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After Kurosawa: Why the Japanese Independent Film Industry is Hopeful For the Future

After Kurosawa: Why the Japanese Independent Film Industry is Hopeful For the Future

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Ask most cinephiles to define Japanese film today, and they’re likely to cite the usual suspects: Akira Kurosawa and his “Seven Samurai.” Yasujiro Ozu and his “Tokyo Story.” Hayao Miyazaki and his “Princess Mononoke.” While their golden years may have ended over a decade ago (or, in some cases, several), their legendary works have left indelible marks not only on contemporary filmmakers within Japan, but on the styles of significant American cinema from Martin Scorcese and Quentin Tarantin to Pixar.

But their era — the indisputable height of the nation’s cinematic history — is one that the Japanese film industry hasn’t been able to replicate or even come close to reviving ever since, a grievance expressed all the more emphatically by the many independent filmmakers presenting their work at last week’s 2015 Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF).

At first glance, their pessimism seems puzzling. Out of the 11 films in competition, three were Japanese productions, including Koji Fukada’s “Sayonara,” which introduces the first human-android acting duo on celluloid. A special feature lineup of the “Mobile Suit Gundam” robot animation series spotlighted one of Japan’s most successful anime franchises to date, while a curated sub-section of Japanese horror films (aka “J-horror”) celebrated the globe-spanning influence of the country’s distinctive take on the genre.

Japanese films have even reclaimed a vast majority of the market in the last two decades, with domestically produced films raking in 58% of total share over foreign films in 2014 as opposed to 31.8% in 2000.

Still, a deeper look beyond the statistics, along our conversations with screenwriters, directors and programmers at TIFF over the course of the 10-day event, revealed a complicated perspective on the current health of Japanese film industry, one largely addled by disillusion at its inability to resurrect its purpose as a genuine form of artistic expression and a source of national pride. At the same time, despite the odds stacked against them, hints of tentative optimism and subtle progress were detectable, both in the festival participants and in our own observations of this year’s program.

Gate Keepers

At the core of the general dissatisfaction is a problem not unique to Japanese independent film: constraints set up by the government, lack of support from educational institutions, distrust from distributors; simply put, a spate of financial roadblocks that make production, marketing, and exhibition a logistical nightmare. Writer-director Momoko Ando was particularly critical of the inadequate federal support during the making of her dark, yet subtly comedic drama “0.5mm,” screening as part of TIFF’s inaugural  “Japan Now” program.

“In the past, the government has been more mindful of the balance between blockbusters and independent films,” she explained, “but that has completely broken down now. So for this film, I had to do everything from beginning to end myself.” This included her eventual decision to move to the Kochi Prefecture in Shikoku, where the local authorities’ less-staunch grip on regulations enabled a more conducive environment in which to shoot and screen the film.

“I collaborated with them to construct a theater in a public park,” Ando recalled. “Since Kochi Prefecture is more relaxed, they opened the film to the public in that park for two months. It was the first time they’d broken the ‘rules.’ In Japan, those properties belong to regional or federal governments, who are usually very difficult to challenge, while in places like Paris, for instance, such public screenings happen all the time. We need our government to be much more supportive to the filmmaking culture.”

Her concerns are compounded by the directive of the education ministry this past June, which called on 86 national universities to dissolve or cut back on their liberal arts programs in favor of science, technology, engineering and math departments in order to improve the standing of Japan’s higher-education institutions in world rankings. The specifics and effects of the memo are still ambiguous; nevertheless, programming director Yoshi Yatabe described it at a press conference as “a source of worry” for fostering an appreciation and training ground for creativity-based careers like film amongst Japan’s already-shrinking youth population.

Beyond stagnating the development of filmmaking ambitions at the very educational levels at which they should be the most encouraged, potential for Japanese cinema’s growth has been further stymied by its almost stubborn commitment to homogenous productions, as reflected by its dearth of international co-production treaties.

Though such agreements would allow for significant government subsidies, until recently, Canada was the only country with which Japan had one. Indeed, during an interview with celebrated auteur Kohei Oguri for his “Foujita” — an avant-garde portrait of Japanese painter Leonard Foujita, famous for integrating European techniques into his art thanks to a lengthy stint in Paris — he noted his inability to benefit from assistance for the Japanese-French collaboration, as no such treaty exists between the two nations. “That’s the Japanese government’s fault,” he insisted. “I think it’s all the more necessary to initiate co-production arrangements with other countries to knock down that pyramid where it’s merely Hollywood enjoying the top spot.”

Safe Bets

But for many filmmakers at this year’s festival, the general tendency of Japan to take a rather passive, exceedingly guarded stance to its cinematic evolution is even more frustrating with regards to the content of its current output. With studios highly reluctant to take on any original project without proof of record — lest they run the risk of financial losses — the festival’s director general Yasushi Shiina explained that “budgets and funding go to the films that they are absolutely sure will succeed in the cinema complexes.”

In this case, those films amount to the anime franchises dominated by the ubiquitous Toho Company, or the adaptation of comic books into features, the combination of which Shiina said makes up 70-80% of total commercial revenue. Even within anime, narrative restrictions apply; as Japan Now programmer Kohei Ando pointed out, the film adaptation of wartime comic series “Sarusuberi,” which screened at the festival this year, was rejected by larger financiers who refused to be associated with a story detailing the national hardships surrounding Japan’s WWII loss. “It’s not exactly a friendly environment for out-of-the-box thinkers,” he said.

“The Galapagos Effect”

Writer-director Hirobumi Watanabe’s “7Days,” shot entirely in black and white with close to zero dialogue, was one of the most aesthetically and narratively unconventional films at this year’s festival. He also expressed regret at this risk-averse mainstream mindset, commenting on its infiltration into the independent film arena as well. “Movie stars that are only well known domestically are beginning to be recycled in indies, too,” he said. “The same fan base gets tapped into over and over again, and it leads to the decline of ‘pure’ filmmaking, along with Japanese cinema becoming increasingly ignored by global audiences.”

It’s an approach that exemplifies what director Masato Harada, the filmmaker-in-focus of Japan Now, referred to as “tatami mat” filmmaking. Writer-director Ryuhei Yoshino, whose “Spring Has Come” made its world premiere as part of this year’s Japanese Cinema Splash — a section focusing on the international promotion of Japanese indies — called it the industry’s “Galapagos Effect.” Defining it as a restrictively narrow framework in which the scope of human relationships is usually explored in mainstream films, Yoshino regretted that “everything is looking much too inward. So long as people within Japan understand it, there’s no interest in making sure it relates to anybody else.”

Harada, whose prolific 30-year career is heavily inspired by the works of Kurosawa and Howard Hawks alike — including international successes like “Kamikaze Taxi” (1995) and “The Emperor in August” (2015) — expressed similar sentiments. “Filmmakers haven’t bothered to rediscover the classics, or educate themselves on film as a serious storytelling form,” he said. “In order to move forward, especially in cinema, one needs to look back on the greats. That attitude is missing amongst most Japanese filmmakers today.”

Hope on the Horizon

But not all hope is lost among Japan’s independent film community. One needs to take just one glance at the lineup of the aforementioned Japan Now program, a first at TIFF this year and a section that Shiina described as “new, upcoming, and great works in Japan today that TIFF has a responsibility to feature in order to showcase the directors and great actors that we still do have in this country.” 

Encouraged by Japanese indies like “100 Yen Love,” Masaharu Take’s award-winning sports drama at last year’s TIFF that went on to become Japan’s 2014 submission to the Academy Awards, or Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Cannes-acclaimed “Like Father Like Son” at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, programmer Ando views Japan Now as an opportunity to capitalize on that potential for interest in these smaller examples of works that venture beyond tried-and-tested territory. 

“Japan Now includes the bigger movies too, as we can’t ignore their part in the current cinema landscape,” Ando said. “Yet we’re noticing that they aren’t selling as many tickets at TIFF, while many of the indie films are sold out.” He sees that as evidence of broader possibilities. “It shows us that interest in these different stories is there, as long as we bring them to people,” he said.

Ando positioned several successful Japanese filmmakers in relation to their historical precedents — hailing Eda as the successor of Ozu’s tradition, likening contemporary anime filmmaker Hosoda Mamoru to Miyazaki, and viewing Harada as the next Kurosawa. But while the programmer appeared encouraged by the current crop of filmmakers, albeit acutely aware of their relative invisibility around the world. “My job is to introduce these filmmakers among Japanese audiences, and then abroad,” he said.

Risk Takers

If the lineup at TIFF — be it in the Japan Now or the Japanese Cinema Splash sections — is any indication, there is certainly a more than worthy pool of filmmakers emerging in sharp relief from their play-it-safe counterparts.

Momoko Ando’s “0.5mm,” for instance, spotlights the lack of emotional support for Japan’s aging population through the story of a young caretaker who brings new zest to the lives of the elderly men she works for. The film draws from the director’s own eight-year experience of looking after her grandmother. The film “comes from a very personal space rather than a desire to adhere to any industry-created norms,” Ando said. “I knew that only by embracing the elements of my own life — my nationality, my family, and my gender — could I really begin to carve my niche and make films as myself.

Watanabe’s “7Days” also has autobiographical roots, based on his wish to honor his own grandmother, whom he credits for raising him. A silent, art-house style portrait of a cowherd’s repetitive routine between the farms and life at home with his aging grandmother, the film is anything but a safe commercial bet — and the filmmaker acknowledged as much. “I have zero aim for a box office hit,” he said. “Nobody asked me to make this film, I decided on my own to make it the way I wanted to, with the freedom to take out anything I felt was getting in the way of my vision…If one person finds it meaningful, then I think I’ve accomplished something.”

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