Ever get the feeling that Japanese cinema isn’t as good as it used to be? You’re not alone.
it would be unfair to say that all Japanese films stink these days. Adam Torel of Third Window Films will gladly remind you that there are still great filmmakers in Japan, such as Tetsuya Nakashima and Yoshihiro Nakamura to name a few.
But when it comes to major productions, like a certain titan slaying franchise, Japanese studios can’t seem to put together a solid product. This is worrisome for Torel, whose company has a vested interest in Asian movies being good so that they can promote and distribute them in the west. We’ll have to forgive him, then, if he doesn’t exactly mince his words when discussing Japan’s cinematic offerings:
“Even major productions like 'Attack on Titan' are worse than a low-budget American TV show. Is this not embarrassing? Among Asian films South Korea and China have been hard at work. On the other hand, Japan has been steadily lowering the bar. Japanese cinema used to be the most highly regarded in Asia, but now South Korea, China, Taiwan, and Thailand have been stealing their thunder. The quality of Japanese movies is really low. I’ve come to hate them.”
Again, he’s not referring to all movies here, but a trend in mainstream cinema that has gone on for a while now. In an interview with Sankei Shimbun, Torel laid out three reasons why he thinks the Japanese film industry has been on the decline.
#1 Production Committees
Torel’s biggest concern with the industry is what is known as the "Seisaku Inkai Hoshiki" or Production Committee System. He describes this as a panel of corporate investors who play a large role in the making of the film in order to minimize the risk to their investment. Since creativity and risk tend to go hand in hand, it’s not hard to see the flaw in this system.
For every one good film, there have been scores of bland adaptations.
To give a sense of the scope of the Production Committee System, Torel points out that in Japan people seldom know the director of the movies they watch. In American or British cinema, viewers often chose a movie solely—or at least partly—on the reputation of the person directing it, but in Japan, aside from old-school names like Miyazaki or Miike, you’d be hard-pressed to find a director whose name alone would sell tickets.
Torel goes as far as to say that in many cases current directors are merely a “puppet” of the Production Committee.
#2 Low pay
Torel also claims that the cast and crew of Japanese movies aren’t compensated enough for their work. Of course, as human nature dictates, if one doesn’t feel they are getting paid enough, they don’t put in their full effort, even in Japan where the cash-to-performance output of people is well above the developed world average.
That being said, Japan is a long way behind Hollywood when it comes to cash to splash on movie productions. However, in Third Window Films’ own "Gesu No Ai" (Lowlife Love), the lack of funds was made up for in royalties. “Wouldn’t it be fair for everyone to share in the film’s success?” asks Torel.
#3 No accountability
Finally, Torel also notices that Japanese critics, somewhat ironically, don’t do a whole lot of critiquing in their movie reviews. “Japanese critics don’t say if a movie is no good even if they are thinking it. On the contrary, they’ll call it ‘amazing.’ Why do they do that?”
Aside from the spectacular critical disgust against the "Attack on Titan" films, Japanese critics really don’t spend time focusing on the negative. This is partly because in Japan the old saying, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” is a pretty golden.
So a critic will tell you if a movie isn’t very good but not directly, and they’ll choose their words very carefully.
Although it’s possible to read between the lines, it can be confusing. And in some cases, the cold hard truth could be just what some movie makers need to step up their game.
As a rule in Japan, when a foreigner like Torel comes in and starts pointing out the country’s short-comings, it generally doesn’t go over too well with the locals, regardless of who’s actually in the right. In this particular instance, however, it seems a lot of Japanese agree with Torel’s assessment of their country’s movie industry, and many thought he was being too kind if anything.
“Only recently? It’s always been like that.” “It is embarrassing.” “It’s very embarrassing.” “It’s seriously third-rate.” “Seriously, Japan’s video technology is like 20 years behind.” “Isn’t it? It’s all crap tied in with AKB, Johnnys and Exile.” “Japanese movies died with Kurosawa. It will never come back.” “Japanese cinema has been dead for about a decade now. It’s just an extension of television.”
The industry may be on the rocks, but you also have to hand it to Torel and Third Window Films, since they aren’t simply whining about the state of Japanese cinema here; they’re putting their money where their mouths are and investing in talented directors like Sion Sono, Tetsuya Nakashima, and Yosuke Fujita by producing their films. The company is also restoring older films by Beat Takeshi ("Hana-bi,""Dolls") and Shinya Tsukamoto ("Tetsuo: The Iron Man") for Blu-ray release overseas, and recently distributed a modern gem of Japanese film, Ken Ochiai’s "Uzumasa Limelight," on the big screen in the UK and aims to bring it to DVD and Blu-ray soon.
Certainly the talent is here in Japan. What’s lacking is an environment where worthy artists can get the backing they need to fully express themselves. Until that can be achieved, mediocrity will continue to rule the cinematic landscape.
Sources: Sankei Shimbun, Yahoo! Japan News, Itai News, Third Window Films
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