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Japan Debates the Ethics of Making Films on the Cheap

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Palme d’Or in Cannes for “Shoplifters” seems far away for most Japanese film-makers. Instead, a rare public war of words has now raised the question of whether movies in Japan are being made too cheaply. And is that damaging the industry?

In recent years, increasing numbers of filmmakers have redefined low budget to mean next to nothing. That has widened the gap between major Japanese studio productions, and the independent majority. It may also have led to the disappearance of most mid-budget films, where “Shoplifters” sits, together with many of the companies that once distributed them.

A recent example from the ultra-low category is “One Cut of the Dead,” a zombie comedy scripted and directed by 34-year-old Shinichiro Ueda. The film premiered in April at the Udine Far East Film Festival, Europe’s largest showcase for Asian popular cinema, and finished a close second in the Audience Award vote.

Produced by Tokyo film school Enbu Seminar, of which Koji Ichihashi is president, and financed partly by crowdfunding, “One Cut of the Dead” was made for $23,000 (JPY2.5 million). Its student cast paid to participate in what was essentially a school project.

On social media, Ueda and producer Ichihashi expressed their joy at the Udine success. “That an extremely low-budget film with a cast and crew of no-names should come so close against such distinguished giants of the film world is a story that even (comic magazine) Shonen Jump would reject as impossible!”

But not everyone shared Ueda and Ishihashi’s glee. On May 10 Koji Fukada, whose “Harmonium” won Cannes’ Un Certain Regard jury prize in 2016, took to Facebook to air his dismay. “If you speak as though enduring poverty to make a film is somehow normal and positive, today’s excessively unfair industry will continue that way forever,” he said. “If you have the energy to make a film I’d like you expend it on raising money. Improve, if just a little, the industry system.”

Fukada is also co-founder of Independent Cinema Guild, an organization of film professionals that supports the indie sector with crowdfunding assistance, networking events and other initiatives. His retort to Ueda sparked many comments from filmmakers who shared his discontent with poor on-set conditions, and a dislike for those who profited from them.

Another part of the dilemma is that Japanese films have, at least outwardly, done well, successfully pushing Hollywood into a minority share of the world’s third largest theatrical market. Japanese films have increased their market share from 48% in 2007 to 55% in 2017, according to data from Eiren.

Similarly, a simple cost-benefit analysis may be misleading. Japanese films’ $1.15 billion aggregate revenue last year was spread across 594 titles, implying a mean box office gross of $1.93 million per title. Average budgets in Japan may be $460,000 (JPY50 million). The ratio of budget to revenue looks healthy enough until the distorting effect of the top end is taken into account.

Industry giant, Toho has dominated the annual box office for decades, typically claiming seven or eight of the top ten titles. And it expects each of its releases to gross at minimum $9 million (JPY1 billion). Most of the rest goes to Warner, Shochiku, Gaga, Toei, Asmik Ace and Kadokawa.

Production budgets for films released by those leading distributors typically range from $1 million to $5 million, though the top end can be higher, especially for animation. Isao Takahata’s 2013 film “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” cost an estimated $46 million (JPY5 billion).

That then leaves the indies living on fumes. And, accordingly, they squeeze their production costs as close to zero as possible. While attacking Ueda, Fukada confessed to himself having a “criminal record” of making low-budget films that “take advantage of the cast and crew’s love of cinema.” Chastened, Ueda responded: “I can’t deny that such a small budget made it a bit harder for (the cast and crew) to survive economically.”

Ueda is unlikely to greatly profit from his triumph, save in more festival invitations and offers to make more films. As Fukada noted, Japanese directors usually only get a fee for their labors. No back-end participation. But it’s still better than the position of his cast, who paid for the privilege of starring in a hit.

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