Not too long ago, the Japanese film industry was enclosed in a tight domestic bubble, with local filmmakers mostly making local films for local audiences. Japanese studios appreciated international recognition, but regarded foreign sales as a sort of after-dinner mint – a nice extra, but not essential.

One reason for this “Japan only” mentality was the size of the local market – still the third-largest in the world in terms of box office — which allowed local films at all budget levels to comfortably recoup at home. Another was the long list of missteps and failures by Japanese filmmakers and studios when they ventured abroad or tried to target foreign markets.

The most notorious example was the firing of Kurosawa Akira after two weeks of shooting the 1970 WWII epic “Tora, Tora, Tora.” More recently, one-time uber-producer Sento Takenori lost his production company Rumble Fish in 2008 after his strategy of making art films for the international festival circuit failed to bring in expected returns.

By contrast, director and scriptwriter Yamada Yoji was churning out the 48 installments of the Tora-san series – homespun comedies about a wandering peddler, always played by Atsushi Kiyoshi, that, from 1969 to 1995, rarely failed to turn a profit for the Shochiku studio, despite finding relatively few fans abroad.

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Welcome Back Tora-san Copyright: (c)2019 Shochiku., Ltd.

Since Tora-san took his last bow, however, the industry has moved out into the world more proactively and successfully, motivated by an explosion in the number of non-Japanese venues and platforms showing Japanese content, from Asian-specialty festivals to streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

As a result, Japanese filmmakers no longer have to win the lottery of an invitation to Cannes or Venice to raise their international profiles and build their box office clout in Japan.

Made for $25,000 and originally screened at one Tokyo theater for a week, the Ueda Shinichiro zombie comedy “One Cut of the Dead” got a PR boost from an audience award at the 2018 Udine Far East Film Festival – Europe’s largest showcase of Asian popular cinema – and went on to become a word-of-mouth sensation in Japan, grossing more than $30 million.

Some stumbling blocks still remain for Japanese filmmakers. One is a lack of co-production treaties with other countries. Another is the production committee system of risk sharing among upwards of half a dozen companies from different corners of the entertainment sphere. This has no only led to risk-averse filmmaking, but also painfully slow decision-making that has frustrated overseas partnerships.

Directors higher in the industry pecking order like Palme d’Or winner Koreeda Hirokazu and fellow Cannes regular Kurosawa Kiyoshi have been able to escape some of these shackles. They have not only had box office hits abroad, with France being an especially welcoming market, but also filmed overseas.
Koreeda shot the 2019 Japan-French co-production “The Truth” entirely in France with stars Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke, and is now in post-production on “Broker,” his first all-Korean movie.

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To the Ends of the Earth. Credit: ENBU Seminar "To the Ends of the Earth" Film Partners / Uzbekkino

Kurosawa made the 2019 road movie “To the Ends of the Earth” on-location in Uzbekistan with local star Adiz Rajabov appearing in a major supporting role.

Meanwhile, veteran provocateur Sono Sion, who has long been a cult favorite with overseas audiences, made the 2017 nine-part horror-thriller series “Tokyo Vampire Hotel” with Amazon Prime and, in his first Hollywood foray, the 2021 horror Western “Prisoners of the Ghostland” with Nicholas Cage. Sono’s February 2019 heart attack forced a relocation of production from Mexico back to Japan and a re-write that brought Japanese actors into the cast, however. Amazon is currently streaming the film, following theatrical releases in the U.S., Japan and other territories.

Rival streamer, Netflix has been rapidly ramping up local production in Japan, from anime to live-action films and series. Among its bigger hits are “The Naked Director,” a true-story series about the adventures of a porn producer-director in the 1980s and 1990s, now its in second season, and “Alice In Borderland,” a sci-fi-action series that was also renewed for a second season, shortly after its December 2020 bow. Boosted by its twisty survival game story and hair-raising stunts, directed by action veteran Sato Shinsuke, “Alice In Borderland” ranked in the “top ten most-watched shows” on Netflix in nearly 40 territories in its first season.

Too bad Tora-san, who only once went abroad, to Vienna, in his three decades on the road, isn’t around to share the ride.