During the first coronavirus shutdown in Japan last year, Daihachi Yoshida had an epiphany.

“I live in the suburbs, and when I went to a local bookstore, the queue for the cash register was longer than I’d ever seen before,” he recalls. “Everyone had been staying at home, and they’d gotten sick of watching TV, so they’d go there…. It gave me a bit of encouragement: in times like that, people still come back to books.”

The public’s reading habits are a subject of particular interest to the 57-year-old filmmaker, whose latest movie takes a deep dive into the troubled waters of Japan’s publishing industry.

In “Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction,” a prestigious publishing house is thrown into disarray after the sudden death of its CEO. When the new boss proposes widespread cuts, a charismatic but unscrupulous editor, Akira Hayami (Yo Oizumi), tramples over professional and ethical boundaries in an effort to save his culture magazine from closure.

He recruits an idealistic staffer from the company’s highbrow literary journal, Megumi Takano (Mayu Matsuoka), and then sets out to poach the publication’s most prized contributor. While it would be spoiling things to reveal the scandals and intrigue that follow, it’s safe to say that the world of letters hasn’t seemed this exciting since Yukio Mishima tried to start a coup.

Originally set for release last June, the film was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the industry it portrays has taken a hammering since then. More than 100 Japanese magazine titles folded since the start of the pandemic, including venerable publications such as “Asahi Camera” and “Mrs.”

“It’s not what I’d hoped for,” says Yoshida, “but I feel like the situation has gotten worse. The reality is now even closer to what’s depicted in the film.”

Yet, as the director’s experience at his local bookstore showed, the pandemic hasn’t been entirely bad news for publishers. Print sales fell by a modest 1% during 2020 — a temporary reprieve from the steep drops seen in recent years — while digital sales rose by 28%. In both cases, that was mostly thanks to manga, and the “Demon Slayer” series in particular, but it showed that the industry wasn’t doomed.

Not yet, at least.

“The more I looked into it, the more I realized how tough the situation was getting for the kinds of bookstores I used to like in the past,” Yoshida says.

These are represented in the film by a cozy neighborhood store owned by Megumi’s father (played by director Shinya Tsukamoto), which is clearly running on goodwill rather than profits. Yoshida notes that stores like this are becoming harder to find outside larger cities, which doesn’t bode well for readers who prefer a varied diet.

“If that trend keeps accelerating, we may end up only being able to read the kinds of books that get sold in convenience stores,” he says. “Those are the books that everyone wants to read, right?”

“It’s the same as the problem that ‘mini-theaters’ are facing,” he continues, referring to Japan’s struggling independent cinemas. “If they just follow the logic of economics and efficiency, then we’ll no longer be able to get hold of the things we want to watch and read.”

Fine print: 'Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction' producer Hirotaka Aragaki describes Daihachi Yoshida’s direction as 'millimeter-precise' in the film’s production notes. | JAMES HADFIELD
Fine print: ‘Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction’ producer Hirotaka Aragaki describes Daihachi Yoshida’s direction as ‘millimeter-precise’ in the film’s production notes. | JAMES HADFIELD

“Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction” itself represents another recent trend: it’s based on a hit novel. Walk into a typical bookstore in Japan and you’ll find display racks filled with titles that have recently been turned into films or TV dramas. Publishers are often directly involved in the process; Kadokawa, which released the eponymous novel by Takeshi Shiota, is one of the producers for “Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction.”

Such projects can appear to offer little room to maneuver, and that’s especially true in this case. Shiota wrote his novel specifically with Oizumi in mind as the protagonist, and the actor even appeared on the book’s original cover.

The choice of leading man may have been a done deal, but that didn’t stop Yoshida from taking liberties. Asked how his film departs from the novel, he can’t resist a laugh: “It’s completely different.”

All of the director’s movies have been adaptations, both of novels and manga. He’s even tried his hand at one of Mishima’s books, with the offbeat 2017 sci-fi “A Beautiful Star.” But unlike some of his contemporaries, Yoshida treats his source material as a starting point rather than a blueprint.

“Whenever I make a film, it’s pretty much with the assumption that I’m going to be given a completely free hand,” he says.

Keen to ensure “Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction” stayed ahead of industry trends, he conducted extensive interviews and research, and altered the story accordingly. Though it shares many of the same characters, the film offers plenty of surprises for viewers who’ve already read the book.

“I realized from the start that the kinds of tricks you can use in a novel probably won’t work in a film, so I had to come up with something new,” Yoshida says.

Even the film’s star wasn’t off limits. Whereas Oizumi is usually allowed to barrel through each movie on the strength of his charisma alone, Yoshida kept the actor on a tight leash.

“It’s not as if I don’t like what Oizumi does,” the director explains, “but I had an idea of what Akira was like — the tempo at which he speaks, for example. Of course, if I thought what Oizumi came up with was better, I might decide to go with that, but I had certain criteria of my own.”

Oizumi and Matsuoka are just two of the big names in the film’s ensemble cast, which also includes Koichi Sato, Lily Franky, Takumi Saitoh and Satomi Kobayashi. These actors could easily headline a film themselves, but Yoshida doesn’t seem to have been under contractual obligation to give them any more screen time than the story demanded.

“Deciding which aspects of each actor’s performance to focus on, and how to combine them together, is 100% my responsibility — but I think I’m good at that,” he says. “That aspect isn’t so hard: getting all those people together is the tough part.”

The film also manages the tricky job of giving a detailed portrait of an arcane industry, while being entertaining at the same time. Yoshida compares it to Juzo Itami’s 1987 comedy “A Taxing Woman,” which dealt with the even more inscrutable world of tax investigators.

“You have to make it so there are various levels at which people can enjoy it,” he says. Viewers don’t need to understand the idiosyncrasies of the publishing distribution system in order to enjoy the film, for instance, but Yoshida doesn’t skirt around the subject either.

“I think finding that balance is what I do best,” he says. “I’m a balancer. Regardless of what the situation, scenario or theme is, I guess I have a knack for finding the sweet spot.”

It’s typical of the meticulousness with which he approaches each film. In the production notes for “Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction,” producer Hirotaka Aragaki describes Yoshida’s direction as “millimeter-precise.”

“I don’t get why people are always calling me ‘detailed’ — to me, that’s just normal,” the director jokes. “It’s not that I’m detailed, it’s that everyone else is rough.”

“Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction” is now showing at cinemas nationwide. For more information, visit movies.shochiku.co.jp/damashienokiba (Japanese only).

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