In the 1967 film, “You Only Live Twice,” Sean Connery as James Bond is seen tearing away from a top Spectre agent’s Tokyo headquarters that looks remarkably like the Hotel New Otani. Fast-forward to 2006 as cars go tearing through the streets of Shibuya at night in “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” -- except, the cars weren’t “drifting” in Tokyo. Shibuya was created by special effects; most of the movie wasn’t even filmed in Tokyo.
Over the years, numerous restrictions and regulations have made Tokyo a much more difficult city to make a movie in since 007 went to the sumo and traveled on the Marunouchi subway line. Foreign directors and stars frequently say they would like to film in Tokyo. Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who shot part of his 2006 film “Babel” in Tokyo’s J-Pop Cafe, even complained at a press conference at the time that the Tokyo government needed to do far more to make it easier for foreign filmmakers.
While some directors do resort to guerrilla filmmaking in Tokyo to get a few authentic shots, most producers of big-budget films give up early on due to the costs and the red tape. All too often, Tokyo ends up being reproduced on a California movie set or elsewhere. In Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 film “Kill Bill Vol 1,” a restaurant resembling popular Gonpachi was recreated in a Beijing studio for the famous swordfight scene in which Uma Thurman decimates a yakuza gang.
To help facilitate filmmaking in Tokyo for both foreign and domestic filmmakers and TV producers, the Tokyo metropolitan government in 2001 set up Tokyo Location Box. The office provides information on which locations may be used for filming, how to obtain permission from police and local authorities, and what facilities are available for post-production and recording. However, a look at the numbers show how difficult it can be to get permission. In 2008, Tokyo Location Box received 2,333 domestic requests and 56 overseas inquiries. Permission was given in only 146 cases, most of which were domestic. The few foreign ones were documentaries and some indie productions.
Contrast this with cities such as New York and Los Angeles which have a high-profile mayor’s office for film, theater and broadcasting. Hundreds of movies and TV dramas are shot each year in those cities, generating millions of dollars in revenue and employing thousands of locals from production crews to caterers. It’s not uncommon to close off a few blocks to shoot action sequences, for example, “I Am Legend” in New York, or “Heat” in LA.
“Tokyo Location Box does not have as much of a history as the film commissions in big cities like New York and Los Angeles, and so we are not able to provide as much support as they can,” admitted Hajime Endo, chief coordinator for Tokyo Location Box. “We receive requests directly from the producers of foreign productions through either phone calls or fax. There is sometimes a coordinator who serves as the intermediary, which is someone in Japan in charge of scouting for locations. But all we can really do is provide interested productions with information concerning possible sites based on their preferences, and inform them of steps they need to take in order to gain permission to film there. If the producer has a certain location in mind, we serve as the intermediary between them and the manager of that location in order to assist them with the planning.”
Shibuya, Kabuki-cho, Sensoji, Ginza most sought after
Masako Nakayama, director of Tokyo Location Box, says the most sought-after locations in Tokyo are Shinjuku’s Kabuki-cho area, the Shibuya crossing, Ginza-dori and Sensoji temple in Asakusa. Permission is routinely denied by the authorities in all four cases. “The reason is because there are too many people,” Nakayama explained. “You can’t park cars or secure space in crowded areas, and police in Tokyo never allow the closing of certain streets for filming, like they do in New York. Certain crowded spots around train stations are also off-limits. You can film in some parks and on bridges, as long as you get permission. With complexes like Roppongi Hills or other office buildings, you need to talk directly with the private companies that own them.
"Of course, all these restrictions invariably lead to guerrilla filmmaking. ‘Lost in Translation’ is an example of that. There have been stories that director Sofia Coppola had to negotiate with many people while filming in Shibuya, Daikanyama and on subways. If it’s not to an extreme degree, it will probably go unnoticed and the crew won’t have to run the gauntlet with police. On the other hand, many productions don’t bother and just find it easier to create a set in the US that looks like it’s in Shibuya, such as with ‘The Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift.’ Even Jackie Chan’s new movie, ‘Shinjuku Incident,’ wasn’t shot in Shinjuku. They filmed some scenes in Taito Ward and did the rest in Kobe.”
Taito Ward is one of five regional film commissions that have been actively inviting filmmakers, including foreign ones, to come shoot in their hometowns. The other four are Hachioji, Tachikawa, Hino and Hachijojima. More than 200 films used Taito Ward locations in 2008, the commission said. Some scenes from the recent Japanese film “Twentieth Century Boys” were shot in Hino, where about 70 films are made annually.
The rules tend to be more relaxed in the suburbs than in central Tokyo, added Nakayama. “The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department is very strict on even minor points. Not only that, a filmmaker has to get the approval of local residents. A lot of the time, that is a major obstacle. Even if the filming time is in the middle of the night and no one is being inconvenienced, there have been cases where locals say no to their area being used because the scene involved some wild car chase or heinous crime.”
The producers of this year’s action film “Rain Fall” had to shoot their on-location scenes quickly before anyone had a chance to complain. The movie deals with a Japanese-American assassin being pursued by CIA agents in stations and crowded streets. The filming of one chase scene took place in Akihabara over two days, including a Sunday. A spokesperson for the producers said the crew frantically sought to disperse the crowd as the characters ran through them. The crew then resorted to guerrilla filmmaking, although this tactic also proved extremely difficult. This was due to the fact that if a single person were to inadvertently make eye contact with the video camera, the scene would have to be reshot. Therefore, the scene ultimately went through numerous takes, and each time, the cast could only hope that no one would notice what was going on. Filming other scenes entailed reserving an entire train car of the Rinkai line and using 400 extras, using the former Chiyoda Ward office to depict the police station and ministry of infrastructure, as well as Narita airport for one scene where CIA agents pursue Rain.
Hotels always in demand
Hotels are also favorite locations for filmmakers, especially the five-star ones. “Lost in Translation” has brought the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku enduring fame since 2003. Karina Shima, international public relations manager for the hotel, said, “We continue to receive interest from around the world for filming of scenes for movies, commercials, documentaries and TV programs. As a rule, we are unable to accommodate requests for filming because our foremost concern is the comfort and privacy of hotel guests.
"As ‘Lost in Translation’ was shot after-hours and in confined spaces, filming was allowed. Consent was given upon review of the script, which was felt to be true to the style and spirit of the hotel," Shima said. "The film was shot with a small, lightweight camera on high-speed film that required no intrusive, extra lighting. From the beginning, the agreed time frame for filming within the hotel was short -- less than a month. The crew was downsized to a minimum number and worked quickly and nimbly. Hotel staff members worked closely with them to make the shoot as unobtrusive as possible. All of the filming of public spaces was done after-hours, in order not to disturb guests. In-room filming was done during regular hours.”
The Imperial Hotel is particularly sensitive regarding the usage of public spaces, where to allow such filming would obviously both endanger guest privacy and compromise the ambiance of tranquility, and as a rule, the management declines such requests, said Nacio Cronin, the hotel’s director of international public relations. “Exceptions would be after careful consideration and on a case-by-case basis when the subject matter involves individuals who are or were hotel personnel, such as the recent NHK TV series based our late Grand Chef and culinary world celebrity Nobuo Murakami, where the private shooting were limited to our ballrooms and kitchens, or when the film is one of significant artistic quality and all shooting can be done during the early morning hours without inconveniencing any of our guests.
"In the past, the exterior and interior of the 1923 Frank Lloyd Wright Imperial, now preserved at Meiji Mura near Nagoya, were used by an NHK-BBC team during the 1990 production of the true life story of Scotswoman Mary MacKenzie, titled ‘The Ginger Tree,'" said Cronin. "I also recall seeing scenes of the hotel in the 1960s' Hollywood film ‘My Geisha’ with Shirley MacLaine and Yves Montand, as well as in a more recent Luc Besson Hollywood film, ‘Wasabi,’ with Jean Reno, a few parts of which were shot in the main lobby entirely during the very wee hours of the morning.”
For the Hilton Tokyo in Shinjuku, it depends on the subject matter, said PR spokeswoman Momoko Gonohe. “We won’t give permission for filming of scenes which feature a murder or sexual act in guest rooms. When we do accept filming, we usually charge for one full day and only accept shooting from noon until 8 p.m. Logo items are removed from guest rooms and we ask the producers not to show/use the name Hilton.” Meanwhile, the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo, in Mitsukoshi-mae, will be seen in the upcoming Japanese film “Hagetaka” (Vulture), a continuation of the 2007 NHK drama about corporate takeovers. Hotel PR spokeswoman Chie Hayakawa said: “We usually turn down this type of request, but since the hotel itself is featured in the story as it is (ie, the best luxury hotel in town), and the drama has a high profile with a good story, we said OK.”
Increasingly, more foreign filmmakers are being attracted to a different side of Tokyo -- its neon-drenched streets, pachinko parlors, markets, love hotels, clubs and neighborhood noodle bars, as seen in films such as “The Ramen Girl” (2008) and the upcoming “Map of the Sounds of Tokyo,” by Spanish director Isabel Coixet. Starring Rinko Kikuchi and Sergi Lopez, “Map” tells the story of Ryu ( Kikuchi), a Tsukiji fish-market worker and occasional contract killer, who is hired to bump off a wine-store owner devastated by his girlfriend’s suicide. While indie films like “Map” will continue to be made in Tokyo, big Hollywood productions seem unlikely. When Tom Cruise was in Japan in 2006 to promote “Mission: Impossible 3,” he expressed a desire to film in Tokyo. During a meeting with the then transport minister, Cruise said: “I’d like to shoot a future movie in downtown Tokyo for a week. Just at night. It would be an unbelievable sequence.” Now that would be an impossible mission.
Foreign movies filmed in Tokyo … or which we thought were filmed in Tokyo
Walk Don’t Run, 1966 Cary Grant, in his last film, traipses through the Hotel Okura and around Toranomon during the Tokyo Olympics. You Only Live Twice, 1967 James Bond visits the Hotel New Otani, sumo, Marunouchi subway line and Yoyogi. The Yakuza, 1975 Robert Mitchum takes on the title gang in between visits to coffeehouses, pubs and kendo schools. Gung Ho, 1986 Cocky American Michael Keaton goes to Tokyo at the start of the movie to convince an auto company to open a factory in his city. While there, he experiences the joys of sleeping in a capsule hotel, sashimi, rice paddies and the bullet train. Tokyo Pop, 1988 A punk rocker (Carrie Hamilton) heads to Japan in search of celebrity amid karaoke lounges in Shinjuku, Shibuya and Shinjuku. Wasabi, 2001 Jean Reno is the French cop who goes to Tokyo for the reading of an old girlfriend’s will and learns that he has a daughter he never knew about, with visits to the Imperial Hotel, clubs and Harumi passenger ship terminal, among other locations. Lost in Translation, 2003 Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson form a friendship at the Park Hyatt, in Shibuya and Daikanyama. Kill Bill Vol 1, 2003 Uma Thurman travels to Tokyo to take revenge on yakuza boss Lucy Liu and 88 goons at the Japanese restaurant House of Blue Leaves (modeled on Gonpachi, but alas, recreated in a Beijing studio), with only some outdoor driving scenes filmed in Tokyo. The Grudge, 2004 Sarah Michelle Gellar is an American nurse living in a haunted house in Aoyama (and Toho Studios in Nerima). Babel, 2006 One-third of the movie deals with a sexually confused mute teenage girl (Rinko Kikuchi), with scenes filmed in Shibuya’s J-Pop Café, Shinjuku and on the illuminated Chuo-Ohashi. The Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, 2006 Lots of drift-racing on the streets of Tokyo at night, except it’s really the magic of special effects. The Ramen Girl, 2008 Brittany Murphy, dumped by her boyfriend and stranded in Tokyo, gets some tips on life and noodles from tyrannical ramen chef Toshiyuki Nishida. Rain Fall, 2009 CIA agents chase a Japanese-American assassin in Akihabara, on the subway and at Narita.© Japan Today