Japan’s film industry is still highly insular, making films mostly by Japanese for Japanese audiences. But over the past two decades Japan-resident, non-natives have been making inroads.
They include Australian scriptwriter Max Mannix with the Kiyoshi Kurosawa drama “Tokyo Sonata,” Welsh director John Williams (“The Trial”,) and Canadian producer Jason Gray with the futuristic anthology “Ten Years Japan”.
Simultaneously, more Japanese talent is going abroad to study and work. Examples include “Pacific Rim” star Rinko Kikuchi, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa who shot his upcoming “To the Ends of the Earth”) in Uzbekistan.
Two people emblematic of these trends, are husband and wife Eric Nyari and Ema Ryan Yamazaki. Son of Balazs Nyari, the president of New York post-production house Cineric, Nyari came to Japan at age 21 and in 2009 at age 28, produced his first film, the Atsushi Ogata comedy “Cast Me If You Can.” Since then Nyari has amassed more than 20 producing credits, including the 2016 Yoshifumi Tsubota drama “The Shell Collector,” and the 2017 Stephen Nomura Schible documentary “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda.”
Nyari first met the Japan-born-and-raised Yamazaki five years ago, while looking for a bilingual editor. She was then a recent graduate of Tisch School of the Arts in New York. They got married in 2017.
Their professional association has also strengthened, with Nyari executive-producing “Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George’s Creators,” Yamazaki’s new feature documentary, which is now on commercial release. She completed the film with a successful Kickstarter campaign, after first emptying out her savings account and hitting rock bottom.
By now, however, the bilingual and bicultural Yamazaki, whose father is British and mother Japanese, has accumulated an impressive string of editing and directing credits, including a documentary she shot on the making of Scorsese’s period drama “Silence.”
“We don’t want to do all our projects together,” Nyari says. “Just when it makes sense. So far it’s been about a half or one-third together, the rest separately.” One Nyari is currently doing on his own is a feature film set in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido focusing on the Ainu, Hokkaido’s original inhabitants. The director is New York-based Takeshi Fukunaga, whose cross-cultural drama “Out of My Hand,” filmed in the U.S. and Liberia, traveled widely on the festival circuit. “We’re doing it with all Ainu actors,” Nyari explains. “It’s a first for a Japanese film.” A distributor is yet to be decided.
But what do Nyari and Yamazaki, as well as their similarly borderless colleagues, bring to a Japanese project that the typical Japanese filmmaker doesn’t? Nyari describes his own approach as a “no rules games,” that his counterparts in a traditional Japanese production company, with a traditional Japanese bureaucracy, “can’t play, even if they want to.”
Yamazaki, who was unfamiliar with the Tokyo-centered film and TV business before repatriating to Japan, agrees. “Instead of making my own films, I would have been someone’s AD,” she says. In Japan she maintains her independence as a freelancer, while bringing her own, American-inflected, perspective to her projects.
One example is her baseball documentary, which has Nyari as producer and the backing of public broadcaster NHK. It is set at the Koshien high school baseball tournament, and focuses on a team that wins only one game in a preliminary round. Their story, she believes, is universal since: “We can all understand the experience of trying hard and failing.”
Instead of telling her to reboot with a more conventional approach that centers on the championship contenders, NHK not only broadcast her documentary short in August, it also engaged Yamazaki to make a feature-length international version. “NHK is looking for new people to bring them an outside perspective,” she explains.
Yamazaki also sees the baseball documentary as a way to connect a Japanese institution – and Japan – to the world at large. “The tournament is a microcosm of Japanese society,” she says. “It shows why we are the way we are. In New York all a lot of people know about Japan is sushi, anime and Fukushima,” she says. “There are many more Japanese stories worth telling.”