Film

Japan's decade of 'closed country' cinema

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

The 2010s have been a decade of almighty change for the film industry, as streaming giants rewrote the rules of engagement, Disney conquered the box office, and China threatened to overtake the United States as the world’s biggest market.

At first glance, it has been a lucrative period for the domestic movie industry, too. The revival that started in the 2000s has shown little sign of flagging. The Japanese box office hit a record high of ¥235.5 billion in 2016, and home-grown films have consistently out-grossed imports every year since 2008.

There are Japanese movies from the past decade that critics will remember fondly. Occasionally, these were also the films that people actually went to see, although most of them made little impact at the box office, playing instead to the hardcore faithful on the country’s shrinking independent cinema circuit.

From an international perspective, it’s fair to say that Japanese cinema isn’t inspiring the kind of excitement it was at the turn of the century. The acclaim for Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters,” which won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, was a rare high-profile victory for an industry whose relevance has dwindled overseas.

Anime films still tend to travel well, none more so than Makoto Shinkai‘s 2016 smash hit, “Your Name.” But in the realm of live-action film, the biggest successes of the 2010s have often been highly parochial, catering to local audiences with ruthless efficiency, even if that meant forgoing the chance of success farther afield.

Few films better capture the commercial logic of the Japanese industry than Masaki Nishiura’s “Code Blue: The Movie” (2018), which, with its ¥9.3 billion box-office haul, was the biggest non-anime hit of the 2010s. Based on a popular Fuji TV series about air ambulance doctors, it felt more like a two-hour New Year’s Eve special than the cinematic event of the decade, even starting with a recap of previous episodes.

That a movie of such limited ambition should reap such enormous rewards suggests that it managed to mobilize an audience that wouldn’t usually go to the cinema at all. For while the decade has seen a significant rise both in the number of films being produced in Japan and the number of screens on which to watch them, there’s been little change in the size of the movie-going public. Nearly three-quarters of people say they never go to the cinema, period.

“Code Blue: The Movie” was the latest in a string of successful TV crossovers produced by Fuji TV, following the blueprint of its 1998 blockbuster, “Bayside Shakedown.” The first big-screen outing for a TV police comedy that debuted the previous year, the film made more than ¥10 billion and spawned multiple sequels. Two of this decade’s Top 20 domestic hits were fresh installments in the franchise. With snappy dialogue and well-defined characters, they’re all fairly entertaining, though hardly what you’d call ambitious.

While it has become common for Hollywood directors to migrate to the small screen, in Japan things tend to move in the opposite direction. Directors raised within the TV industry, like Nishiura, have infiltrated cinema, bringing the rote aesthetics and narrative conventions of serial dramas with them.

“Code Blue: The Movie” is notable for the fact that it doesn’t even pretend to be a standalone film, occupying itself mainly with tying up plot threads from the show’s previous season. Unlike the “Bayside Shakedown” movies, it offers little for viewers who aren’t already invested in the characters.

You could argue that this isn’t so different from the average Marvel or DC Comics film, with their welter of guest appearances, references and teasers for upcoming installments. But the analogy only goes so far. “Code Blue: The Movie” represents a trend for commercial filmmakers in Japan to work on a reduced canvas — to think small screen, rather than widescreen.

Even when business is good, would-be Japanese blockbusters don’t have the resources to beat Hollywood at its own game. The reported ¥2 billion budget for Shinsuke Sato’s “Kingdom,” this year’s highest-grossing live-action film, was unusually lavish. According to movie critic Tomohiro Machiyama, the average budget for a commercial Japanese film is just ¥350 million.

“Kingdom” capped a decade in which splashy manga adaptations have generally fared poorly. For every “Thermae Romae” (2012) or “Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno” (2014), there was a “Bleach” (2018), “Fullmetal Alchemist” (2017) or “Terra Formars” (2016), all of which fizzled at the box office. The first installment of Shinji Higuchi’s “Attack on Titan” (2015) may have pulled in ¥3.25 billion, but it was such a letdown that the second part, released two months later, earned barely half as much.

This isn’t just a question of budgets, though. Many of these manga tie-ins would be lousy even with far more cash at their disposal: No amount of CGI can disguise a project that was ill-conceived to start with.

While Hollywood’s superhero movies have allowed audiences to escape from the complexities of the modern world by offering narratives with clearer moral absolutes, Japan’s biggest hits served up their own kind of comfort food, with a message that the system works, little people matter and competence and decency will ultimately prevail.

In Eiichiro Hasumi’s “Umizaru 3: The Last Message” (2010), authorities and rescue crews have to decide between saving an expensive, politically important oil rig or the handful of people stranded onboard, and choose the latter. In “Bayside Shakedown The Final” (2012), directed by Katsuyuki Motohiro, Yuji Oda’s disheveled detective hero uncovers widespread corruption within the police force, yet never loses his faith in the institution itself.

Even the problematic World War II drama “The Eternal Zero” (2013), whose popularity prompted a slew of articles about the resurgence of nationalism in Japan, was grounded in small-scale drama. Rather than consider the bigger picture, Takashi Yamazaki’s film focuses on the private struggles of a pilot desperate to stay alive for the sake of his wife and child, but who ultimately signs up for a kamikaze mission.

The movie may have earned the praise of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but if you wanted an unabashed hymn to nationalist values, Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi’s “Godzilla Resurgence” (2016) was a better option.

When the titular monster first appears, the government fumbles its response, in scenes clearly satirizing the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima No. 1 nuclear disaster. It’s left to a team of unconventional idealists to save the day, steamrolling Japan’s pacifist constitution and striking a more assertive relationship with the United States in the process.

Their leader, an ambitious young politician played by Hiroki Hasegawa, is a decisive, efficient strongman, dedicated to nothing but his country and getting the job done.

As a character, he’s about as plausible as a giant prehistoric lizard emerging from Tokyo Bay. By the quotidian standards of much mainstream Japanese cinema, he’s practically a superhero.