Film | 2019 in Review

2019 saw just a few glimmers of hope in an otherwise mediocre year for Japanese film

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Japanese films held their own against the foreign competition at the local box office in 2019. According to figures compiled by the Private Life entertainment data and ranking site, domestic films took five of the top 10 box-office slots this year, with the leader, at ¥13.9 billion, being Makoto Shinkai’s animated film, “Weathering With You.”

This is about half the ¥25.03 billion made by Shinkai’s previous film, the 2016 smash “Your Name.” but it’s still stupendous by Japanese standards — and another indication that Shinkai has well and truly inherited the mantle of anime maestro Hayao Miyazaki, a box-office king for more than two decades.

Of the 10 highest-earning Japanese films in 2019, five are animated films, including new feature iterations of the long-running “Conan the Detective,” “One Piece,” “Doraemon” and “Dragon Ball” franchises.

The top-ranking live-action film, at No. 3 with ¥5.6 billion, is Shinsuke Sato’s period action flick, “Kingdom.” Based on a best-selling manga set during China’s Warring States period, the film follows two boys from the same peasant village who grow up dreaming of becoming great generals and unifying the country. Filmed with Sato’s usual fast pace and visual panache, “Kingdom” is filled with eye-popping fight scenes that make minimal use of computer effects. It is an outlier in an industry that has largely abandoned a genre — the swashbuckler — that was once a staple.

The other live-action entries in the local top 10 — “Masquerade Hotel” (¥4.6 billion), “Fly Me to the Saitama” (¥3.7 billion), “Hit Me Anyone One More Time” (¥3.5 billion) and “The Confidence Man JP” (¥2.9 billion) — all feature big casts, clever stories and varying degrees of laughs.

Directed by comedy master Hideki Takeuchi (“Thermae Romae”) and based on a popular 1980s manga, “Fly Me to the Saitama” is my own favorite among this lot for its knowing, affectionate send-up of the titlular prefecture, which has the same relationship to nearby Tokyo that New Jersey has to New York — a notoriously uncool place whose denizens nurse a mix of inferiority, envy and resentment vis-a-vis their ultra-cool urban neighbor. Its parallel stories — one a family comedy, the other a fantasy about a “Saitama revolution” partly inspired by “boys love” comics — add up to hilarious spot-on satire.

The success of these films, all pitched more at adults than teenagers, pointed to the commercial decline of the seishun eiga (youth film) genre, especially the romantic dramas, often with medical melodrama or time-travel fantasy elements, that were once sure box-office bets. Or perhaps their audience simply migrated to “Weathering With You” with its seishun eiga story of a runaway teenage boy who falls for a girl with mysterious power over the weather.

With exceptions such as “Fly Me to the Saitama,” which has been popular on the global festival circuit, Japanese commercial films are aimed first and foremost at local audiences, with the overseas market usually an afterthought.

This was definitely not case, however, for Hirokazu Kore-eda and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, two of Japan’s most celebrated directors, who stepped outside their domestic comfort zones with their latest offerings.

Best known abroad for his family dramas, Kore-eda filmed overseas with non-Japanese actors for the first time to make “The Truth.” Premiering at the 2019 Venice festival, this light drama about an aging French actress (Catherine Deneuve) butting heads with her adult daughter (Juliette Binoche) over her largely fictional memoir received mostly positive reviews. But, in contrast to Kore-eda’s 2018 “Shoplifters,” a winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or and a major hit at home, “The Truth” left Venice without a prize and met with a tepid box-office reception in Japan.

Meanwhile, Kurosawa, widely regarded as a master of horror for such films as “Cure” (1997) and “Creepy” (2016), went to Uzbekistan to film “To the Ends of the Earth.” Starring Atsuko Maeda, a former member of pop group AKB48, as a TV reporter who undergoes a personal and professional crisis while wandering the country’s streets and bazaars, the film respects and individualizes its Uzbekistani characters, unlike the many Japanese films shot abroad that view the local people as stereotypes and the settings as backdrops.

Kore-eda, Kurosawa and other Japanese directors who first came up in the 1990s are still getting the most international attention, a state of affairs indicating industry stasis, if not decline. Many younger directors are doing excellent work while operating below the radar of foreign programmers and critics who track films from around the world, not just Japan.

One director who is now on that radar is Koji Fukada, whose drama “A Girl Missing” premiered at Locarno this year and was later screened at the Toronto, New York and Chicago film festivals. Featuring the always excellent Mariko Tsutsui as a woman whose life is ruined in a media feeding frenzy, the film is incisive and disturbing as both a character study and a social document.

Also, Fukada has emerged as a leading advocate for change in an industry where sweatshop conditions prevail, women and minorities fight discrimination and sexual and power harassment still flourish. On Nov. 12, he issued a statement calling for an end to harassment on and off the set, from hitting and yelling at subordinates (both of which Fukada says he himself experienced as an industry newcomer) to using power imbalances to solicit sexual favors.

In an explanatory note, Fukada said he himself is “no saint” and “lost out again and again to my own desires in the past,” but added that he felt impelled to put his thoughts into writing because “it’s hard for me to warn and advise others face-to-face.” Nonetheless, his outspokenness is needed in a business where too many suffer in silence.

Meanwhile, a flurry of scandals brought home the harshness of the punishments the entertainment industry and Japanese society as a whole mete out to those in the industry for everything from drug use to rape. The usual fate for offenders, as actors Pierre Taki, Hirofumi Arai and Erika Sawajiri discovered following their respective arrests, is professional oblivion. Director Toshiaki Toyoda had more luck: Arrested in April on the charge of possessing an illegal weapon, he was later released when the firearm in question was discovered to be a rusty World War II-era souvenir he had inherited from his grandmother. (Not so luckily, Toyoda had been arrested for stimulant possession in 2005 and given a suspended sentence.)

But for all its downsides, the Japanese industry still attracts legions of young hopefuls who work on the hundreds of low-budget films — fiction and non-fiction — released each year. Most earn little or nothing for their labors, while the films themselves are often destined for small, short runs.

And yet some, such as Seiji Tanaka and Yoji Minagawa, director and producer/star, respectively, of “Melancholic,” break through. Premiered internationally at the Udine Far East Film Festival, this film about a nerdy University of Tokyo graduate (Minagawa) who becomes a cleaner at a public bath — and learns that it is used for after-hours yakuza executions — was made for ¥2.5 million and shot over several weekends. But the film’s originality, plot twists, vivid characters and surprising warm-heartedness won fans not only at Udine, where it received the White Mulberry award for the best first film by an emerging director, but also at many other festivals in Japan and abroad. And, following its domestic release in August, it became a long-running indie hit.

Will Tanaka become another Kore-eda or Kurosawa? Maybe that’s the wrong question. It’s enough to say that “Melancholic” injected an otherwise mediocre year for local cinema with a bit of movie bliss.

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