Awards season blows through Japan with a conspicuous lack of buzz

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

It’s awards season. Many a film journalist, from those working at the trade papers to those at the major dailies, spend months speculating who’ll get Oscar nods and, as we get closer to the March 4 ceremony, who’ll win.

Japan has its own “Oscars.” The Japan Academy Prizes, which have been awarded by the Japan Academy Film Prize Association since 1978, will be handed out March 2. Compared to the hype overseas, however, interest from the domestic media, critics and fans is mild and, on occasion, scathing.

Speaking at the Tokyo International Film Festival in 2014, actor and director Takeshi Kitano said that the major studios — specifically Toho, Toei, Shochiku “and sometimes Nikkatsu” — “pass (the awards) around” among themselves, while mostly shutting out independents.

How does Kitano think they pull it off? The Japan Academy has a special voting category for so-called sanjo hōjin (supporting corporations), with the employees of the major film studios accounting for many of the category’s nearly 1,500 members. Since the total voting membership, including directors and actors, is around 4,000, the majors, whose employees presumably vote for their own company’s products, can’t dictate the results, but their clout is significant.

Public criticism of the Japan Academy by as big a name as Kitano is rare, likely because celebrities and the agencies that represent them would rather work with the majors than against them. At the same time, frenetic Hollywood-style awards season PR campaigns are conspicuous here by their absence. If the fix is in, as Kitano has claimed, they don’t really need to expend the effort.

This year’s Japan Academy Prizes will be awarded in 21 categories. The two films with the most nominations — at 10 each, including best picture — are Hirokazu Kore-eda’s legal drama “The Third Murder” and Masato Harada’s period actioner “Sekigahara.” Both were released by major distributors: Toho and Gaga for Kore-eda’s film, Toho and Asmik Ace for Harada’s. Neither are the sort of populist fare that have scooped large numbers of nominations in the past, though.

Arguably, the more prestigious awards in Japan’s film world are the Kinema Junpo Best Ten prizes, which were handed out this year on Feb. 12. Awarded since 1926 by Kinema Junpo, Japan’s oldest film magazine, these prizes are currently based on a poll of about 120 critics, journalists and editors. Kinema Junpo also selects top 10 lists for Japanese and foreign films.

Some Japan Academy Prize nominees end up on the Kinejun top 10 lists, but there’s typically not much overlap. Out of the five Japan Academy best picture nominees this year, only “The Third Murder” made it to the Kinejun Best Ten. On the other hand, the magazine’s best Japanese film of 2017, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s wartime drama “Hanagatami,” received zero Japan Academy nominations.

Even more out of synch with the Japan Academy prizes are the Best Ten and Worst Ten polls conducted annually by Eiga Geijutsu, a magazine edited by veteran scriptwriter Haruhiko Arai. However, media attention for those focuses on the list of so-called duds — which inevitably include films that were showered with praise at overseas festivals. Last year, Eiga Geijutsu picked “The Third Murder” as its worst of the worst. The runner-up? “Sekigahara.”