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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.

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