Japan’s film industry faces quake fallout

by Mark Schilling

The Japanese entertainment industry is reacting to the massive disaster caused by the March 11 earthquake much the way it reacts to any major national tragedy — by observing jishuku (self-restraint).

In practice, this means putting public service, at least temporarily, ahead of profit. All five national TV networks, as well as public broadcaster NHK, turned over their entire schedules to quake-related coverage soon after the disaster struck. Regular programming, as well as commercial breaks, are gradually returning, but many shows are still on hold as broadcasters continue to monitor the aftermath.

Also since Friday there has been a wholesale cancellation of movie events, from the butai aisatsu (stage greetings) by stars and directors of newly released films that are a sacrosanct PR ritual, to concerts, plays, talk events and preview screenings of upcoming titles.

Meanwhile, major distributors Toho, Shochiku and Warner Mycal have shuttered their theaters in the Tohoku region of northern Japan, where the quake struck hardest. And Oriental Land, which manages Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea, announced the closure of the parks after nearly 55,000 visitors ended up stranded there the night following the quake.

These and similar cancellations and closures have been motivated by not only jishuku but by the need to inspect and repair quake-damaged properties, such as Disneyland’s cracked parking lot.

Meanwhile, with rolling power blackouts announced for Tokyo and surrounding prefectures, as well as the growing danger of radiation from damaged nuclear power plants in Fukushima, many exhibitors have cut back on screenings or closed theaters in the Tokyo metropolitan area and elsewhere until further notice.

In addition, distributors are observing their own form of jishuku by pulling, postponing or changing films with content that might upset anxious audiences.

Warner Entertainment Japan has stopped screenings of Clint Eastwood’s drama “Hereafter,” which references the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed nearly 300,000 people, while postponing the scheduled March 19 opening of the Anthony Hopkins shocker “The Rite.” “We have decided that the content of that film is not appropriate given Japan’s current situation,” Warner explained in a statement. Another reason for the postponement, said Warner, is gasoline shortages that have made it harder to transport prints across the country on time.

Also, Shochiku has decided to push back the release of “Aftershock,” Feng Xiaogang’s drama about the 1976 Great Tangshan Earthquake that was a smash hit in China last year. Shochiku had previously said it would open the film on March 26, using its release to raise money for the victims of the earthquake that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, on Feb. 23. The company has not yet said whether it plans a similar charity drive for victims of the quake in Japan.

What is the outlook for the coming weeks and months? Disruptions of not only screenings but film production look likely, says Yuko Shiomaki, an industry veteran who heads the international sales company Pictures Dept. “(Producers) cannot expect the Tohoku or North Kanto area to collaborate with filming,” she said. “The locations have been damaged and the film commissions there are not functioning now.”

Distributors, such as Makotoya President Keiko Kusakabe, find the current situation frustratingly murky. “It makes business planning difficult,” she explains. “It’s hard to see how I’m going to release films this summer. What can I do?”

Shiomaki is launching her own fundraising campaign, “Support Japan — Gambare (Stand Firm).” She intends to give all contributions made at her company website ( justgiving.jp ) to Civic Force, an emergency response unit aiding quake victims. She is also organizing a charity screening at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, which starts Sunday.

“The film business and Japanese society as a whole are now being reset,” she commented. “We in the business have a chance now to regain the trust of society, which can only be good for the movie industry. The old generation and the old systems are now passing away and a new power and a new generation can start from ground zero.”