Travel

Cinematically big in Japan: Where film crews lead, fans soon follow

by Oscar Boyd

Staff Writer

“Lost in Translation” and “Skyfall.” “Your Name.” and “Spirited Away.” The film industry in Japan is big business.

The most successful films, if well-shot and scouted, can become a catalyst for widespread tourism to prominent locations, providing valuable tourist yen and cultural capital, particularly to more regional areas that might otherwise struggle to attract visitors.

The Japan Film Commission, the national body designated the task of arranging locations for both domestic and international film crews, is well aware of this phenomenon and openly lists the incentives provided by prefectural bodies hoping to attract productions: Individual budgets stretch to as high as ¥10 million ($92,000) per project and are accompanied by offers of assistance with location scouting and arranging permits.

In May, the Cabinet Office launched its “Empirical Research Project on Attracting Foreign Film Projects to Promote Regional Economies” with the aim of supporting “a portion of the cost of production for foreign films, TV, etc., shot and produced in Japan.” Increasingly, tourists are influenced by film when making decisions on their holiday destinations, and governments both local and national often see these subsidies as long-term investments as part of broader revitalization strategies.

But what of the films that have already been shot, and already showcase the country?

While many locations are impermanent, temporary sets created for the film, and others remain private after shooting finishes, many film locations in Japan are not only accessible, but actively encourage visitors. Below is a list of these that only scratches the surface, focusing on locations used in Japanese films that have made a significant impression internationally, as well as non-Japanese films shot in Japan.

Cinematic shintoism: Heian Shrine, built in 1895, is a vast complex of buildings that features in both 'Around the World in 80 Days' (1956) and 'Lost in Translation' (2003). | GETTY IMAGES
Cinematic shintoism: Heian Shrine, built in 1895, is a vast complex of buildings that features in both ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ (1956) and ‘Lost in Translation’ (2003). | GETTY IMAGES

‘Around the World in 80 Days’ (1956)

One of the earliest appearances of Japan in Western film, “Around the World in 80 Days” charts the adventures of Englishman Phileas Fogg (David Niven) and his valet Jean Passepartout (Cantinflas) as they attempt to circumnavigate the world in 80 days on a £20,000 wager (the equivalent of around £2.2 million, or almost ¥300 million, by today’s standards).

The film is one of the most ambitious ever made and, according to the website movie-locations.com, involved 68,894 people on screen, eight different countries; 4 million air-passenger miles traveled, 112 exterior locations, 140 sets in six Hollywood studios and studios in England, Hong Kong and Japan.

The Daibutsu (Great Buddha) at Kamakura’s Kotokuin temple features, as does Kyoto’s Heian Shrine, a vast complex built in 1895 to commemorate the 1,100th anniversary of the founding of the city of Kyoto.

‘The Hidden Fortress’ (1958)

Mountaintop hideout: Though 'The Hidden Fortress' was mostly shot in the Horai Valley, Hyogo Prefecture, the actual 'fortress' is thought to be at the top of Mount Kosho in Fukuoka Prefecture. | OSCAR BOYD
Mountaintop hideout: Though ‘The Hidden Fortress’ was mostly shot in the Horai Valley, Hyogo Prefecture, the actual ‘fortress’ is thought to be at the top of Mount Kosho in Fukuoka Prefecture. | OSCAR BOYD

Akira Kurosawa’s film “The Hidden Fortress,” is a samurai epic that tells the story of two peasants who help — and hinder — the escape of Yuki (Misa Uehara), the princess of the defeated Akizuki clan. A classic of Japanese film, George Lucas acknowledged that “The Hidden Fortress” inspired early drafts of “Star Wars” citing similarities between Kurosawa’s peasant leads and the droid characters of R2-D2 and C-3PO in “Star Wars.”

Filming for “The Hidden Fortress” largely took place in the Horai Valley, a badlands area in Hyogo Prefecture’s Rokko Mountains that is popular with hikers and rock climbers. The real Akizuki is to the south of the city of Fukuoka in Fukuoka Prefecture, and the “fortress” — actually little more than a collection of rocky nooks that make for good hiding spots — is thought to be at the top of Mount Kosho, to the northeast of the town.

‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967)

Though Japan receives mention in several Bond films, it features most prominently in “You Only Live Twice,” which is set almost entirely in Japan. Locations span the country, from the Hotel New Otani Tokyo and the UNESCO Heritage Himeiji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture to Shinmoedake, an active volcano that is part of the Kirishima Range in Kyushu’s Kagoshima Prefecture, and Akime, also in Kagoshima Prefecture, a small fishing village where Bond (played by Sean Connery) disguises himself — poorly — as a Japanese fisherman in order to infiltrate the villainous SPECTRE organization.

Evil lair: In 'You Only Live Twice,' The Hotel New Otani Tokyo was used as the headquarters of Osato Chemical & Engineering Co. Ltd., the Japanese front for the villainous SPECTRE organization. | OSCAR BOYD
Evil lair: In ‘You Only Live Twice,’ The Hotel New Otani Tokyo was used as the headquarters of Osato Chemical & Engineering Co. Ltd., the Japanese front for the villainous SPECTRE organization. | OSCAR BOYD

‘My Neighbor Totoro’ (1988)

The scenery of Totoro’s Forest in Studio Ghibli’s anime classic “My Neighbor Totoro” draws upon Sayama Hills, an area of forest on the border of Tokyo and Saitama Prefecture that is close to where Hayao Miyazaki, the studio’s cofounder, grew up.

Sayama Hills is just 1½ hours from Tokyo by bus or train and popular for day trips. The walking path through the forest also skirts Lake Sayama, one of Tokyo’s main water sources and a good view point for Mount Fuji on a clear day.

‘Ring’ (1998)

One of the most dramatic scenes in “Ring” — the Japanese original of “The Ring” (2002) and one of the most popular J-Horror movies of all time — takes place on Mount Mihara, an active volcano at the center of the island of Izu Oshima. In “Ring,” Shizuko Yamamura (Masako), the mother of the ultimate daughter-gone-bad Sadako (Rie Ino), predicts that Mount Mihara will erupt and ultimately commits suicide there.

Yamamura’s tragic end is a plotline that echoes reality; during the 1920s and ’30s it was possible to jump from the volcano’s rim into the crater, and it became a frequently used suicide spot. Now better known for its hot springs and beaches, Izu Oshima is 100 kilometers and a five- to seven-hour ferry ride south of Tokyo.

No escape: Sunset over Hachijo-kojima island, Tokyo, where most of 'Battle Royale' (2000) was filmed. | GETTY IMAGES
No escape: Sunset over Hachijo-kojima island, Tokyo, where most of ‘Battle Royale’ (2000) was filmed. | GETTY IMAGES

‘Battle Royale’ (2000)

Based on the novel of the same name, “Battle Royale” follows junior high school student Shuya Nanahara as his class are kidnapped to the fictional island of Okishima and forced to fight to the death by the government. In real life, Okishima is the small, volcanic island of Hachijo-kojima, to the south of Izu Oshima in the furthest reaches of the Izu Island chain.

Uninhabited since 1969, during the Edo Period (1603-1868) the island was used as a place to send exiles. The remains of its school can still be seen and the island is known as a breeding ground for albatrosses. It can be reached by chartering a fishing boat from the bigger, and still inhabited, Hachijojima island, or by tours via the Tokai Kisen company from April to July.

Lights, camera, relaxation: One of the baths at Dogo Onsen, which inspired the design of the bathhouse in Studio Ghibli's 2001 film, 'Spirited Away.' | COURTESY OF DOGO ONSEN
Lights, camera, relaxation: One of the baths at Dogo Onsen, which inspired the design of the bathhouse in Studio Ghibli’s 2001 film, ‘Spirited Away.’ | COURTESY OF DOGO ONSEN

‘Spirited Away’ (2001)

On the outskirts of Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, the 120-year-old Dogo Onsen inspired the bathhouse where the main character of “Spirited Away,” Chihiro, becomes a servant of the antagonist Yubaba. Restored in 1894, the bathhouse has three floors of bathing facilities, though the second and third floors are currently undergoing renovation.

Tattoos are allowed at Dogo Onsen and it is easily accessible by tram or taxi from Matsuyama Station.

‘Lost in Translation’ (2003)

Sofia Coppola’s ode to Japan, “Lost in Translation” features some of the most recognizable locations of any Japan-based film.

Good for a drink: The Park Hyatt Tokyo is the setting for many of the romantic encouters in 'Lost in Translation' (2003). | CHRISTIAN KADLUBA VIA FLICKR / CC BY-SA 2.0
Good for a drink: The Park Hyatt Tokyo is the setting for many of the romantic encouters in ‘Lost in Translation’ (2003). | CHRISTIAN KADLUBA VIA FLICKR / CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s at the dimly lit New York Bar on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt Tokyo in Shinjuku that Bob Harris (Bill Murray) meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson); in Nanzenji temple in Kyoto that Charlotte spies a newly married couple wandering hand in hand beneath a red parasol; at the aforementioned Heian Shrine she ties an omikuji (paper fortune) to a tree; and beneath the glittering heights of the Park Hyatt that Shinjuku is depicted in all its neon glory, as Harris wanders the streets of Kabukicho and down Yasukuni-dori.

‘Kill Bill: Volume 1’ (2003)

Much of Volume 1 of Quentin Tarantino’s revenge-driven, sometimes black-and-white and ever so bloody “Kill Bill” films was inspired by Japan — Tokyo in particular — as B—- K—- (aka the Bride, Black Mamba; played by Uma Thurman) sets out to kill yakuza leader O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu).

The Rainbow Bridge features as the Bride tracks down her prey, but the majority of the Tokyo action takes place in the fictional restaurant The House of Blue Leaves. Though the restaurant used in the film was actually a set built in Shanghai, it was modeled after Gonpachi, an izakaya tavern in Tokyo’s Nishiazabu district. The food and drink is nothing special here, but the resemblance is unmistakable, and makes Gonpachi a must-visit for fans of “Kill Bill.”

‘Babel’ (2006)

Set in four different countries including Japan, one of the most memorable scenes in “Babel” takes place in the Tokyo nightclub Womb, in which the deaf Chieko Wataya takes ecstasy and raves to a mix of Earth, Wind & Fire and Fatboy Slim.

Womb opened in 2000 and is a short walk to the west of Shibuya Station. As its centerpiece it has Asia’s largest mirror ball, and the club opens nightly, with tickets going for around ¥1,500 to ¥3,000.

‘Skyfall’ (2012)

Kyushu features again in “Skyfall” (2012) when Bond (now Daniel Craig) sails to the island of Gunkanjima (aka Hashima, Battleship Island), about 20 kilometers from Nagasaki, to track down his nemesis Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem).

A coal mine until 1974, Gunkanjima was once Japan’s most densely populated place, but was abandoned after the mine was shut by parent company Mitsubishi. Now, the island feels eerily post-apocalyptic. Tours run to a limited portion of the island via several companies, including The Gunkanjima Concierge Co. and Yamasa Shipping Co. Ltd. Fares are from ¥4,000, and it is best to book in advance.

As a bonus, you’ll notice similarities between the island and the fictional trash island in Wes Anderson’s 2018 film “Isle of Dogs.”

‘Your Name.’ (2016)

One of the highest-grossing anime films of all time, only losing out to “Spirited Away” at the time of writing, “Your Name.” was a runaway success when it hit theaters in 2016.

Blockbuster success: 'Your Name.' is one of the most successful anime films ever released and features many Tokyo locations, including Cafe La Boheme near Shinjuku Gyoen National Park. | OSCAR BOYD
Blockbuster success: ‘Your Name.’ is one of the most successful anime films ever released and features many Tokyo locations, including Cafe La Boheme near Shinjuku Gyoen National Park. | OSCAR BOYD

The film is largely set in Tokyo and features numerous locations around the city in animated form, including Salon de The Rond, located on the second floor of The National Art Center, Tokyo; the National Art Center itself, where main character Taki Tachibana goes on a date with his crush Miki Okudera; Suga Shrine in Yotsuya, where the two bodyswappers Tachibana and Mitsuha Miyamizu try to find each other in the climax of the film; the NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building; and Cafe La Boheme, an aesthetically pleasing Italian restaurant near Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden.

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