TOKYO – A predictable handful of Japanese movies each year receive regular slots in international film festivals, especially if the films are made by such established auteurs such as Hirokazu Kore’eda, or Naomie Kawase, or by mavericks Takashi Miike and Sion Sono.
But for other Nippon filmmakers a lack of daring may be rendering Japanese films toothless and harder to sell abroad. In fact, there is a growing catalog of examples where opportunities to be interesting have been carefully avoided.
The way that films are made in Japan may be to blame.
Most commercial films are produced by TV networks and other media companies in a system of “production committees” (or seisaku iinkai) in which partners share investment, PR and other chores in return for a share of the profits. Six or eight partners, ranging from video distributors to radio broadcasters and advertising agencies, is common. And 12 partners is not uncommon.
Significantly, the partners not only have a say in what gets made – most commonly adaptations of popular novels, comics and TV dramas — but also how it gets made.
Veteran scriptwriter and indie director Junichi Inoue says this leads to “jishuku” — which literally translates as “self-restraint,” but really means “self-censorship.” “It’s more effective than official censorship, actually,” Inoue told a seminar audience at the 2014 Nippon Connection Film Festival in Frankfurt, where his hard-hitting WWII drama “A Woman and War” screened.
Inoue claims that jishuku results not only in avoidance of controversial topics and views — the stinging criticism of Japan’s Emperor system found in “A Woman and War” is absent in the 2013 hit kamikaze pilot pic “The Eternal Zero” — but also a sort of tiptoeing around corporate and audience sensibilities common in the TV and ad biz.
“You can’t show a body in a trunk as car makers would object,” Inoue says of TV dramas and network-produced feature films. “Also, you can’t show someone being killed by drink or drugs — beverage makers and pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t like it.”
“The basic reason we are making these films is to broadcast them on our network,” admits Chihiro Kameyama, former Fuji TV production head and current president. “So we have to appeal to the widest possible audience.”
Not surprisingly, Fuji’s most popular film franchise — the four-installment “Bayside Shakedown” series about the battles of a cheeky businessman-turned-cop (Yuji Oda) against police bureaucrats and baddies, has a body count of approximately zero. The odd lack of action in what are supposed to be cop thrillers has hindered overseas sales, despite the series’ huge success in Japan.
Self-censorship is not limited to Fuji, notes Miyuki Takamatsu, a former international sales rep for a major network who is now CEO of sales and PR outfit Free Stone Prods.: “Make a list of all the films produced by TV companies and you will see that most of them have no scenes of violence or sex as the producers want to show them on TV eventually,” she says.
“A lot of these so-called producers (on the production committee) are not film people and don’t know how to read a script,” adds Inoue. “In a film you can say a lot without words, but these guys don’t get that. And when they say ‘I don’t understand,’ someone has to add explanations to the script. The film becomes longer — and more boring.”
Another reason for the bloat in Japanese commercial films, says Inoue, is their origin in material from other media, including door-stopper bestsellers and long-running comics. “The publishers have too much power,” he explains. “They demand faithfulness (to the original material) and no one tries to fight them.” It didn’t always used to be this way, he adds. “Directors used to have fierce battles with creators (of original material), but that’s no longer the case. Everyone is just trying to get along.”
Japanese audiences, typically a patient group, will show up for long-winded, defanged pics, but foreign audiences are less tolerant. “These self-censored films have never been accepted by the overseas market,” says Takamatsu. “The free creativity seen in films by Miike, Kitano, Sono and others has produced better results overseas.”
The impact of this is easy to see from the data. The Japanese biz, which released an astonishing 591 pics in 2013 according to the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan, makes nearly all its money at home.
In 2012 Japanese films grossed a combined $1.26 billion in their home market, a figure high enough to best Hollywood. But the big four studios — Toho, Toei, Shochiku and Kadokawa – which accounted for 36 of the 39 titles that exceeded $10 million at home, earned a paltry $53 million from overseas sales.That’s storing up problems for the Japanese industry.
While some argue that with such a big domestic market, the Japanese biz can afford to regard foreign sales as simply the mint after the banquet, Takashi Nishimura, who as managing director of UniJapan is responsible for promoting Japanese film abroad thinks differently.
“(The Japanese film industry feels) a sense of crisis that the domestic market is no longer enough,” Nishimura said last year at the Intl. Film Festival of India in Goa. “But Japanese films are made only for Japanese.”
And that is giving studio executives reason to fret. Japan’s graying population is steadily declining. Total theater admissions, after hitting a millennial peak of 174 million in 2010, have since slid every year, down to 156 million in 2013.