Outsiders find success in Japanese biz

Directors, others penetrate insular TV, film industry

TOKYO — The Japanese film and TV biz has long been insular, even xenophobic, with local pics often showing outlanders in a negative light as loutish soldiers or brutish gangsters.

Over the past decade, however, more gaijin (foreigners) have been making inroads in the local biz in a variety of capacities, from subtitlers, interpreters and sales agents to helmers, scripters and producers. In the process, they’ve made the Japanese entertainment market easier for outsiders to deal with — and profit from.

One of the leaders is Aussie Max Mannix, who co-scripted the award-winning Kiyoshi Kurosawa family drama “Tokyo Sonata” (2008) and helmed the set-in-Tokyo thriller “Rain Fall” (2009), distribbed in country by Sony. Another is Cellin Gluck, an American born and raised in Japan who helmed “Sideways” (2009), the Japanese-language remake of the hit Alexander Payne dramedy, with the backing of Fox and Fuji TV.

Still another is American Michael Arias, who helmed “Heaven’s Door” (2009), a Japanese-language reworking of the 1997 Thomas Jahn road pic “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Arias is better known as an animator and CG effects whiz, with his biggest directing credit being the 2006 Japanese feature toon “Tekkonkinkreet.”

Likewise embedded deep in the domestic production scene is Welshman John Williams, who made his feature debut in 2001 with the all-Japanese family drama “Firefly Dreams” and followed up in 2006 with the mystery thriller “Starfish Hotel.” Since then, Williams has branched out as a producer and international sales agent under his Tokyo-based shingle, 100 Meter Films.

Rather than the international co-productions favored by many bilingual and bicultural types, Williams has focused mainly on pics for the domestic market, including his newest production, “Sado Tempest,” a reworking of the Shakespeare classic set on the picturesque island of Sado.

“It’s hard making films for both (foreign and domestic) markets,” Williams explains. “The Japanese market is a very specific one, with its own requirements. But it’s also a huge market that offers various ways to recoup.”

Williams is not opposed to co-productions — he has served as coordinator for the government-backed production initiative J-Pitch, which supports producers whose projects have cross-border potential. But success in Japan, he believes, requires a close study of the local market.

“European producers often don’t understand that what works for their market is not going to work here,” Williams explains. “The same goes for Japanese producers” when they work abroad.

One expert at bridging the gap between Japan and the rest of the world is Georgina Pope, an Aussie who has nearly two decades of experience easing the way for outlanders shooting everything from big-budget pics to musicvids in Japan. Head of production at Tokyo-based Twenty First City, which has been providing production and casting services to international clients since 1991, Pope recently worked on Isabel Coixet’s 2009 Cannes competish entry “Map of the Sounds of Tokyo” and Audrey Fouche’s 2010 romantic drama “Memories Corner,” starring Belgian thesp Deborah Francois as well as local stars Hiroshi Abe and Hidetoshi Nishijima.

Japan has a rep for being an expensive and difficult location — a rep Pope insists is no longer justified.

“The costs in Tokyo are not high as you would expect; they’re about the same as London or New York,” Pope says. “Besides, you can negotiate the prices down.”

Also, Japan’s now-ubiquitous film commissions, such as the one in Kobe where “Memories Corner” is set, can clear away otherwise-impenetrable bureaucratic thickets.

“The (film commission) people in Kobe are very experienced and can move more quickly than some of the others,” she notes.

Serving the 24/7 needs of foreign TV shoots is Richard Kipnis, who heads the Tokyo office of California-based production shingle Virgin Earth. In Japan since the early 1980s, the company recently moved to a new studio in central Tokyo. Called Aoyama Earth Station, it offers fiber connectivity to telecom giant KDDI as well as two cameras and other gear that “makes it ideal for live TV interviews and videotape playouts, and also for repurposing live content from overseas,” Kipnis says.

Outside the studio, Virgin Earth offers production support for everything from TV docus to live events. One recent job was a Coldplay concert in Japan that was featured in the first episode of the MTV “World Stage” series. Another was the two 2009 episodes of the Food Channel hit “The Next Iron Chef” shot in Tokyo.

The foreign producers of these and other shows “no longer need to go to Fuji TV or the other networks,” Kipnis says. “They can create their programming in Japan and send it directly to viewers.” Getting the job done for often-demanding foreign clients requires more than having the right cameras and hookups, however.

“We have a bit of a cowboy mentality,” says Kipnis with a smile. “We’ll bend the rules and do things that Japanese companies can’t or won’t do.”

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