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How Japan's Tragedies Are Affecting Its Film Industry

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 12, 2011 at 4:3AM

In a country that has just faced a series of debilitating earthquakes, a massive tsunami and damaged nuclear reactors reaching Chernobyl levels, movies have been the last thing on most people’s minds. But then, two weeks after the earth first shook, Yuko Shiomaki went to see “The King’s Speech” in Tokyo and discovered she was not alone.
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In a country that has just faced a series of debilitating earthquakes, a massive tsunami and damaged nuclear reactors reaching Chernobyl levels, movies have been the last thing on most people’s minds. But then, two weeks after the earth first shook, Yuko Shiomaki went to see “The King’s Speech” in Tokyo and discovered she was not alone.

“The theater was crowded,” says Shiomaki, head of the international sales company Pictures Dept. “The audiences are still there.”

It's a rare sign of optimism in a nation suffering from more than 13,000 recorded deaths and regular tremors, including Monday’s 7.1 quake.

“Shooting a movie is very difficult now,” says action film actor Sai Akihiko, a cast member of the upcoming “Yakuza Weapon.” “For all movie crews in Japan, there is little work now.”

Hollywood productions that planned to shoot in Japan, such as the sequels to “Avatar” (which moved to Manhattan Beach) and “Wolverine,” quickly shut down along with many of the smaller, locally based projects.

Among the Japanese industry notables affected by the quake, filmmaker Takeshi Kitano’s had planned to start shooting “Outrage 2,” the sequel to the his Cannes-competing mob story; it has been indefinitely delayed. Additionally, prolific director Takashi Miike cancelled plans last month to travel to the South by Southwest Film Festival and the Film Society of Lincoln Center for screenings of his upcoming “Thirteen Assassins.”

Theatrical releases have been affected as well. Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” was pulled from theaters for containing a scene featuring tsunami devastation, while the Chinese earthquake drama “After Shock” had its March release postponed.

In the immediate aftermath of the quake, experts estimate that between 20% - 30% of theaters in Tokyo immediately went dark. While audience attendance has gradually increased since the initial catastrophe, the Japanese box office has plummeted some 70% and virtually all major productions have been postponed or entirely shut down.

However, some distributors have embraced the immediacy provided by their films’ content. The Japanese release of Michael Madsen documentary “Into Eternity” -- which observes the dumping of nuclear waste into a repository in Finland -- was moved from the fall to early April. According to Screen International’s Jason Gray, the film has been playing to crowded showings at the Uplink cinema in Shibuya.

Meanwhile, Studio Ghibli announced at the end of March that Goro Miyazaki’s “From Kokuriko Hill” will maintain its planned July 16 release date, despite a storyline involving a daughter mourning her father’s disappearance at sea that has the potential to offend some audiences.

For independent films, the story is bleaker. The industry has struggled for decades, but now, “The mood I see now in the indie circle is that where once they had dreams of getting a budget from a legitimate investor group, that is suddenly and completely gone,” says American-born director Norman England, who lives and works in Japan. “If they want to make films, they have to do it on their own. No one is going to help for the time being.”

Hiro Super, producer and star of microbudget production “Mozzman,” said his cast and crew had to temporarily abandon the project since they were already contributing to the project for free. “I’m not a rich person, so money is an issue for me,” he says. He hopes to continue working on the project in Los Angeles.

Oddly enough, England believes that "pink cinema," Japan's softcore porn industry, may bear the greatest brunt. “Many of the theaters showing these films are old and have been torn down over the past few years,” he says. “The quake has exasperated this. Many theaters up north showing these films were destroyed and there are no plans to build new cinemas, so the quake is quite possibly the final nail in the pink cinema coffin.”

And the thousands of people who turned to film for regular employment now find themselves out of work. Actress Hiroko Yashiki, who performed action stunts in Noboru Iguchi’s “The Machine Girl” and several other features, said she had planned to begin a project March 14; that was canceled when the building for the scheduled shoot collapsed during the quake. Since then, she says, “I’ve lost all the jobs I had.” These includes video game projects intended to shoot with a motion-capture technology, which have been rendered impossible by the disaster.

A sign of hope lies in one of the country’s biggest film gatherings, the Tokyo International Film Festival. The festival's secretary general, Nobushige Toshima, says he expects its October start date to remain unchanged. “We believe this is our mission,” Toshima says. “It’s our chance to make an appeal to the strong power of Japan and to the world in this hard situation.” He noted that the festival takes place during the lowest month for electricity consumption in Japan, which fits well with the country’s current attempts to consolidate its energy.

However, a new international film festival has been forced to move. The globalization-focused Dialogue of Cultures is scheduled to take place in a different country each year. For 2011, that was to be the first weekend of April in Tokyo; now, festival president Boris Cherdabayev says it has been moved to mid-October in New York. “It would not have been appropriate while people were overcoming all these difficulties,” he says.

Many in the Japanese film world speak of the need for uplifting messages to dominate the country’s media, with some citing a festive commercial (below) for the Japanese bullet train, which was set to open in the southern part of Japan March 12. That never happened, but commercial has been viewed more than 700,000 times since being uploaded to YouTube the day before the quake.

“For some reason, for the last few years, it has been a trend for Japanese films to have dark themes,” says Shiomaki, who has launched a Japan-based fundraiser to help relief efforts. “People want to see stories with hope. Filmmakers need to sit closer to the audience now.”