Japanese Film Makers Find Opportunities in International Co-Productions

The Japanese film industry, whose idea of an “international co-production” was once a shortish shoot in Los Angeles, is now freeing itself from an almost exclusively local focus.

Fresh from his Palme d’Or victory in Cannes with “Shoplifters,” Hirokazu Kore-eda recently confirmed that he will be returning to France to make his next film. His “The Truth About Catherine,” starring Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche, according to sales agent Wild Bunch, will be shot mostly in France, starting this fall.

Binoche also stars in “Vision,” Naomi Kawase’s drama about a French journalist who journeys to Nara Province to research a mysterious herb. Released on June 8 in Japan, the film is a co-production between Kawase’s own Kumie production cooperative and Paris-based Slot Machine.

Another much-lauded veteran, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, made his 2016 horror/drama “The Woman in the Silver Plate” in France, with French, Belgian and Japanese backing. Since May, he has been shooting his new feature, “To the Ends of the Earth,” in Uzbekistan.

Closer to home, in the Asia-Pacific region, still more Japanese directors have recently worked with international partners: Koji Fukada with “The Man from the Sea” (Indonesia); Katsuya Tomita with “Bangkok Nites” (Thailand); and Daishi Matsunaga with “Hanalei Bay” (Hawaii, U.S.).

One spur for this trend is the creative stagnation of the Japanese industry, with “production committees” of TV networks and other media companies endlessly churning out films about youthful love troubles, medical tragedies, or both. Given that nearly all commercial films are based on stories from other media, especially manga, the Japanese market for original scripts is largely limited to the indie sector.

“International co-productions offer new opportunities, and in some ways, creative freedom,” says Eiko Mizuno Gray, a producer, together with husband Jason Gray, on “To the Ends of the Earth.” “Also, there are greater possibilities to finance original projects rather than adaptations, which are the norm (in Japan),” she adds.

Despite facing flat-lining admissions and falling DVD sales in the home market, the production committee system “won’t go away, at least for a while,” says Yukie Kito, producer of “Oh Lucy!,” which was directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi and starred Josh Hartnett as an English teacher pursued by Japanese student (Shinobu Terajima).

“The Japanese audience is not yet so open to co-production films that are not focused on Japan or Japanese elements,” Kito explains. “But it’s not healthy in the long run for the market to keep feeding the audience the same kinds of films over and over.”

Also, barriers, regulatory and otherwise, still limit international co-productions in Japan. One example: The Agency for Cultural Affair’s production support initiative requires a minimum budget of $900,000 (JPY100 million), a steep climb for many indie filmmakers. “(A lower tier) would stimulate more creative partnerships, and in the long term grow the industry,” says Gray. “More co-production treaties would be a positive development. Also needed are less complicated application procedures, and incentives such as tax rebates.”

But the advantages to filming abroad can outweigh the negatives. Top name Japanese actors, tired of the local routine at home, are often eager to appear in international co-productions, even ones at the indie end of the scale. “The screenplay for ‘Oh Lucy!’ won an award at Sundance and the director showed her talent through her short films, so we could cast great veteran Japanese actors,” says Kito. One was Koji Yakusho (“Shall We Dance?” “Sekigahara”), a major star in Japan, who took a supporting role in “Oh Lucy!”

Another plus is that producers can take advantage of financial support not available in Japan. “When you co-produce with France you can receive production funds from the Cinema du Monde subsidy program,” says Emi Ueyama, an international sales agent and producer whose credits include the 2015 Japan/Mexico/France documentary “The Legacy of Frida Kahlo.” “When you close an international sales deal with a major company it becomes easier to enter international festivals, including Cannes, and opens the door for a theatrical release in France.”

She cites the example of Koji Fukada’s 2016 Un Certain Regard Jury Prize winner “Harmonium,” which earned more on release in France than it did Japan.

“When you produce with foreign subsidies, you can reduce risk,” Ueyama adds. “So Japanese directors are steadily advancing into the international co-production market.”

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