Nikkatsu @ 100

Nikkatsu may not have Godzilla, but this 100-year-old Japanese studio has made everything from world-class masterpieces to erotica, all while nurturing some of the country’s biggest stars and influential genres.

In the 1950s, at the studio’s postwar peak, millions of young Japanese dreamed the Nikkatsu dream of fast foreign cars, hot jazz in smoky cabarets and guys with the insolence, charm and long legs of Yujiro Ishihara — an actor-singer who was Elvis and James Dean combined.

Today, Nikkatsu is a very different company facing very different challenges, but one thing, says prexy Naoki Sato, has remained the same: “Production is in our corporate bloodstream.”

Nikkatsu operates a sprawling studio in the Tokyo suburb of Chofu that produces pics, TV dramas and commercials on eight soundstages, as well as offering post-production and other services. It even runs its own school on the premises for aspiring filmmakers.

Nikkatsu has branched out into other businesses, including its Neco channel that beams pics, toons and other home-grown entertainment, and its line-up of foreign pics, such as the Olivier Megaton action drama “Colombiana” and the Mark Neale motorbike race docu “Fastest.”

But at the heart of company’s past, as well as its plans for its present and future, is production.

“With no theater chain to speak of, Nikkatsu has to produce to survive,” says Bunkatsushin entertainment news service analyst Hiroo Otaka. “It’s hard — they have to keep coming up with new ideas and churning out product — but they have the ability to do it.”

One proof of that ability is Nikkatsu’s library of nearly 3,300 pics, going back to the silent days, and featuring everything from classics by such masters as Kenji Mizoguchi and Shohei Imamura to the soft-porn pics called Nikkatsu Roman poruno that saved the studio following its 1972 near-collapse — and won critical kudos for their taboo-busting helmers, including Yasuharu Hasebe and Tatsumi Kumashiro.

To celebrate its 100th anniversary, Nikkatsu has sponsored retrospectives abroad, starting with a series of 37 pics at last year’s New York Film Festival.

“The reaction of the audience was better than I could have imagined,” says Sato, who attended the New York retro with former Nikkatsu action star Joe Shishido. “I realized again what a valuable library Nikkatsu has as a company.”

While closing deals for its library assets with Criterion and other homevideo distribs, Nikkatsu has been seeking out foreign remakers for its classics.

John Woo has signed to helm a redo of the 1963 Seijun Suzuki gang actioner “Youth of the Beast,” while “Crash” scripter Bobby Moresco is prepping his version of the 1960 Koreyoshi Kurahara suspenser “Intimidation.”

“Since my appointment as Nikkatsu president, I’ve been actively promoting international co-productions from a business standpoint,” Sato says. “If Japan doesn’t want to be isolated like the Galapagos Islands, we have to aggressively partner with foreign creators and producers.”

Nikkatsu, adds Sato, has two prongs to its international production strategy: First, make relatively big-budget projects with Hollywood and other overseas partners and “use the Hollywood distribution network to supply our films to the world.”

Second, work with “new creators and talents that are coming from emerging nations such as Indonesia and Malaysia or the world’s largest film producing country, India” to produce lower-budget genre pics.

“The domestic market for Nikkatsu’s product is shrinking, as shown by the overall decline in DVD sales,” Otaka says. “So they’re looking to make more co-productions in Asia.”

One example of the second strategy in action is the Nikkatsu-backed Japanese-Indonesian co-prod “Killers” starring Kazuki Kitamura as a ruthless killer who posts clips of his hits on the Internet — and inspires a Jakarta journalist to follow in his bloody footsteps. The helmers are the Mo Bros. (Timothy Tjahjanto and Kimo Stamboel), best known abroad for the splatter horror “Macabre.”

A main target of Nikkatsu’s genre pics is what Sato describes as “foreign otaku” — geeks in the West and elsewhere who are fans of Japanese pop culture in all its variety and strangeness. Yoshinori Chiba, the producer of “Killers,” tested this market for Nikkatsu with the Sushi Typhoon line-up of seven (to date) made-for-export cult horror and action pics, starting in 2010 with “Alien vs. Ninja” and “Mutant Girls Squad.” They played widely at fests abroad, while being released on subbed DVDs. “This may be a niche market in a given territory,” Sato says, “but when you add up all the niche markets they can rival a major market like Japan.”

Nikkatsu, however, is more than the sum of its exploitation fare. It also works with such internationally acclaimed auteurs as Sion Sono, whose dysfunctional family drama “Cold Fish” (2010) was a Sushi Typhoon title, and horrormeister Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose five-part TV drama “Penance” screened at Venice this year.

The latter project points to another pillar of Sato’s plans for the company: Move away from a tight focus on pic production. One inspiration is Hollywood’s success at home and abroad with quality TV dramas.

“Most of the big TV drama series in the U.S. are made by the (Hollywood) studios,” Sato says. “The TV production system here is totally different. We want to a company that is based on and can work with global production system.”

In line with this shift to a more diverse product line, Nikkatsu is experimenting with new delivery methods, from streaming sites to smartphones.

“This is a revolutionary age we’re living in,” Sato says. “Media are undergoing major changes. It’s good timing, I believe, for Nikkatsu to celebrate its 100th anniversary.”

But what about the next hundred? “I hope Nikkatsu keeps stirring things up,” Otaka adds. “I want them to stay aggressive and make Japanese films for the world.”

NIKKATSU TIMELINE
1912: Four companies join together to launch Nippon Katsudo Shashin (Japanese Cinemetograph Company), later shortened to Nikkatsu
1932: Nikkatsu has its first sound hit with Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Timely Mediator.”
1942: Nikkatsu merges its production facilities with the Shinko and Daito studios, while retaining its identity as an exhibitor.
1954: Nikkatsu restarts production at a new studio in the Tokyo suburb of Chofu.
1956: Nikkatsu releases “Season of the Sun,” the film that launches the career of superstar Yujiro Ishihara.
1971: Nikkatsu ceases pic production in August, but restarts in November with a new line of soft-core porn it calls Nikkatsu Roman Poruno.
1988: Nikkatsu ends production of Roman Poruno pics.
1993: Nikkatsu files for bankruptcy protection.
1997: Nikkatsu is acquired by game maker Namco
1997: Nikkatsu resumes production with Kei Kumai drama “To Love.”
2005: Index Corp. buys a majority stake in Nikkatsu from Namco.
2009: Index sells a 34 percent stake in Nikkatsu to Nippon Television Network.
2012: Nikkatsu-produced suspenser-meller “Rebirth” scoops 10 Japan Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Nikkatsu @ 100
Innovative firm mines storied past | Toppers warming to a world of opportunities | Thriving and surviving a tumultuous century

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more