×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Japanese Indies Thrive on the Country’s Big Screens

The Japanese indie sector would seem to be thriving, if numbers are the sole criterion. Last year, 610 domestic films were released, according to figures compiled by the Motion Picture Producers Assn. of Japan. By far the majority were indie films shown in only a scattering of venues across the country.  But at least they had theatrical releases, which is not the case in many developed-world markets where Hollywood and local commercial product rule, pushing indies to the margins.

Tokyo-based producer, distributor and sales agent Adam Torel, whose credits include the 2016 indie hit “Lowlife Love” — a no-holds-barred comic look at the lower reaches of the Japanese film business — calls Japan a paradise for indie filmmakers.

“In the U.K. it’s almost impossible for even mid-budget indie films to get a theatrical release due to the current lack of theatrical holdbacks [whether geographical or for windowing],” says Torel, whose Third Window Films DVD label has a U.K. presence.

“In Japan, there are still proper holdbacks, which allow for strong theatrical releases, plus VOD and Netflix have not worked well here so the video-rental market is also incredibly strong.”

Yet another factor working in indies’ favor, adds Torel, are the many “mini theaters” (arthouses) in Tokyo and elsewhere showing indie films, frequently to packed houses. “This allows for even $5,000-budget student films to get shown not just once or twice, but for weeks in cinemas,” he says.

Torel should know: “Lowlife Love” played for months around the country following its April 2016 bow with director Eiji Uchida and the film’s stars often in attendance at screenings.

One factor in the indie surge — at the beginning of the decade only 408 local films were released — is the emergence of crowdfunding. Once derided by some in the industry as a sort of glorified begging for otherwise unsalable projects, crowdfunding is now central to many Japanese filmmakers’ production and promotion strategies.

The best-known recent example is Sunao Katabuchi’s “In This Corner of the World,” a feature animation about a young woman coming of age in prewar Hiroshima and wartime Kure, a nearby port, based on a comic by a Hiroshima native Fumiyo Kouno. Katabuchi struggled for years to get the film made, with potential backers rejecting it as uncommercial.

But when it was listed on the Makuake crowdfunding site in March 2015 the response was strong: In just eight days the film raised $184,000. And when it was released in November on 63 screens by mid-sized distributor Tokyo Theatres, crowds, alerted to the film by its crowd-funding supporters, packed theaters. By the end of March it had earned $23 million from 1.9 million admissions, while sweeping domestic film awards.

But the film’s producer, Taro Maki, told the ITmedia News website that “crowdfunding is a hard way to make movies.” One reason: Crowdfunding often raises only a fraction of the funds needed for even indie productions. The budget for “In This Corner of the World” was $2.3 million, far more than the film’s enthusiastic supporters could contribute through crowdfunding alone. “Crowdfunding was mainly for securing staff and making a demo film,” Maki added.

Looking for more comprehensive solutions, directors, producers and others working in the indie sector launched the Independent Film Guild in 2012. Now nearly 160 members strong, IFG hold seminars and other events for networking and information sharing as well as partnering with the MotionGallery crowdfunding site to help members get their films made.

But IFG co-founder Koji Fukada, whose dark family drama “Harmonium” won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize last year at Cannes, notes that relying on crowd-funding is dangerous for the Japanese film industry since it means only micro-budget films will get made. And government support is woefully inadequate, with the Agency for Cultural Affairs budgeting only $18 million for films. “There’s a huge gap compared to South Korea and France,” Fukada says.

And even if they manage to scrape up funds, indie filmmakers now need to spend weeks and months on the road publicizing their work with stage appearances and other in-person events.

“It’s really important to make the rounds of the provinces,” Fukada says. “You’re not simply growing your audience; you’re also creating fans for your films. In the end, to make the films you want to make you have to keep at it day after day.”

This may not sound like paradise, but if the alternative is no release at all, it will have to do.

More Film

  • Netflix Buys Taiwan Black Comedy 'Dear

    Netflix Buys Taiwan Black Comedy 'Dear Ex'

    Netflix has added to its roster of Mandarin-language content with the acquisition of rights to Taiwanese dark comedy “Dear Ex.” The award-winning film will play out from Feb. 1. The story involves a recently bereaved widow and a gay man fighting over a dead man’s inheritance, with the woman’s teenage son caught in the middle. [...]

  • Audrey Wells

    Film News Roundup: Audrey Wells Scholarships Launched by UCLA, China's Pearl Studio

    In today’s film news roundup, Pearl Studio and UCLA start a “Say Yes!” scholarship in memory of Audrey Well; Gina Lollobrigida and Claudia Cardinale are honored; and the “General Magic” documentary gets bought. SCHOLARSHIPS UNVEILED China’s Pearl Studio has made a gift of $100,000 for endowed scholarships to the UCLA School of Theater, Film and [...]

  • Honey Boy Knock Down the House

    Sundance Hot Titles List: 13 Buzzy Films That Have Buyers Talking

    There’s a good reason that much of Hollywood braves the thin mountain air each year to make the trek to the Sundance Film Festival, and it’s not to check out the nearby ski slopes. The annual launch of the indie film gathering brings with it the possibility of discovering the next big thing in moviemaking. [...]

  • (L to R) VIGGO MORTENSEN and

    Will Oscar Nominations Give This Year's Contenders a Box Office Boost?

    With nominees like “Black Panther,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “A Star Is Born,” the 2018 class of movies proved the Oscars don’t need a popular films category to recognize movies that also made bank in theaters. But now that the academy has selected this year’s crop of awards hopefuls, is there any green left to squeeze [...]

  • A24 Buys Sequel to Tilda Swinton's

    Sundance: A24 Buys Sequel to Tilda Swinton's Romance-Drama 'The Souvenir'

    A24 has bought the North American rights to Tilda Swinton’s romance-drama “The Souvenir – Part 2,” closing the deal on the eve of the Sundance Film Festival. “The Souvenir” is set to make its world premiere at Sundance on Jan. 27, followed by playing in the Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival in February. [...]

  • The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

    Chiwetel Ejiofor Adds Authenticity to Directorial Debut by Shooting in Malawi

    When actor Chiwetel Ejiofor optioned the rights for the 2009 best-seller “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” penning the screenplay for a feature directorial debut that world-premieres in Sundance and then appears in the Berlin Film Festival before being released globally by Netflix this spring, colleagues floated the idea of shooting the Malawi-set film in tried-and-tested [...]

  • ally billboard a star is born

    Oscar Campaign Spending Reaches New Heights in Competitive Season

    The escalating cost of awards campaigning may reach an all-time high this season as heavyweights such as “Roma” and “A Star Is Born” battle for Oscar gold. The quest for an Academy Award has always been expensive, but Netflix’s hunger to nab its first best picture win, coupled with the presence of legitimate studio contenders [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content