water, getting maximum mileage out of their aging winners: the Godzilla series (Toho), Tora-san series (Shochiku), and yakuza hits and costume dramas (Toei).

Young talent, though, breached the corporate citadel in the mid-’90s, clearly a transformative decade for Japanese film. Many of these newcomers came in through the back door, having honed their directing skills making music videos or ads for TV.

They also came with a new target: the disillusioned youth of the increasingly commercialized, affluent Japan of the ’90s.

Departing from the older generation’s preoccupations with lost customs and changing values, these newcomers — Shinji Aoyama and Shunji Iwai are two who come to mind — set social misfits and outsiders as their heroes, and shifted the emphasis of the story from the group to an individual’s journey on the fringe of “respectable” society.

The unprecedented influx of foreign workers who flocked to Japan to share in the wealth of its economic bubble in the early 1990s has also changed the face of film. More films (“Beijing Watermelon,” “Swimming with Tears”) reflected the growing ethnic diversity and resulting dynamism of Japan; directors probed racial themes and incorporated Chinese, Filipinos and other nationalities into their portrayals of Japanese life.

Also in the ’90s, story lines began to reflect a reawakening among many Japanese to the rest of Asia (“Emergency Call,” “Deep River”). Pan-Asia projects appeared (“Misty,” “Kitchen”): Collaborations with foreign studios using diverse casts, foreign stars and settings abroad, these movies were designed to appeal to audiences beyond Japan.

Rather than a cover-to-cover read, Schilling’s book, which includes nearly 400 of his reviews, is a valuable reference for any student of film, movie buff or frequent video-shop goer.

It also includes more than a dozen interview-profiles of directors and producers.

One of these is a July 1998 interview with Takeshi Kitano, perhaps Japan’s best-known movie star here and overseas. Firmly at the top of his business, Kitano’s work in many ways exhibits the temper of Japanese film today. His latest movies, “Battle Royale” and “Brother,” which is set in Los Angeles, teem with youth violence and gratuitous killing.

Shoot-’em-ups are nothing new. Oddly, though, Kitano comes off as a realist, even a moralist. Perhaps the aimlessness and quasi-nihilism of his films reflect, among other things, a nation in the throes of a severe identity crisis.

That should give enough material for any filmmaker to produce for a while.