Naomi Kawase’s Grand Prix at the 60th Cannes Film festival last week for “Mogari no Mori” put the Japanese film industry once again on the front page. Kawase’s honor is another in a series of reminders about how rich and rewarding Japanese films can be. But at the same time, it is a reminder of how little known the film culture of Japan remains and how endangered the industry has become.

The pride in hearing of such prizes always ranks up there with baseball players, beauty pageant contestants (this year’s Miss Universe is Japanese) and even poodles. Yet, after the first blush of pride, indifference often settles in toward complex works of art. Ironically, Japanese works of art, in particular film, are often better known abroad than at home.

Japanese films have always had a bit of a struggle for recognition. The booming interest in recent animation films should be welcomed, but the groundbreaking work of classic realist directors like Yasujiro Ozu or Akira Kurosawa (who won a Cannes prize in 1980) received greater appreciation outside Japan than at home. Other directors, with more provocative themes and ironic styles, such as Shohei Imamura (who won at Cannes in 1983 and 1997) are sadly even less well known.

As Web sites like You Tube take up the viewing time of many people, films still represent national character and offer insight into culture. For years, the image of Japan around the world was acquired from Japanese films. No one expects samurai and sword fights anymore, but the situations, acting and unique style of Japanese films have influenced the image of Japan abroad perhaps more than any other single factor. Nowadays, Japan is in danger of disappearing from world screens.

The rich tradition of visual storytelling in Japan may not yet be an endangered species, but it needs an economic sanctuary in which to continue its accomplishments. If the current administration were genuinely concerned about Japan’s image abroad, artistic films would seem the best investment. Sending a steady supply of high-quality films overseas to festivals and commercial theaters alike will prove a wise move in the long run. Cooperative film ventures with other countries, like Korea or China, offer peaceful diplomacy.

In this regard, France might offer one of the best models. There, the government is unafraid to put its money where its pride is. Grants, schools and promotion have long encouraged and advanced the French film industry, while protecting it in a competitive world market.

In Japan, the puny economic investment in the national film industry would shame any ministry related to construction, information technology or banking. Better funding for film should be a much higher priority in Japan. There are still signs of life in Japanese film, even without political interest. In Tokyo, movie theaters have upgraded everything from seats to the quality of beer sold in the lobby. Shibuya’s mini-theaters keep multiplying and second-run theaters in many neighborhoods maintain the tradition of a local walk-to theater. People know that a TV screen, no matter how wide or how flat, just does not deliver the rich experience and visual power of watching a film in a theater.

Japanese film schools could be improved, or rather, initiated, since almost none operate in Japan. Japanese directors must go abroad to learn even the basics or apprentice themselves to non-artistic companies. Creative films offer a vision of a beautiful country and national pride, to mention two of the government’s priorities, as strongly as any high school class in history.

At many universities, film courses are entering the curriculum and, here and there, departments of media studies are springing up. University classrooms can help build a culture of film and teach visual literacy in this media-saturated age. Visual storytelling offers potent images of culture, human feeling and potential. People are hungry for such stories, about themselves and about others as well. But without creative and financial support, the offerings are all too often a mishmash of bland, uninspiring and overtly commercial products.

Practically speaking, film students and young directors need grants to get started. In this day and age, the visual honesty and creative storytelling of a country’s films simply does not exist without support. The film industry can continue only with funding, education and involvement. Otherwise, like the characters in Kawase’s prize-winning film, Japanese film may find itself wandering in a dark, confusing forest, only without much hope of understanding and communication.

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