Japan’s Academy Prizes — the fix is in?

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Comedian, actor and director Takeshi Kitano had some scathing things to say about the Japanese film industry at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, where he was given a career achievement award. One target he singled out was the Japan Academy Prizes — the local equivalent of the Oscars — whose 38th annual awards ceremony will be held on Feb. 27.

“Shochiku, Toho, Toei and sometimes Nikkatsu pass (the awards) around,” said Kitano. “The (awards) are supposed to be chosen by the Academy members, but who are they? I’d like them to raise their hands.”

Japan Academy Prize Association chairman Yusuke Okada later indignantly retorted that the Academy voting procedures were “the cleanest anywhere” and that the proportion of votes accounted for by employees of the Big Three studios was “only a few percent.”

“A lot of our members are freelancers,” he added. “I’m not asking for an apology. I’m just explaining the situation in the hope that Kitano and his people will understand how I see it.”

So who was right — and does it matter? Rightly or wrongly, an award from the Japan Academy has a cachet both in Japan and internationally that other domestic prizes struggle to match. The Kinema Junpo awards, which had their start in 1926 with their now-iconic best 10 list, arguably carry more domestic prestige, though in writing about them for foreign readers, I first have to explain that Kinema Junpo (aka Kinejun) is Japan’s oldest film magazine, which began publication in 1919. But “Japan’s Oscars” need no such explanation, for anyone, anywhere.

Film researcher Soichiro Matsutani recently did what no one else had thought of doing in this long-running “Are the Japan Academy prizes fixed?” debate: He analyzed the numbers in painstaking detail.

First, the basics: The Academy prizes will be presented for the 38th time on Feb. 27. Since the festival’s start in 1978, films distributed by Toho have won the best-picture prize 13 times, Shochiku films have won 13 times and Toei films six times. The remaining five prizes went to films released by other companies, but not by Nikkatsu, which did not get its first best-picture nomination until 2013 for “Kyoaku (The Devil’s Path).”

So the Big Three studios have clearly dominated, taking 86.4 percent of the best-picture prizes through 2014.

The only people qualified to vote on the prizes are members of the Japan Academy Prize Association, which numbered 3,934 in 2014. This includes not only directors and other production staff but also those involved in film distribution and exhibition.

Also, the Academy has a category for so-called sanjo hōjin (supporting corporations), which number 202 and whose 1,431 Academy members account for 36.4 percent of the total. This includes the Big Three, with 686 employee members, as well as the subsidiaries, broadcasters, publishers and other companies who partner with them.

Shorn of its somewhat overheated rhetoric, Kitano’s argument is not that the voting process is rigged, but that these corporate votes tend to favor Big Three films. There is no direct way to tell, since the Academy does not reveal the votes of individual members, including those working for sanjo hōjin.

To fact-check Kitano’s contention, Matsutani decided to compare the Academy’s best-picture award nominees to Kinejun’s best 10 films, as selected annually by a panel of about 60 film critics, from 1978 to 2014. First he found that about 50 percent of the top five films on the Kinejun lists — that is, the films ranked one through five in any given year — were Big Three releases.

Unsurprisingly, Kinejun’s critics tend to favor more arty independent films than those typically found among Academy prize nominees. Only 14 films, or 36.8 percent of the Academy’s 38 best-picture winners, were also chosen as the best film of the year by the Kinejun critics — and four of them were not distributed by the Big Three.

Also, of the 191 films nominated for the Academy’s best-picture award, 128 — 67 percent — found their way onto the Kinejun best 10 list. But just 88 — 46.1 percent — made it into the top five.

Finally, Matsutani compared the distributors of all of the Academy’s best-picture nominees with those of Kinjun’s top five films in a given year. The Big Three released 86 percent of the former, but only 50 percent of the latter.

“This (discrepancy) is a little strange,” he concluded.

It’s simplistic to say that the Big Three call the shots and their Academy member employees and clients fall in line. Films from non-majors have also become Academy best-picture winners, such as Cine Quanon’s 2006 film “Hura Garu (Hula Girls)” and Showgate’s 2012 film “Kirishima, Bukatsu Yamerutteyo (The Kirishima Thing).” But it’s also undeniable that Big Three releases snag a disproportionate number of Academy nominations.

To make the selection process more equitable, the Academy could eliminate the sanjo hōjin category and instead classify members by occupation (actor, producer, etc.), as does the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) in selecting winners of the Oscars. True, the AMPAS has been criticized for this industry guild system, which tends to favor the old and established over the young and up-and-coming. But it has also selected many Oscar winners not made by Hollywood’s major studios — so many that in 2009, AMPAS raised the number of best-picture nominees from five to 10, ensuring that more big studio films would get at least a nod, if not a statuette.

Kitano, it must be said, has a personal reason to be peeved with the Academy. Four of his films have been nominated for the Academy’s best-picture award but none have won. His total Academy prize haul is an editing award for his samurai actioner “Zatoichi” (2003) and two “Most Popular Performer” awards, a category since discontinued. Meanwhile, he has won a long list of prizes abroad, including the Venice Film Festival’s highest prize — the Golden Lion — for his 1997 cop-on-a-mission drama “Hana-bi (Fireworks).”

So call it sour grapes if you will, but he has a point.