The Japanese movie business is something like a restaurant where new cooks and waiters arrive as old ones retire or die, but the menu remains much the same, decade after decade.
This year, similar to every year going back to the 1980s and beyond, the big local films at the box office were either new installments of venerable anime series — with “Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer” (¥9.1 billion) and “Doraemon the Movie: Nobita’s Treasure Island” (¥5.3 billion) leading the list — or live-action films based on properties from other media and backed by media conglomerates known as “production committees.”
The highest-earning domestic film, at ¥9.2 billion, was “Code Blue: The Movie,” a feature based on a hit Fuji TV series about a helicopter emergency medical team. Shot by veteran TV director Masaki Nishiura in the style of the drama, “Code Blue” also beat the foreign competition starting with “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” which finished with ¥8 billion.
All three of these Japanese box office behemoths were distributed by Toho, the largest local distributor and exhibitor by far.
For reference, the No. 1 box office film of 1983, “Antarctica,” was also a follow-up to a Fuji TV series and distributed by Toho (in partnership with long-vanished Nippon Herald). This film, about two dogs who survived one year in the Antarctic after being abandoned by a Japanese research team, not only inspired a Hollywood remake but was also instrumental in establishing the “production committee” system. Thirty-five years later, we are still living with the consequences.
And yet the two local films garnering the most attention this year were neither animated nor produced by a committee from a TV show, manga or best-selling novel.
Ranking in fourth place among domestic films in earnings and 10th overall with ¥4.5 billion, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” was based on the director’s original script. Also, instead of the adventures of flying doctors or, to name two other tried-and-true storylines, medical catastrophes or troubled teen romances, “Shoplifters” was a serious drama about a family of petty crooks and grifters who take in an abused little girl and train her to shoplift. As the police move in, the family’s various facades crumble, but there is little in the way of standard plot twists or hanky-wringing melodrama. Nonetheless, “Shoplifters” became the biggest hit of Kore-eda’s long and distinguished career, proving that it is still possible to draw large audiences here with quality rather than formula and publicity.
The guaranty of that quality for many was the film’s Palme d’Or, the highest prize at arguably the world’s most prestigious film festival, Cannes, and the first won by a Japanese film in 21 years. This made “Shoplifters” an event that attracted average filmgoers.
The film also stirred up controversy for both its content — posters on rightist message boards complained that its focus on society’s underbelly sullied Japan’s image — and Kore-eda’s stance of distancing himself from the current government, exemplified by his rejection of an invitation from the culture minister following his Cannes win. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned the favor, issuing no public message of congratulations. The ensuing uproar did not hurt the film’s box-office take — and in fact may have helped it.
But the local film world’s sensation of the year was “One Cut of the Dead.” A zombie comedy made for a budget of ¥3 million by a cast and crew of unknowns and released in two small Tokyo theaters in June, the film quickly became a word-of-mouth smash, with fans tweeting or blogging rave reviews. Celebrities chimed in and the film morphed into a mainstream must-see.
Director Shinichiro Ueda wrote the script and, with the backing of Enbu Seminar, a school for aspiring actors and directors, cast the film through workshops and shot it in eight days. Together with Enbu Seminar President Koji Ichihashi, he also worked tirelessly to promote it, appearing at screenings and posting by the minute on social media.
There was a flap over the film’s provenance: In August, playwright and theater troupe leader Ryoichi Wada claimed that Ueda had stolen the plot from a play he had written and produced, a claim Ueda strenuously denied (though the credits now include a nod to the play as a source of inspiration). But nothing could slow his film’s momentum: “One Cut of the Dead” has now played on more than 300 screens and earned ¥3 billion — 1,000 times its budget.
Early this year I saw and recommended “One Cut of the Dead” to the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy. The 500 fans at its midnight screening greeted its triple-layer story with laughter, cheers and, at the end, a five-minute standing ovation. “One Cut of the Dead” lost the first-place audience award by a hair to a South Korean blockbuster, but it also showed that the Japanese industry’s conventional wisdom of playing it safe with proven properties was, if not bankrupt, beatable.
The chance of Ueda, who is now in production on his next film, or anyone else repeating this success anytime soon is slim. Even so, there are signs that the local industry is changing. More Japanese directors and actors are working abroad, including Atsuko Hirayanagi with the brilliant set-in-Tokyo-and-Los Angeles comedy “Oh Lucy!” and Akio Fujimoto with the groundbreaking drama “Passage of Life,” about a Myanmar family’s struggles in Tokyo and Yangon.
Also, more non-natives are working in the Japanese film industry in more than stereotypical “foreigner” roles as bad guys or comic foils. Among them are producers, directors and actors, mostly in the indie sector, though some are moving up in the industry hierarchy, such as Canadian Jason Gray, who together with his wife, Eiko Mizuno-Gray, is a producer on “To the Ends of the Earth,” the latest film by Cannes regular Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
Even at the top, where the major companies, agencies and studios dwell, attention is shifting from the stagnant domestic market to Asia and elsewhere. One impetus is a co-production treaty signed between Japan and China in May that allows co-produced films to avoid China’s tight film import quota. Another is the sterling track record of certain Japanese films that have screened in China, examples including the anime “Your Name.” ($83 million in box office revenue) and last year’s “Doraemon: Great Adventure in the Antarctic Kachi Kochi” ($21.5 million).
Individual talents are also seeking their fortunes — or the occasional acting job —in China. The latest is Go Ayano, an in-demand actor who has been cast as the lead opposite Chinese star Song Jia in the comedy “Hajinshi” (“Broken”). Ayano plays a Japanese aristocrat who survives the 1185 sea battle of Dannoura and ends up in a Chinese coastal village, where he falls in love with Song’s character. The film will open in China next year.
Its release in Japan has yet to be decided, however. Another eternal verity of the Japanese market is that Asian films seldom become box-office hits. But miracles, as one indie comedy so amply proved, can happen.
Top five film releases of 2018
Winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film about a family living by petty crimes in today’s Tokyo is a return to the social drama of “Nobody Knows.” And like that 2004 masterpiece, Kore-eda’s new film has a naturalistic surface, with dialogue that sounds less scripted than taped, and a finely tuned structure (not “plot”) that delivers epiphanies that linger. There is also a question at its heart — what is “family”?
‘One Cut of the Dead’
Made on a tiny budget by unknowns, this zombie comedy became the most talked-about Japanese film of year. The hype is justified: Scripted and directed by Shinichiro Ueda, it begins as a crazed 37-minute take in which actors playing zombies are “infected” by the real thing, but just as the joke is wearing thin, the film reveals other levels that deliver both more laughs and a heart-felt paean to filmmaking.
‘Dare to Stop Us’
This drama about rebel director Koji Wakamatsu and his circle rightly focuses on the late 1960s and early 1970s when Wakamatsu was at the height of his creativity and social and cultural impact. And though it begins with broad-brush caricatures that are in-jokes for the knowing, it is also informed by deep familiarity with its principals: Director Kazuya Shiraishi was a Wakamatsu apprentice. The film’s stand-out is Mugi Kadowaki as a young assistant director who exemplifies the era’s turmoil, while engaged in a hard, uncertain struggle for recognition and purpose in her temperamental boss’s film factory.
‘Mori, the Artist’s Habitat’
Shuichi Okita’s biopic of Morikazu Kumagai (1880-1977) focuses on one day late in the painter’s career, when he had not ventured outside his large, jungle-like garden for decades. More than just a comic portrait of an eccentric, the film is a pointed, affectionate look at his world, starting with ground-level shots of Kumagai intently examining tiny flora and fauna. Tsutomu Yamazaki as Kumagai and Kirin Kiki as his endlessly patient wife deliver gags with flawless, no-fuss professionalism.
‘Sennan Asbestos Disaster’
Kazuo Hara’s first film in over a decade, this documentary about plaintiffs fighting a lengthy legal battle against the government over diseases and deaths from exposure to asbestos is a formidable 215 minutes. But the patient, relentless Hara waits and prods for moments of truth that strip away masks from both sides. Yes, bureaucrats and politicians come across as callous and self-serving, but the plaintiffs also reveal themselves as flawed. A riveting film with insights about Japanese society and human nature.