The Heisei Era began in January 1989 and I started writing reviews of Japanese films for The Japan Times in July that year. In 1990, I became Japan correspondent for a British movie trade magazine, a job description that, with a change of publication, I have held ever since.
Few reviewers also cover the movie industry as a reporter, but I have tried to keep the two jobs in separate silos. As a trade journalist I have to note box-office success with superlatives (“highest,” “most,” “record-breaking”); as a critic I can ignore it.
Filmmakers who hope to make a living at their craft are inexorably linked to the film industry. Without producers or exhibitors, their feature films cannot be made or shown — or earn a profit.
But early in the Heisei Era it wasn’t clear that the industry would be able to compete with its vastly larger Hollywood counterpart. In 1991, the number of Japanese films released fell to 230 — the lowest figure since the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan started tracking industry numbers in 1955. Also the market share of local films for the year was an anemic 41.9 percent. (In 1960, Japanese films held a market share of 78.3 percent — a post-1955 high.)
Among the biggest local hits then were the latest installments in anime series for kids (“Doraemon,” “Dragon Ball Z”) or the newest entries in the “Tora-san” series that, since 1969, had been following the adventures of the titular wandering peddler. The films had become a New Year’s ritual for many, as in “once a year, see a Japanese movie.” Local films that competed directly with Hollywood blockbusters by trying to appeal to the masses were few and far between.
Given this deteriorating situation the predominant mood among industry insiders was doom and gloom. Some wondered if Japan would stop making films altogether.
But I wanted to review Japanese films instead of their “superior” foreign competition since I was discovering interesting ones amid the dross. Some of their makers, such as Shinya Tsukamoto (“Tetsuo: The Iron Man”), Shinji Somai (“Typhoon Club”) and Jun Ichikawa (“Tsugumi”), had come up in the previous decade, while others, like Takeshi Kitano (“Violent Cop”) and Shunji Iwai (“Love Letter”), made their breakthroughs in Heisei. They resisted categorization as a group, but shared an ability to give weight to lightly regarded genres — from yakuza flicks to teen melodramas — and make them their own.
Some, including Kiyoshi Kurosawa (“Cure”) and Takashi Miike (“Shinjuku Triad Society”), got their start with “V Cinema” — the label attached to straight-to-video exploitation product — and I first saw their early films in places like Shinjuku’s Kabukicho district, where audience members looked like the sketchier characters on the screen. But they were also making original and entertaining statements about the larger society and the darker corners of the human spirit.
A culmination came in 1997, when Kitano won the Venice Golden Lion for his cop-out-for-revenge drama “Hana-bi,” and Hayao Miyazaki, anime’s resident genius and box office master, had the biggest hit in the history of Japanese cinema with “Princess Mononoke,” which earned ¥19.3 billion domestically.
What I and others called the new wave of the ’90s carried over into the new millennium. Hirokazu Kore-eda and Naomi Kawase, both documentary filmmakers whose fiction debuts premiered at major festivals — Kore-eda’s “Maborosi” (1995) at Venice and Kawase’s “Suzaku” (1997) at Cannes — joined a select group known as the “4K.” Together with Takeshi Kitano and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, they became the face of serious Japanese cinema to the outside world, their reputations buttressed by the highest honors, foreign and domestic.
All either won awards at Cannes, had films screened at the festival or both.
Meanwhile, industry bad boys Miike and Sion Sono won fans overseas for their plunges into extremes of sex and violence, with Miike’s international breakthrough being the 1999 shocker “Audition” and Sono’s the 2002 thriller “Suicide Club.”
The industry’s hottest genre around the turn of the millennium was horror. Hideo Nakata’s 1998 “Ring” became an international sensation with its story of a haunted video tape that kills all who watch it. Further expanding the worldwide popularity of “J- horror” was Takashi Shimizu’s “Ju-on: The Grudge,” a 2003 shocker about ghosts in a suburban house that fatally infect the living with a “grudge” or curse. These and other J-horror hits were remade by Hollywood, though Nakata and Shimizu struggled to replicate their domestic successes abroad.
The Japanese industry’s revival in the 2000s, culminating with a 53.2 percent majority market share in 2006 — the first time local films had beaten their foreign rivals at the box office since 1985 — was due to more than the popularity of J-horror, however.
The ability of Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli animators to thrash the Hollywood competition also had something to do with it. Miyazaki’s 2001 coming-of-age fantasy “Spirited Away” recorded ¥30.8 billion at the domestic box office — an all-time record — compared to ¥9.66 billion for the No. 1 foreign film that year, “A.I.”
Also, major media companies, led by film distributor and exhibitor Toho, generated hits by forming consortiums called seisaku iinkai (production committees) across a range of platforms — from TV networks to video rental chains — to exploit manga, novels, TV series and other properties.
Critics argued, rightly, that production committee groupthink limited not only filmmakers’ creativity but also the international reach of their films. Catering almost exclusively to the domestic market, production committee films lacked international appeal. Action movies, like Fuji TV’s “Bayside Shakedown” series starring Yuji Oda as a rule-defying cop, were often short on hard-hitting action. Out of concern for TV viewer sensibilities, Fuji kept the series body count at approximately zero. Smash hits at home, the “Bayside” films were a hard sell abroad.
But in the new millennium young filmmakers emerged who bucked against industry conventions. Many were women who brought a new energy and vision to familiar genres and themes.
One was Naoko Ogigami, who set her 2006 breakout hit “Kamome Diner” in Helsinki, and told her story of a middle-aged woman making a fresh start with a relaxed pace, quirky humor and scrumptious food shots that won her an army of female fans. Another was Miwa Nishikawa, who made films about duplicitous types, such the quack rural physician of “Dear Doctor” (2009) and the cheating married novelist of “The Long Excuse” (2016), with a sharp, sympathetic eye while rejecting pieties and formulas.
But successors to the 4K directors as international festival darlings or to Miike and Sono as international cult favorites have been slow to emerge. One reason is that the number of Japanese films released annually here has grown from 282 in 2000 to 613 last year — an all-time high. This makes it more difficult for any one person to stand above the crowd.
And yet some have. Koji Fukada won a Cannes Un Certain Regard Jury Prize in 2016 for his dark family drama “Harmonium,” while Ryusuke Hamaguchi snagged a Cannes competition invitation last year for his offbeat romantic drama “Asako I & II.”
While not yet anointed by Cannes, Ryosuke Hashiguchi has distinguished himself by being an openly gay filmmaker — still a rarity in Japan — who makes dramas that strip characters, gay and straight, to their raw emotional core. His 2015 omnibus drama “Three Stories of Love” won a shelf of domestic awards and appeared on many annual “Top Ten” lists, mine included.
Even so, the gloom of early Heisei has not dissipated completely. And as the international competition intensifies, with China going from strength to box-office strength, the Japanese industry is danger of becoming a cinematic Galapagos, its products unable to adapt to the outside world.
But some of those 600 Japanese films coming out every year are good or even great. And the discoveries never stop.