Coinciding with the end of the Heisei Era (1989-2019), veteran film critic Mark Schilling, who began his career in Japan as a reviewer for The Japan Times in 1989, released a compilation of his best film writing from the past two decades.
482 pages Awai Books
The book, “Art, Cult and Commerce: Japanese Cinema Since 2000,” serves as a compendium of the ins and outs of the Japanese film industry through hundreds of reviews of critically acclaimed hits as well as overlooked indies, thoughtful essays, “best films of the year” lists and more than 60 interviews with some of Japan’s luminary figures in cinema, including Hirokazu Kore-eda, Naomi Kawase, Hayao Miyazaki and Sion Sono.
In addition to writing for The Japan Times and other publications such as Variety, Newsweek and The Asian Wall Street Journal, Schilling serves as an adviser to Udine Far East Film Festival, and has sat on juries for film awards and worked as a script adviser on the Hollywood film, “The Last Samurai.”
With just over 30 years of experience in the film industry, the one thing Schilling hopes for when reviewing a film is to be surprised.
“I’m looking for something new. That’s what it comes down to. Thankfully, some people out there can still do that. There’s no limit,” he says in an interview at the offices of The Japan Times.
Schilling points to recent trends in the industry in Japan that make that feeling of surprise harder to come by: Domestic films trump foreign imports and major studios, namely Toho, dominate the market, producing films based on manga, novels and TV dramas.
“I can’t see that changing,” he says. “You look at all the top 10 films at the box office going way back and probably seven or eight are from Toho. Shochiku or Toei might get one. Once in a while, one of the other companies sneaks in but usually it’s Toho because it has the closest relationships with (networks like) Fuji TV, it’s working with the biggest animators and it has the biggest theater chain.”
The dearth of originality may explain why Schilling rarely gives out five stars in his reviews. “To be frank, there aren’t that many Japanese films that warrant five stars. You’re comparing them to (Yasujiro) Ozu, (Akira) Kurosawa and (Mikio) Naruse,” he says. “A five-star movie has to be a masterpiece. Five stars means it’s the best thing I’ve seen in years.” Still, there are enough gems in the industry to warrant this book, and to keep Schilling writing.
Throughout his essays, Schilling touches on how real-life encounters undoubtedly influence how a film is viewed. In one of the more harrowing pieces in the collection, he delves into his experience of being assaulted in Rome, and how it reshaped his views of on-screen violence.
“Famous critic Manny Farber said something to the effect of, ‘The critic doesn’t watch the film, the man watches the film,'” he says, reflecting on the essay. “Things that you’ve experienced, things that you’ve done, things you haven’t done, things you regret, things you’re happy about — it all plays into watching the film and how you respond to it. On the other hand, you could see a film that may mirror your own experience.”
Schilling goes on to compare a scene from Koji Fukada’s “Harmonium” to an event from his youth, when he tried to save a family from drowning in the Miami River in Ohio. The memory is still sharp, and the emotional weight of the 2-year-old child who couldn’t be saved has stayed with him.
“I thought and dreamed about that for years and years and years. So when I saw that (actor Kanji) Furutachi had that same kind of experience, where he was screaming and was out of his head, maybe another critic would say he’s over acting, but I thought, no, he’s not, because I saw that exact same reaction from the grandmother of that baby,” he says. “It hit me so hard that he nailed the scene. … You can tell when a film gets it right or wrong because of something that has happened to you.”
Another of his essays begins, “Film critics often have a not-so-secret desire to get behind the camera themselves.”
True to form, Schilling himself has been making the move from writing about film to writing and producing his own. But even after years of rubbing shoulders with film insiders, he has found the process of filmmaking to be an eye-opening experience.
“It’s enlightening to go through that whole process and realize how hard it is. … It’s an education,” he says. “My feeling about (reviewing films) is that I’m with the audience. I’m not trying to be a fake filmmaker. I’m viewing it from the viewpoint of the audience.”
With his foray into filmmaking, Schilling remains true to his roots as a critic.