Who doesn’t love a listicle titled “(X) surprising things you never knew about (Y)”? What surprises me about a lot of commentary on the Japanese film industry — from insiders and outsiders alike — is how it substitutes judgment calls (usually of the “Japanese films are crap” variety) for out-in-plain-sight facts.
Of course, numbers don’t tell the whole story, but they are at least a beginning. And sweeping generalizations may be fun to make, but the truth is usually boring and gray, isn’t it? Here, in no particular order, is a list of my own favorite myths and misrepresentations, including ones I’ve been hearing since I started to write about the industry 25 long years ago.
1. The film industry is dying
This was true enough in 1990, when I became the Japan correspondent for a U.K. movie-trade magazine and nearly every industry source I met was mentally dressed in mourning black. The number of Japanese films released had plunged from the all-time peak of 547 in 1960 to 239 in 1990, with a corresponding drop in earnings for the major studios. Two of the six active in 1960 — Shintoho and Daiei Film Co. — had gone bankrupt, while the others were forced to significantly restructure their personnel and downsize productions. The biggest studio, Toho, had all but stopped making films by the beginning of the 1990s, save for installments in its signature “Godzilla” series.
In the past decade, however, the number of local feature releases — as measured by the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan — soared from 287 in 2003 to 591 in 2013, shattering the 1960 record.
True, that number is inflated with various varieties of porn and tiny indie films (which may only play once a day at one Tokyo theater for a week) but it also hardly represents the last gasps of a terminal patient. Nonetheless, comedian/director Takeshi Kitano asserted on stage at the recently ended Tokyo International Film Festival that “the Japanese film industry is going to ruins.” Source?
2. The film industry is booming
The obvious conclusion from the above? In a piece for Nippon.com titled “Japanese Cinema Turns the Tables on Hollywood,” which is bristling with charts and graphs, box-office analyst Shinichiro Ishiyama correctly observes that the Japanese industry has “managed to claw back more and more audience share” from archrival Hollywood.
In decades past, foreign films totally dominated the local market, but the share of box-office revenues accounted for by foreign films slipped from 52.3 percent in 2007 — the last year non-Japanese movies had a majority — to 39.4 percent in 2013. What Ishiyama doesn’t mention, however, is that total revenues have been steadily eroding, from ¥203 billion in 2003 to ¥194 billion in 2013. That is, the growing number of releases in a declining market has resulted in a fiercer struggle over a shrinking pie, exacerbated by the crisis in the once-thriving “mini-theater” (arthouse) sector. Urban theaters that screen indie films have been going out of business one after the other over the past decade, as have the small- to mid-size distributors that once supplied them. Where art thou Prenom-H, Movie-Eye Entertainment, Tornado Film, Wise Policy, Cine Qua Non and France Eigasha (which went bust in November)?
Another outcome is that the rich — defined as commercial releases backed by TV networks and other major media companies — are getting richer, while everyone else is getting poorer. Director Junichi Inoue told me that his 2013 World War II drama “Senso to Hitori no Onna (A Woman and War),” which scathingly criticized the Imperial system, sold about 10,000 tickets while Takeshi Yamazaki’s kamikaze-pilot megahit “Eien no Zero (The Eternal Zero),” which remained mute on the subject, recorded more than 7 million admissions. “How can I compete with something like that?” Inoue asked plaintively. How indeed? For indie filmmakers the widening gap between rich and poor means lower budgets, fewer screenings, less impact and a tougher struggle to simply stay afloat.
3. Women (and the pretty boy actors they love) rule the Japanese box office
In his bi-monthly column for a rival local publication, film subtitler Don Brown wrote that “the majority of commercial films are aimed at the female demographic, and young male leads these days are often non-threatening lads with vaguely feminine features.”
Actually, as anyone who has ventured into a multiplex during the New Year, Golden Week and school summer holidays can testify, the biggest local hits typically target what local distributors refer to as “the family market.” It’s Mom, Dad and their under-12 offspring that make up the splendiferous box-office numbers recorded by new installments of the long-running “Doraemon,” “Pokemon” and other animation series aimed at kiddies, as well as the products of Studio Ghibli, though they are often aimed at a wider demographic. Also, the male stars of local hit live-action films, such as Hideaki Ito (from the smash “Umizaru” series) and Hiroshi Abe (from the “Thermae Romae” films), often play classic jut-jawed, straight-arrow types. Even a boy-band idol such as V6’s Junichi Okada manned up for his role as the hard-eyed WWII pilot in “The Eternal Zero.” The film drew not only his legions of female fans, but their fathers, brothers and boyfriends.
It’s not that women are losing importance at the local box office, but as the Japanese film market becomes more like America’s, with its ever-ballooning film budgets and make-or-break opening weekends, producers want to make more films that attract an audience from all four quadrants: the young and not-so-young, male and female.
So the male lead can be an ikemen with flouncy blonde hair, but it helps if he can handle a sword.
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