Nikkatsu @ 100

In a colorful century of history, Nikkatsu has experienced depression, war and corporate near-death experiences.

The resulting convulsions have made it something of a risk-embracing maverick compared to its larger, more conservatively managed studio brethren. That is, despite the white hairs, it is still climbing on its Harley (or Suzuki) and blasting off for parts unknown.

Founded in 1912 as Nippon Katsudo Shashin (Japanese Cinematograph Co.), Japan’s oldest studio later shortened its cumbersome moniker to Nikkatsu. It got off to a fast start as its samurai swashbucklers by Japan’s first true helmer, Shozo Makino, and star, Matsunosuke Onoe, delighted fans — and made Nikkatsu a power in the silent-era biz.

In its early decades, the studio built a solid stable of helmers that included Kenji Mizoguchi, Tomu Uchida, Daisuke Ito, Tomosaka Tasaka and Minoru Murata. Not all stayed, but the talent pool was replenished in the 1930s by such young comers as Sadao Yamanaka and Hiroshi Inagaki.

After Japan entered World War II, the government ordered a consolidation of the film industry, and Nikkatsu was stripped of its production side. But following Japan’s defeat in 1945, the company’s surviving exhibition biz boomed as entertainment-starved fans flocked to the theaters.

In 1954, Nikkatsu resumed production and, in 1956, had one of its biggest postwar hits with “Season of the Sun,” the Takumi Furukawa youth drama that introduced Yujiro Ishihara, Japan’s insolently charming answer to James Dean, as well as the “Sun Tribe” subculture of wild kids living it up on the Shonan Coast near Tokyo.

As Ishihara soared to stardom, Nikkatsu featured him in Hollywood-influenced action pics with other rising male stars it called the Diamond Line — appropriate given their contributions to company coffers.

In the early 1960s, as the Diamond Line lost its B.O. luster, Nikkatsu found another superstar in Sayuri Yoshinaga, a perky teenager with a fresh-scrubbed beauty whose pics about star-crossed young love drew millions of fans.

By the end of the decade, however, the entire Japanese biz was on the decline and Nikkatsu was no exception. The studio fought the tide with traditional yakuza pics, then a popular genre, as well as what it called New Action films featuring rebellious punks, nihilistic gangsters and other excitingly disreputable types.

By 1971, however, Nikkatsu was on the financial ropes and management decided to switch production to soft-core porn. These pics, called Nikkatsu Roman poruno, became a hit with male fans and, surprisingly, the critics, who praised the taboo-busting boldness of helmers like Tatsumi Kumashiro, Noboru Tanaka and Chusei Sone.

By the 1980s Roman poruno was fading at the B.O. and Nikkatsu was searching for other sources of revenue, such as cable and satellite broadcasting, but again profits proved elusive. In 1993 the company filed for bankruptcy protection and in 1997 was bought by game maker Namco, which began a restructuring program.

In 2005 mobile and Internet services provider Index bought a majority share in Nikkatsu from Namco. In 2009 Index unloaded a 34% stake to Nippon Television Network, followed by the sales of the remainder of its shares. Today NTV is Nikkatsu’s lead shareholder, followed by satellite platform operator Sky Perfect JSAT with 28%.

After a long hiatus Nikkatsu restarted production in 1997 with the Kei Kumai meller “To Love” and released a small, but steady stream of pics over the next decade.

In 2006 it made the hit suspenser/horror “Death Note” and in 2009 had a smash with the live-action toon adaptation “Yattaman.”

In the current decade Nikkatsu has been cranking up production, including its Sushi Typhoon series of exploitation pics, while also aiming for quality, as evidenced by “Rebirth,” an Izuru Narushima suspenser/meller than scooped 10 prizes at the 2012 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