Film

Surefire formulas failed Japanese cinema in 2017

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

In a quarter-century of reporting on the Japanese film industry, I’ve yet to find one optimist about its future.

I used to regularly hear laments from veteran filmmakers and executives who remembered the industry’s 1950s glory days, when admissions exceeded 1 billion annually and the major studios were churning out new double-bills nearly every week. By the early 1990s, however, admissions were down to about one-eighth of postwar peaks and, with the exception of anime and the occasional domestic live-action hit, Hollywood dominated the box office. No wonder they only saw black clouds on the horizon.

But even in the past decade, when local production numbers have soared and Japanese films have usually won a majority market share over their Hollywood rivals, the prevailing mood has still been gloom and doom. One reason: A growing gap between the rich, led by production/distribution behemoth Toho, and the poor, such as young directors making indie films for the “mini theater” (art house) market. The former produce films almost exclusively from proven properties in other media, particularly manga, while the latter face a steady shrinkage in both budgets and screening slots. The end result: a creative hollowing-out.

I had doubts about this pessimism since compared to many film industries elsewhere, Japan’s is thriving. As producer Adam Torel noted at a 2015 Tokyo International Film Festival seminar on local production, Japan is a “paradise” for indie filmmakers, who can secure theatrical releases for micro-budget films that, in his native U.K., would never find a distributor. Now, however, I’m not so certain the naysayers are totally wrong.

This year Japanese megahits similar to “Your Name.,” the Makoto Shinkai anime that set a new box office record for Japanese films abroad last year, have been conspicuous by their absence. Though Eiren — the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan — has not yet released official figures for 2017, preliminary numbers indicate that only two local films — new entries in the long-running “Detective Conan” and “Doraemon” anime series — will be in the box office top 10 for the year.

Also, the highest-earning live-action local film, the goofball comedy “Gintama,” finished with ¥3.85 billion, compared with ¥12.36 billion for the No. 1, “Beauty and the Beast.”

Meanwhile, Japan’s best-known directors abroad — the so-called 4 K of Takeshi Kitano, Naomi Kawase, Hirokazu Kore-eda and Kiyoshi Kurosawa — all had new films this year, but none made it into the year’s box office top 30. And despite invitations to major festivals, none brought home a major prize.

It could be argued that the “4 K” directors, who first rose to prominence in the 1990s, are past their creative primes, though Koreeda released his best film in years, the legal drama “The Third Murder,” in 2017. Also, Asian films in general are being passed over by Western programmers and critics. (The only Asian film on the Film Comment list of 20 Best Films for 2017 was South Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s “On the Beach at Night Alone” at No. 16.)

But regardless of whether the careers of this quartet are winding down, the next generation of directors has been slow to challenge their supremacy, though some, such as Koji Fukada (“Harmonium”) and Miwa Nishikawa (“The Long Excuse”), have the talent and drive to make international breakthroughs similar to their distinguished senpai (seniors).

A growing number of filmmakers frustrated with this difficult-to-dismal situation are working abroad. Among them are Fukada, who shot his latest film, “Umi o Kakeru” (“The Man from the Sea”), in Indonesia, and Junji Sakamoto, who went to Cuba to film his biopic “Ernesto,” while up-and-coming directors Takeshi Fukunaga (“Out of My Hand”) and Atsuko Hirayanagi (“Oh Lucy!) are based in the United States.

Also, actors such as Joe Odagiri (“The White Girl”), Jun Kunimura (“Kokoro”) and Masaharu Fukuyama (“Manhunt”) are in demand overseas while maintaining thriving careers at home. Examples of border-crossing Japanese talents could be multiplied, though poor language skills and a reluctance to take the international plunge hold many back.

Another increasing popular alternative to the local indie film grind is doing a series for cable, satellite or streaming platforms. Veteran Ryuichi Hiroki (“Vibrator”) was supervising director on the 10-part series “Hibana: Spark” about two struggling manzai comedians that Netflix, and later NHK, broadcast last year. Also, in September Wowow broadcast Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s five-part “Yocho ‘Foreboding,'” with an alien invasion story spun off from his Cannes Un Certain Regard entry “Before We Vanish.” Both series have since generated feature films.

Meanwhile, industry bad boy Sion Sono, a festival favorite for such taboo-challenging films as “Love Exposure” (2008) and “Antiporno” (2017), partnered with Amazon Prime this year to make “Tokyo Vampire Hotel.” This nine-part series about two battling vampire tribes was partly filmed in Romania, with production values far above those for Sono’s scrappier indie efforts. This series was also edited into a feature that premiered at the Tokyo Filmex festival in November.

But at the top of the industry food chain, where Toho and other leading production and distribution companies dwell, not much has changed, save for dwindling returns for formulas that were once sure things. With J-horror long past its sell-by date and action films about samurai and gangsters in a decades-long decline, the majors have increasingly resorted to manga-based romantic dramas about star-crossed young lovers, often with a medical catastrophe or time travel in the mix.

Other thriving evergreen genres include coming-of-age dramas and comedies, with so many set in high schools that by know I feel I know their rituals and byways better than my own. In some films, such as Yoshitaka Yamaguchi’s biker actioner “Demekin,” school is little more than a staging area for brawls, with adults absent altogether.

The industry’s ultimate go-to genre is anime, with comic-based series aimed at kids and teens among its highest-earning and longest-lived products. But the Japanese animation garnering the most kudos abroad, as well as splendiferous box office returns at home, are by auteurs like Makoto Shinkai, Mamoru Hosoda and the now-unretired Hayao Miyazaki who target wider audiences with films that are traditionally 2-D in look, if now made with considerable digital assists.

No one in this trio released a film this year, however. Maybe by this time next year, when Hosoda’s new “Mirai no Mirai” (“Mirai of the Future”) has crushed Hollywood rivals at the summer box office, I’ll be a cockeyed optimist again.