Deep Despondency and Meager Prospects Regarding the Globalization of Japanese Films

Opinion article by Jinshi Fujii of Waseda University – “How far can these ties be restored given the current state of Japanese cinema, which has become about as individualist and fragmented as it can get?”

Jinshi Fujii
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University (School of Humanities and Social Sciences)

The 1980s, which saw a complete collapse of the studio-based system of filmmaking in Japan, was a chaotic, exploratory period in Japanese cinema epitomized by the success of Kadokawa Pictures and a boom in directors from outside the industry. Hollywood’s flashy blockbusters gained increasing popularity, while, at the other end of the spectrum, artistically ambitious European and Asian films met with success in mini-theaters. However, Japanese films, which had strayed off-course, were shunned by both longtime and younger fans and branded as uninteresting from the outset. “Post-studio” directors like Takeshi Kitano and Junji Sakamoto emerged amid the confusion but did not change the situation.

The 90s was a period that saw the afterglow of the studios vanish along with the economic bubble, inheriting nothing but the chaos of the 80s. In retrospect, however, it was an interesting decade. The public had already given up on Japanese films anyway, and despite the loss of material support, the energy of the bubble economy period did not fade as easily from people’s minds. Thus, it was not unusual for daring gambles to be made, which seemed to contradict the logic of capitalism, amid the flurry of small idyllic films. It was precisely these circumstances that allowed filmmakers like Shinji Aoyama and Nobuhiro Suwa to shoot their first full-length films using WOWOW funds, and the same conditions led to the further radicalization of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who had made his debut in the 80s, transforming him into a truly outstanding filmmaker.

Before long, however, the situation completely changed. In 1997, Shohei Imamura’s The Eel and then Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-Bi won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival and Venice Film Festival, respectively, and Japanese films suddenly had to compete on an international level. An awareness of foreign viewers has profoundly changed the course of Japanese cinema at times. This fact is apparent when one recalls the period immediately following Japan’s recovery from World War II, when Rashomon and Gate of Hell won awards at international film festivals, leading Daiei Film to focus exclusively on making period films in the hope that Kenji Mizoguchi, who had made contemporary films before the war, would win critical acclaim among Westerners. As a result, auteur-driven, ambitious films have been required to follow the established procedure of first winning acclaim at international film festivals and then returning home triumphantly to be released in theaters. In other words, filmmakers have to personally travel overseas to market and talk about their works before they are even evaluated by journalists and critics. Filmmakers have had to represent themselves on their own to preserve their artistic integrity.

Filmmakers who are able to meet international expectations as mentioned above are fine. However, filmmakers like Shinji Somai who are completely indifferent about promoting their films overseas, no matter how highly regarded their films are in Japan, have gradually limited their opportunities to make films in an unfettered way. Meanwhile, directors have emerged who are able to churn out films by winning acclaim overseas, even if the films do not fare that well domestically. Many Japanese people may be surprised to learn that the most widely known modern Japanese filmmaker in France is Naomi Kawase. And while the Japanese think of Takashi Miike as a prolific filmmaker who dedicates himself to his craft and steadily produces hits, Europeans and Americans think of him as an uncompromising, individualistic filmmaker who represents modern Japanese subculture.

The results for this year’s Cannes Film Festival will come out around the time this article is read. Smiling at the side of Jury President Steven Spielberg is Naomi Kawase, who is serving as a member of the same jury. The directors of the Japanese films they are judging are not Kiyoshi Kurosawa or Shinji Aoyama, who admired Spielberg much earlier than the French and took inspiration from him, but Hirokazu Kore-eda, who is already highly respected in Europe, and Takashi Miike, whose films are funded by Nippon Television and Warner Brothers. But this isn't something you can explain away as an example of Cannes' true commercially-tainted character. What the Cannes selection means is that even the route of first winning acclaim overseas is now largely dominated by the majors.

Of course, there are still talented filmmakers who can compete internationally while remaining completely independent like Sho Miyake, the director of Playback, which was shown at the Locarno Film Festival last year. However, if Japanese filmmakers simply wait for people in other countries to appreciate their films, they—especially the ambitious ones—may not be able to make films for very long. What is clearly needed at present is a stance of active intervention on our part in the evaluation standards for international films. Last year, strategic pressure exerted by concerned Japanese parties paid off in the case of Shinji Somai, whose total body of works was shown in three cities in Britain and France over a decade after his untimely death, becoming the focus of much attention. This example can serve as a guide for future efforts.

It requires more than just the efforts of filmmakers, distributors and advertisers to develop these kinds of proactive strategies; effective collaboration with critics and journalists is also needed. How far can these ties be restored given the current state of Japanese cinema, which has become about as individualist and fragmented as it can get? One thing is clear—unless they are restored, the “intermediate space” between epic movies made by major studios and independent films made by individuals will, in the near future, become a completely barren wasteland incapable of yielding any new films.


Jinshi Fujii
Associate Professor, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University (School of Humanities and Social Sciences)

Jinshi Fujii took up his present position after acquiring credits for a doctoral program at the Graduate School of Human and Environmental Studies, Kyoto University, and working as an assistant at the College of Arts, Rikkyo University. He specializes in film studies with a focus on Japanese film and contemporary American film. He is also active as a film critic.
His publications as an author and editor include Contemporary Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction (Jimbun Shoin) and Shinji Somai: A Film Director in the Japanese Post-Studio Era (joint editorship; Inscript). He was also one of the translators of I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies (Misuzu Shobo).

Published: 22 Jun 2013


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