Working in the film industry as a non-Japanese has its own challenges

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

Japan is home to one of the most lucrative movie industries in the world, and also one of the most prolific: 1,149 films received a theatrical release during 2016, over 600 of which were domestic productions. It can be hard to stand out in such a crowded marketplace and the challenges are often compounded for non-Japanese people working in the industry.

The Japan Times spoke to four such individuals to hear their thoughts about the state of Japanese cinema in 2017, and what the future might hold. Jason Gray, a former Japan correspondent for Screen International, released his first film as a producer this year, the Japanese-Latvian co-production “Magic Kimono.” Bryerly Long is best known for her starring role in Koji Fukada’s 2015 film “Sayonara,” which she also produced. Adam Torel founded the U.K. distribution company Third Window Films and has multiple producer credits to his name, most recently for this year’s “Love and Other Cults.” John Williams has directed three Japanese-language features, and will be releasing his fourth, an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,” next year. These are excerpts from the conversations, edited for length and clarity.

What’s been the professional highlight of the year for you?

Williams: Finishing (forthcoming pic) “The Trial.” It’s always satisfying to finish a film.

Gray: Our first co-production ever came out in cinemas this June. It was kind of a banner year.

Torel: (“Love and Other Cults”) played in Sitges Film Festival, which was the first time for me. That was my highlight of the year.

Long: I joined (talent agency) Yoshimoto Kogyo this year, as an actress, and I also joined a German agency as a result of taking part in Berlinale Talents. Here in Tokyo, the highlight has been that I directed my first short this summer.

Where do you feel the industry is at for independent film in Japan?

Torel: I think it’s too nice and too easy nowadays. It’s too easy to get a film released, it’s too easy for people to come to it and it’s too easy to get into Tokyo International Film Festival. It’s too much support — which is actually an odd thing to say — because people are resting on their laurels. You get a lot of this from the young kids nowadays: “We’ve done it, we’re these great filmmakers, we’ve had our films in this major film festival.” But the problem is that because it’s too easy for them, they’re not getting any better, so their films have just stagnated.

Long: I’m producing a project with four directors who have been at Tokyo, Rotterdam and Cannes (film festivals), and we’re trying to put together a French-Japanese co-production. The whole screenwriting process to convince funding bodies in Europe — or in the U.S. — is very competitive. To get a feature made, you spend years writing, rewriting, convincing investors, and the director has to come up with a storyboard and everything. Here, I think there’s this kind of ease in making films at a very fast pace, but with often very sloppy writing, very kind of “put-together-last-minute” jobs, and the boundary between film school students doing an amateur project and professional directors is so vague.

Gray: When you look at a graduation film in South Korea — like the fourth-year feature that they have to produce in film school — it’s inevitably miles more professional than what you would see here, even so-called professional films.

There’s a problem with some basic things. It sounds ridiculous but the sound, sound design, cinematography, color correction — a lot of these things are rushed. You get this sort of sloppiness that just doesn’t cut it overseas. Another problem is all the adaptations: It’s just gotten ridiculous how safe everyone plays it by basing things on manga, TV shows, novels, songs, games. Adam, all your films are original, right?

Torel: I won’t do anything that isn’t original.

Gray: I think we need more directors doing that — but not so insular, making films for their friends. It has to be original work that can be shown anywhere in the world. (The industry lacks) a nice middle ground, like Japan had in the 1990s maybe, where you could make a $1-3 million movie that would travel overseas — your (Takeshi) Kitano films, or what have you — and also do reasonably well here. There’s a massive gap between insular (indie) filmmakers, big studios, and then the middle ground. People trying to make quality movies with professional actors and professional production values are unable to make their money back.

Williams: Even in the major companies, I know that some of the producers are frustrated. I’ve been told by people in very big film companies in Japan, “We have to make these bigger-budget films with the star packages. We can’t make the smaller, interesting films any more. We would love to do it, but they don’t work.” They haven’t really figured out why they don’t work — and that’s a question that’s being discussed all over the world, I think.

Torel: They’re not making their money back because of the film committee system, where each party who’s invested can make their money back doing this thing — doing their music promotion or something like that — and therefore the film’s not making enough money but everybody is inside. It’s just cash flow.

Long: I would agree with you that the film committee system doesn’t make it easy. I would say it just helps them to save their asses. I don’t think that they’re making lots of money; I think that they’re just barely surviving.

Gray: The casting agencies, obviously, they’re part of these production committees, so they have a really strong say. So you get movies that could’ve been good — story-wise, thematically — but they’re cast so badly — miscast — to cash in on some trend, and most of those films bomb anyway.

Long: I think it’s unfortunate that so many great Japanese actors don’t get challenged with a variety of roles. People get cast to be themselves on screen. In a way, they’re not casting actors: they’re casting famous people, and they want that famous person to be exactly how the audience expects them to be.

Also, there’s this obsession with, “Who’s the hottest young thing right now?” So you see these people who have really matured in their acting just not getting chances anymore because they’re not the new hot thing on the market.

As a non-Japanese person working in the industry, do you feel like an outsider, or have you found your place?

Williams: If I have a commercial project that works as a commercial film in Japan — and I do have ones that I’m slowly developing — then I feel that I know which doors I can knock on, and I can get the meetings and have the discussions with those people, so I don’t feel as if I’m an outsider in that sense.

Long: As an actress, I guess I’ve been very frustrated and surprised to see that Japan is much less open than I expected it to be by now to having more diverse casting. It’s really made by Japanese people, for Japanese people, about Japanese people, all in Japanese, and the domestic market is too small to absorb that. Even for bigger platforms like Netflix or Amazon, the kind of stuff that’s being produced there isn’t necessarily going to ever have any success in the international market.

Gray: Our first film, “Magic Kimono,” that was the first-ever co-production between Japan and Latvia. It was just over a million euros, and we were the only Japanese co-producer. It was a financial risk, it was a heavy burden, a lot of work; but in the end, because of that experience we’ve had other projects come to us, because it’s like: “Oh, you guys are focused on working with other countries.”

Long: I think where we come into play here — why Japanese directors approach people like us — is because a huge problem for independent films, in particular, is that they’re not factoring in distributing them overseas. I think any European independent film is not planning to make its money back in a single territory, whereas Japanese producers are really only interested in the Japanese market.

Torel: With Japanese producers and Japanese companies, it’s all about getting the film made, and 99.9 percent of the work is getting the film to the first day at the cinema, and then that’s it.

When you’re producing independent films in Japan, to what extent does the potential international audience factor into the decisions that you’re making?

Williams: That’s a really complex question. Obviously, Japanese independent film is, by definition, arthouse outside Japan. Even if you make a horror film, it’s still kind of arthouse because it’s Japanese. Being aware of the festivals is really, really important — and that is the audience, it’s a festival audience.

Even for big Japanese commercial films like (2009 Academy Award-winner) “Departures,” really that’s a festival film. It doesn’t get the theatrical release unless it gets the attention at the festivals — or, in the case of “Departures,” the Oscar must have helped a lot, but it’s still in that niche.

So if you start thinking about that, the danger is you start to make festival films. You start to make films that are not for a Japanese audience. It’s a dilemma for me too, because although I’m a foreigner making films in Japan, I think if films don’t work for a Japanese audience — if you’re not thinking about the Japanese audience — it’s kind of pointless. If you’re just making a festival film, what is that audience?.

Torel: It always comes down to the fact that most films by established arthouse directors, or international directors, always bomb in Japan. Like (Koji Fukada’s) “Harmonium,” like (Takashi) Miike films, like (Sion) Sono films. You wonder how these people continue to make films, but they make it because of international sales. “Harmonium” was the best film of last year and was huge internationally. The opening day screening of it in Tokyo, with a Tadanobu Asano talk event, wasn’t even half full at the cinema.

Long: Both “Sayonara” and “Harmonium” had bigger box-office sales in France than in Japan, even though they’re both films in Japanese. A lot of that is to do with the way that films are promoted there. For example, when “Harmonium” was coming out in cinemas, it was posted all over the city in Paris. Did you see any posters for “Harmonium” in Tokyo? It was very, very limited.

What would you like to see change in the Japanese film industry in 2018?

Gray: Development money for directors who have proven themselves independently, or even professionally: Getting proper development funds to work on their stories and their screenplays without having to hold part-time jobs. That’s what I would like to see.

Williams: What I would like to try and help to make happen is to set up some kind of funding system to help more edgy and interesting films get made. I don’t think it’s going to come from the government —not necessarily because some of those people don’t want to do it, I think they probably do — and I don’t think it’s going to come from major companies, although there are people in those companies who will probably become allies if we try to do this, because of the frustrations they feel. I think it’s going to come from a collective work of independent filmmakers who all recognize the problem and set up our own way of doing it.

Long: I think real policy shift in the government, to really rethink how they’re going to brand their culture, and a realization that it’s not enough to just market “Cool Japan” — or manga, anime or certain things that are very safe — if they really want to attract foreign audiences.

Torel: These things are all set up but they’re not properly run. There are loads of things that could help Japanese films overseas, like Cool Japan or (government subsidy program) J-LOP. They have loads of money, they have ludicrous amounts of money, but they’re all put into (Yasushi) Akimoto with (idol-pop group) AKB48 and all that stuff, Dentsu. It’s all just controlled by the companies that are pushing only their own things, and only the majors and the anime, the manga. It’s already set up, it just needs to be controlled in a better way, or at least …

Gray: Repurposed.

Torel: Yeah, or make it easier. Doing the paperwork for these sorts of things, and the red tape, it’s unbelievable. It’s made for overseas companies, but it’s all in Japanese. It’s way too hard to bother applying for these J-LOP subsidies. They’ve got loads of money because everyone gives up!

Gray: (Laughing) Let’s just make movies for our friends! F—- this!