Monday, December 15, 2008

Inudo Isshin has Zero Focus

No-one seems to have covered this yet, so here's the skinny: Matsumoto Seicho's novel "Zero no Shoten" (Zero Focus, out on DVD in the U.S. from Home Vision) is getting the silver screen treatment again, this time with Inudo Isshin ("Josee, the Tiger and the Fish", "La Maison do Himiko") running the show. It'll be a major entry in Toho's 2009 lineup, with a release set for autumn commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Matsumoto whose works have formed the basis for 35 films to date. The original "Zero no Shoten" film was directed by Nomura Yoshitaro for Shochiku back in 1961, with a script by none other than Yamada Yoji and screenwriting legend Hashimoto Shinobu (who recently rejigged his own scenario for the remake of "Watashi wa Kai ni Naritai" (I Want to Be a Shellfish). Inudo is co-writing the screenplay for the new version with TV scribe Nakazono Kenji, whose sole film credit came from another adaptation of sorts: Miike Takashi's "Salaryman Kintaro".

Here's a synopsis pilfered from the San Sebastian Film Festival, where Nomura's "Zero no Shoten" screened this year as part of their Japanese Film Noir retro:

Teiko, a young newlywed, bids farewell to her new husband, Kenichi, in a Tokyo station, as he leaves to conclude business in Kanazawa, promising to return on December 12. But the 12th comes and goes with no word from Kenichi. Teiko's only clue to her husband's whereabouts is a couple of strange postcards she finds among his belongings. When Kenichi’s employers invite her to Kanazawa to help them locate him, Teiko finds herself embroiled in a complicated mystery.

Film business in the 21st century, part two

In this second instalment of a three-part series (read part one here) on the state of the Japanese film industry, entertainment reporter Kanazawa Makoto gives an overview of the crucial role that the ubiquitous 制作委員会 (seisaku iinkai) - production committees - play in modern day Japanese filmmaking. To be concluded in part three.

Film business in the 21st century
Part two: The pros and cons of "production committees" - a necessity for making hit films

These days it's not uncommon to spot the words "production committee" in a film's credits. This is an organisation in which several investing companies contribute funds for making a film. Major film companies are often involved as are television networks, advertising agencies, publishers and talent agencies.

Its merits are the ease of raising production finance, and the diversification of risk for the investing companies. It can be an effective method of production, as it's hard to tell whether a film will be successful until it's released.

If film companies with their own cinema screens and studios for making films, television networks with the publicity vehicle of broadcasting, and publishing companies that own the rights to original properties all pool their capital, production committees can follow through with the key stages of filmmaking: planning, production, advertising and promotion.

Breaking the oligopoly of the majors: "Kurobe no Taiyo"

During Japan's cinematic golden age that spanned from the 1950s to the mid 1960s, each studio made films utilising the star system. Its greatest sales point was its marquee stars, who made multimedia advertising unneccessary. As prints were distributed directly to each company's own theatre chain, film promotion also operated like an assembly line.

"Kurobe no Taiyo"1, released in 1968, was an attempt to break the status quo where a few studios dominated everything from planning to promotion. The film was a collaborative effort by two major star-owned production companies, Mifune Productions and Ishihara Productions. It became that year's number one box office hit, despite receiving flak from the major studios prior to its release.

The film that made Fuji get serious: "Antarctica"

The 1970s saw the Japanese film industry grow moribund, but in the latter half of the decade Kadokawa Films came up with a new promotional strategy that mixed film and television with publishing2, and revitalised the market. This was taken to another level by "Antarctica", a 1983 co-production between Fuji Television, Gakushu Kenkyusha and Kurahara Productions3. The film grossed 5.8 billion yen in distribution revenue, which in current box office terms equates to a hit in excess of 10 billion yen.

Encouraged by this success, Fuji Television began film production in earnest, and other commercial enterprises also began to sense the big business potential in film production despite its numerous uncertainties.

The production committee system was complementary to the ascendancy of an information-driven society. A film is no longer limited to theatrical release, as there are now a host of other distribution options such as video, DVD, satellite television and even internet and mobile phone streaming.

This way, each company that adds its name to a production committee can profit in various ways whether a film becomes a hit or not, by receiving rights for secondary usage and pursuing business opportunities in their respective specialist fields. Also taking into account the diminished power of film companies to continue to produce films independently, the production committee system has become standard in filmmaking since the 1970s.

The multimedia mix of production committees has also created a scenario where 'films become hits through mass advertising'. Since this scenario came about, there has been an growing tendency to prioritise the development and delivery of films that are easy for sponsors to promote, ahead of the creativity of actors and directors, who are the authors of the film.

As the production committee system has become firmly established, it might be said that films have shifted from being 'productions' made by the people who act in and direct them to 'products' maximised for consumption through multimedia consolidation.

Under the production committee system, there are some cases where investing companies make demands in the interests of making a better 'product'. One example would be when television networks give directives to avoid extreme depictions that would result in an R-rating and other content that could lead to complaints from sponsors when films are later broadcast.

The more that the scale of production committees increases in this way, the more bosses that must be dealt with, as well as the amount of demands they make. In addition to the considerable influence that the expectations of investing companies can have on a film, making sure everyone is on the same page is time-consuming. This can be a burden on the staff involved in the actual filmmaking, and there is also the danger that it could have a negative effect on quality.

A financing ally? Film funds

A new method of raising production finance that is attracting interest is the film fund system. When Shochiku was producing "Shinobi - Heart Under Blade" in 2005, it sought funds from around the country through a fund aimed at film fans and other individual investors, which was a first for Japan.

The 2006 hit "Hula Girls" was also made through the use of a fund. It was intended for projects by primary producer Cine Qua Non as well as around 20 foreign films that it had bought the rights for4. In future, if the industry environment improves and the film fund system catches on, there is also the possibility that funds will become popular with financially-challenged small and medium-sized film companies as a means of creating large-scale productions to challenge the majors.

1: Don't expect to see this epic portrayal of dam construction on DVD, Blu-ray or any other format except film until 2039 when it enters the public domain: its star and producer, the late Ishihara Yujiro, forbade video transfers of any kind out of his desire for people to see the film in theatres. Revival screenings only occur once every few years, and for some nebulous reason, when they do it's an export version edited down from 3 hours and 15 minutes to just over two hours, which effectively means the original cut has gone unseen since its original release in 1968. A CG-enhanced television remake starring SMAP cheeseball Katori Shingo in the Ishihara role and Kobayashi Kaoru (who gave a rivetingly internalised performance in this year's understated but powerful capital punishment drama "Kyuka" (Vacation) in Mifune's part will be broadcast on Fuji TV next spring.

2: The "media-mix" strategy mentioned in part one.

3: Kurahara as in Kurahara Koreyoshi, the filmmaker celebrated in a special retrospective at this year's Tokyo Filmex (read my wrap-up here). "Antarctica" also formed the basis for Disney's 2006 film "Eight Below" starring Paul Walker. In addition, Jason Gray looked at Fuji TV's lack of luck/interest in the international marketplace for a recent blog piece.

4: See JG's piece for Screen Daily for more about the CQN fund.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Film business in the 21st Century, part one

Back in February, the Asahi Shimbun's monthly current affairs magazine Aera put out a special Japanese film issue introducing non-movie-savvy readers to a quite comprehensive selection of their country's active directors. Included was a series of three essays by veteran entertainment reporter Kanazawa Makoto explaining the current state of the local movie biz, which I've been meaning to translate for ages. Fortunately they've remained relevant, so here's the first instalment. Stay tuned for parts two and three.

Film business in the 21st Century
Part one: The advent of a Japanese film 'bubble'? Top dog Toho dominates

In 2006, Japanese films achieved a 53.2% share of the total market, marking the first time in 21 years that their box office takings exceeded that of foreign films. Overall box office revenue was 107.9 billion yen, with that of domestic films alone breaking the 100 billion yen barrier. 417 Japanese films were screened, which is 1.5 times more than 10 years earlier. Consecutively in 2007, local product recovered from a flat first half of the year to take a close to 50% share against foreign films. Going by these figures Japanese cinema would appear to have entered another boom period, but there are murmurs that it's merely a bubble while other voices cast doubts on the future.

Film companies that have ceased production concentrate on promotion and distribution

As cinema complexes with multiple screens have become standard, the overall number of screens is increasing. In 2006 they exceeded 3000 for the first time in 36 years. However audience numbers stayed at the 160 million mark while total industry revenue sat at around 200 billion yen, continuing to remain mostly unchanged. Earnings per film are not increasing.

With the market failing to expand and a large number of films fighting for a piece of the pie, an inequality has also become apparent. Of the Japanese films that ranked in the top ten box office successes of 2006 - "Tales From Earthsea" (4th), "Limit of Love: Umizaru" (5th), "The Uchoten Hotel" (7th), "The Sinking of Japan" (8th) and "Death Note: The Last Name" (9th) - only the latter was not distributed by Toho. Even looking back at box office receipts from 2001 to 2006, 44 of the 59 films that made over 2 billion yen were distributed by Toho, accounting for over 70%.

Since "Godzilla: Final Wars" in 2004, Toho has ceased in-house production and devoted itself solely to promotion. Thanks in part to its takeover of Virgin's chain of multiplexes in 2003, the number of screens owned nationwide by the Toho Group stands at 559 (as of March 1st, 2008), making it the industry number one. Other major film companies are also producing films primarily through the production committee system and releasing them through their own distribution networks, but Toho has the greatest ability to carry out large-scale releases.

Linkages with television stations, hits with adaptations

A characteristic of recent hit films is the technique of massive, intensive advertising campaigns that utilise the broadcasting reach of television networks through their involvement in production committees. Toho enjoys an unparalleled advantage in this area as well. This is largely attributable to its enduring relationship with Fuji Television, from "Antarctica" in 1983 to 2007's biggest hit Japanese film "Hero", as well as its sturdy linkage with Nihon Television for Studio Ghibli's films such as "Spirited Away" and collaborations like "Always - Sunset on Third Street 2".

Such a trend also points to an industry-wide decline in originality. Of the 27 Japanese films that Toho distributed in 2006, only three were not adapted from novels, manga, video games or television series. It feels as if film has taken on the role of processing material emerging from other media into celluloid. Film is essentially a powerfully original medium where creators' ideas are transformed into moving images, but the current situation makes it difficult for popular original cinematic stories and characters such as Godzilla to be born.

Conversely, this trend sees publishing companies and television networks actively participating in film production committees and using Toho's promotional muscle to generate greater buzz for their own products. "Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World" and "Densha Otoko" were huge hits. In 2008, the 2007 bestseller "The Homeless Student" will be adapted for Toho's cinema chain. Due to Toho's successes, other film companies are also producing their own adaptations of original works with audience-attracting potential.

At the same time, the number of multiplex screens is approaching saturation point. Warner Mycal Cinemas Higashi Kishiwada in Osaka closed in February of this year, citing slumping business due to intensified competition and ageing facilities. Its continued operation had become difficult due to the appearance nearby of several cinema complexes over the last few years.

In conjunction with the fierce competition between suburban multiplexes attached to large scale shopping centres, cinema complexes in urban centres have also increased in number. Some say the latter trend has accelerated customer churn away from these suburban multiplexes that have made such a contribution to increased audience numbers.

Searching for a balance between commerciality and creativity

The film industry at large is full of activity once more. But behind this is a model for developing media-mix1 products to secure a piece of the gimmicky 'safe pie'. There is also a strong case to be made that there has been a hollowing-out of quality in films. The power of film companies to make films and their facility for fostering creative talent are fading away.

What will happen if audiences begin to tire of these media-mix films? Despite the effort being put into advertising and promotion, audience numbers will cease to merely remain stagnant if there is a lack of attractive films that harness the intrinsic originality of the medium, such as the works of Kurosawa Akira. In the midst of this so-called boom, it's time for the industry as a whole to get serious and face up to that encroaching shadow.

*1: "Media-mix" is a term commonly used in Japan to describe entertainment properties that achieve a certain degree of success in one medium and are subsequently adapted for other media to capitalise on their popular recognition and maximise commercial gain. Currently, media-mix films are seldom the source of such phenomena and are mostly adaptations of subject matter that has originated from other media such as books or manga. See Wikipedia Japan's extensive article for more.

Sono Sion: metal, murder and 'complicated' situations with young girls

According to Sono Sion pal and Outcast Cinema honcho Marc Walkow in the comments of this post, the "Love Exposure" creator's next film more than likely won't be the lucid dream-inducing drug freakout "Room of Dreams" but instead "an adaptation of a novel about the infamous 'Black Metal murders'". I couldn't track down any details about it on the web, but Wikipedia has this article on the backstory.

I hopped over to Sono's official site and found no info there either, but there was a link to another new project featuring... Avril Lavigne?! Titled "Make the Last Wish", it's described as an audition "dramentary" mixing reality and fiction that revolves around Koike Minami, a fictional young woman competing in an actual talent search to find Lavigne's Japanese "younger sister." The winner will appear on stage with the Canadian pop star and is promised their own showbiz debut. What's most noteworthy about all this apart from Sono's involvement is the casting of several faces from "Love Exposure" in the dramatic portion, such as Mitsushima Hikari as Koike (herself a former teen idol with girl groups Folder and Folder 5) and also Ando Sakura and Horibe Keisuke.

Pedantic linguistic note: Sono spells his first name "Sion" in English, but the Japanese pronunciation is actually Shion. It's quite common for the "shi" syllable to be romanised as "si", perhaps because it's quicker to type ("tsu" is often rendered as "tu" too), but it does look a bit odd when you understand English and Japanese. Also, although it looks and sounds like a nom-de-plume, the official line is that Sono Shion/Sion is his real name.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Ryuganji redux / Filmex reflections

Now that Tokyo Filmex is over for another year and I find myself filled with the spirit of Blue Christmas, allow me to officially reopen Ryuganji for business. Putting breaking news stories into English has become less of an essential endeavour for me since I first began this site thanks to all the cross-pollinating sites and blogs that have emerged, so from now on I'm going to concentrate less on time-sensitive news that everyone else will inevitably jump on anyway and instead turn my attention to translating a random selection of features and interviews, which will hopefully be more edifying and entertaining.

But back to Filmex, which had a touch of the surreal to it for me this year. I help out with translation of the official catalog so I got seats in the main venue beside some of the jurors and other friends of the festival, such as Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Nishijima Hidetoshi and Tony Leung Ka Bloody Fai. Naturally being a big fan of all three I didn't have the nerve to chat them up, so instead I consoled myself with the knowledge that I could have easily put any of them in a rear naked choke. OK, maybe not Big Tony.

First of all, believe the hype about Sono Sion's special invitation film "Ai no Mukidashi" (Love Exposure). This was its big public coming out, and I don't think I've ever been to a screening that generated such palpable excitement; it truly made me feel privileged to be amongst the first in the world to see it. Not only is it a priapic hot beef inoculation against all those flaccidly soppy junai (pure love) films that have drowned multiplexes in smug crocodile tears in recent years, this is the ultimate date movie: take someone you fancy along, and if they laugh raucously and gasp in awe throughout without once pressing the bastard light button on their G-Shock, wait for the lights to go up before heading straight for your nearest marriage registry office (preferably following some appropriately hot nasty coitus). Even if you remain unimpressed by the ribald audacity of Sono's vast yet extremely personal vision, you'll still be forced to applaud his achievement in drawing such fearless and committed performances from his young leads, especially at a time when talent agencies' overly cautious management of their chattels has all but neutered and sterilised commercial cinema. This should do wonders for Sono's reputation and recognition overseas, and Variety Japan even quote him as saying he's currently gearing up for his next film which will also feature a religious cult and will be a Norwegian and U.S. co-production. I wonder if he's talking about this one?

The two Japanese entries in competition were both dramatically sound and skillfully realised, but ultimately let themselves down with unsatisfying endings. Debut director Hamaguchi Ryusuke's dialogue-heavy but engrossing ensemble drama "Passion" focused on somewhat played-out subject matter for young indie filmmakers - the opaque romantic relationships of urban 20-30-year-olds - but managed to engage through the script's evolving characterisations and uniformly impressive performances from the low-wattage cast. Surprisingly attractive cinematography for a talky low-budget project too, let alone a student production (it was Hamaguchi's graduation film for Tokyo University of the Arts). "Nonko 36-sai (Kaij-tetsudai)" (Non-ko) saw Kumakiri Kazuyoshi build his film around recent muse Sakai Maki ("Green Mind, Metal Bats"), who succeeded admirably in instilling a modicum of likeability in a mostly unlikeable character. It also benefits from a great supporting cast, especially Tsurumi Shingo as Nonko's sleazy showbiz agent and ex-husband who still knows the way into her knickers, and Saiki Shigeru as her bad-tempered asshole of a father. Strange though that it seemed to crib much of its final act directly from Mike Nichols' "The Graduate," with a last scene that almost seemed tacked on as an afterthought.

With some creative scheduling I managed to catch all but one of the twelve Kurahara Koreyoshi films which offered a diverse overview of his partnership with screenwriter Yamada Nobuo, his eye-catching aesthetic and his affinity for outsiders, despite working within the restrictions of churning out star vehicles for a major studio, namely Nikkatsu. One aspect of his work that stood out in particular was his often sympathetic, three-dimensional depictions of foreign characters such as gay Korean drummer Ko and the Algerian resistance fighter in the deeply cynical socio-political drama "Warera no Jidai" (The Time of Youth). Its pessimistic forecast for the directionless youth of its era, especially its protagonist's opening narration, could easily be applied to the present and would likely be denounced as "anti-Japanese" by net-ridden right wingers were it released today. In "Kuroi Taiyo" (Black Sun), delinquent jazz aficionado Akira (Kawachi Tamio) puts on minstrel makeup (!) and daubs A.W.O.L. G.I. Gil (Chico Rowland, Japan's go-to cinematic black guy throughout the '60s and '70s) with white paint (!!) so that they can slip by M.P. blockades disguised as clowns. At Akira's favorite jazz bar, the customers are delighted to be in the presence of an authentic negro but treat Gil like a circus attraction, browbeating him into dancing for them. Returning to the dilapidated church where Akira lives just as it is being demolished, Gil is surrounded by a crowd of metal-mouthed housewives and children who cackle at him as he desperately improvises an out-of-tune melody on Akira's trumpet. Shots alternate between closeups of Gil's sad, terrified eyes and the braying, near-identical faces of the locals. It's a brief but extremely evocative moment that perfectly captures Gil's sheer terror and isolation.

Taking the social outcast character to fantastic extremes, "Kaitei kara kita Onna" (The Woman from the Sea) paired its naive Taiyo-zoku protagonist (a young Kawachi) with a vengeful shark-turned-femme fatale clad in a bikini several sizes too small played by Tsukuba Hisako, who would later put her piscine expertise to use in the United States as producer of the "Piranha" film series under the name Chako van Leeuwen. Although the supernatural element of Ishihara Shintaro's original story was rather underplayed and left you wondering what a director like Nakagawa Nobuo would have done with it, its core theme of romance between ill-fated lovers was portrayed with striking eroticism for a film made in 1959. But for me the standout film from the retro was "Gurasu no Joni: Yaju no yo ni Miete" (Glass Hearted Johnny/Glass Johnny: Looks Like a Beast), which will be familiar to readers lucky enough to experience the "No Borders: No Limits" Nikkatsu action collection that has been touring North America of late. With more endings than "Return of the King" as it relentlessly entangles the fates of its hapless characters on the way to an excruciatingly poignant conclusion, this is practically crying out for the Criterion Collection treatment. It goes without saying that Shishido Jo and Ashikawa Izumi are as perfect in their roles as you'd expect, but the real revelation was half-Filipino tough guy I. George, built like a brick shithouse and packing the concealed weapon of a sweet baritone croon. How can a filmmaker get away with suddenly turning an amoral whore wrangler into a sympathetic anti-hero troubadour? Only Kurahara knows.

Four films in the retro featured the luminescent Asaoka Ruriko in her prime, the most powerful of them being "Shuen" (The Flame of Devotion), her 100th film appearance in the space of only 10 years. Today's filmmakers should study it as masterclass in depicting how war affects personal relationships, without an ounce of cynically overplayed pathos or excessive emphasis on national victimisation. Asaoka herself was present at a talk show with festival director Hayashi Kanako following the screening of the Ishihara Yujiro-starring road movie "Nikui Anchikusho" (I Hate But Love). Nikkatsu has a summary of the event in Japanese with photos - note the reverent distance between Hayashi and Asaoka, and the overly powerful lighting trained on her which was apparently improvised at the last minute when panicked staff realised the old-school star would feel naked without it. Although it seemed to last for only ten minutes, Asaoka was in fine form recounting her difficulty performing driving scenes in "Nikui Anchikusho" due to the fact that she had only just got her license and could barely reach the pedals of her Jaguar, consequently scaring the bejesus out of the crew on several occasions including a collision with a camera that left its operator with a black eye. She also revealed that the role of her lover in "Shuen", which was eventually taken by future director Itami Juzo, was supposed to have been played by Watari Tetsuya who was a newcomer at the time and ultimately judged to be too inexperienced for the part (even though it was also Itami's first starring role).

My best of the rest was Johnnie To's exhilarating and exquisitely choreographed pickpocket caper "Sparrow," which will be a must-buy from Eureka if they release it on Blu-ray as they did with his "Mad Detective". I was also thoroughly impressed by "Treeless Mountain" which fully deserved its share of the Special Jury Prize, and it's difficult to believe that its young Korean-American female director Kim So-yong is an art school graduate who learned filmmaking from working on her husband Bradley Rust Gray's own first feature. Its documentary-rivaling realism and powerful yet almost subliminally delivered message suggested favorable comparisons with the work of Kawase Naomi and Kore-eda Hirokazu. Closing the festival on a incongruously heavy and doom-laden note was the Hungarian riverbilly sibling drama "Delta", which might best be described as Bela Tarr meets Straw Dogs with musical selections from Borat's walkman (the rest of the soundtrack is actually as moodily atmospheric as its gorgeously languorous photography).

Although it may lack the 'green carpet' glamour of the sprawling, business-like Tokyo International film fest (do you know of any other major festival in the world that assails its audience with TWELVE commercials from its sponsors before the main feature rolls?), Filmex's inclusive atmosphere and dedication to introducing new talent and supporting filmmakers has enabled it to firmly establish its own unique identity. The festival turns ten in 2009, which is an even more impressive feat when you think of all the others that have come and gone since its inception,

Filmex also helped me break the 100-film barrier for films seen in cinemas this year, which is not bad at all seeing that half were Japanese and I'm not even on any of the distributors' mailing lists for media previews. There's still plenty to consume before oshogatsu too, including "Nightmare Detective 2" (wasn't that impressed with the first one and I've never been a big fan of Tsukamoto Shinya's work, but his films always deliver one hell of a ride), "Oretachi ni Ashita wa Naissu" (another indie from the prolific and constantly improving Tanada Yuki following her major studio debut with the Aoi Yu vehicle "One Million Yen Girl" for Nikkatsu), '60s Group Sounds comedy "GS Wonderland" and Kore-eda Hirokazu's music documentary with Cocco, "Daijobu de aru yo ni - Cocco: Owaranai Tabi".

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Interview: Stuart Galbraith IV, author of "The Toho Studios Story: A History and Complete Filmography"

Kyoto-based film historian and writer Stuart Galbraith IV should be a familiar name to anyone with an interest in Japanese cinema. Chances are you've read his online reviews for DVD Talk and the Daily Yomiuri, or have cracked open an amaray or digipak and consumed his essays, interviews and commentary tracks for the Criterion Collection and others. Of course he is first and foremost a published author of several non-fiction works including his acclaimed joint biography of Mifune Toshiro and Akira Kurosawa "The Emperor of the Wolf," and now he's produced a comprehensive appraisal of one of Japan's most powerful film factories, "The Toho Studios Story: A History and Complete Filmography." Stuart was kind enough to chat with Ryuganji about his experiences writing the book and his opinions on the current state of the industry.

Don Brown: How long have you been living in Japan?

Stuart Galbraith: I moved to Kyoto at the end of 2003, after visiting Japan every few years starting around 1994. My wife's Japanese, and after living in Los Angeles where we'd spend 1-3 months out of every year visiting or working in Japan, permanently moving to Kyoto quickly became more appealing and practical -- while going back to L.A. became a more difficult adjustment each time. Then coincidentally early last year, within a space of about a month, we bought a house, got a dog and my wife became pregnant, so now we're pretty well entrenched.

DB: You've written several Japanese film books to date - what were your reasons for writing a book on Toho?

SG: Westerners tend to have a very skewered view of Japanese cinema, though less so recently because so many Japanese movies are at long last being released on DVD, plus the Internet and YouTube have changed have made all of Japanese pop culture infinitely, instantly far more accessible. Yet when most people think of Toho they still think: Akira Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune, Godzilla movies, and maybe jidai-geki like Hiroshi Inagaki's Chushingura or chanbara like Kihachi Okamoto's Sword of Doom.

In fact Toho's main genre was salaryman comedies, movies starring actor-comedians such as Hisaya Morishige and Hitoshi Ueki, about the white collar workplace. Toho also did Hollywood-style musicals, film noir-type thrillers, women's dramas, spy pictures -- all kinds of movies really, yet almost none of those films have been shown in the west because of our preoccupation with samurai and swordplay cinema in the '50s through the '70s, and then with so-called "outlaw masters" like Seijun Suzuki and exploitation films like roman porno.

What I want to do with The Toho Studios Story is to present to the reader a complete picture, to put everything into context so that they can better understand the methods and the trends during one studio's history. Also and maybe most importantly, I hope the book will generate some interest in these heretofore obscure movies, so that maybe they'll start turning up at retrospectives or picked up by smaller DVD labels and western audiences can finally get a chance to see some of these wonderful things.

DB: Could you talk more about some Toho films or filmmakers that don't have much of a profile and/or haven't been released on English-friendly DVD but deserve more attention?

SG: Boy, where to start? Two filmmakers that immediately come to mind are Mikio Naruse and Shiro Toyoda. Naruse's films are finally starting to become available, but there's still so much out that that remains unreleased, and the situation is even worse with Toyoda. Or Tadashi Imai -- talk about being unjustly ignored! Early postwar directors like Hiromichi Horikawa, Zenzo Matsuyama, Senkichi Taniguchi, Seiji Maruyama -- almost nothing is available in the U.S., and that's criminal in a market where Americans have easy access to every Pokemon movie.

I'd really like to see some of Toho's comedies, musicals, documentaries, and film noir-type films released. Personally, I'm fascinated by other countries' comedy films and stars - Mexico's Cantinflas, France's Fernandel, etc. - because these films, designed mainly for domestic consumption, tend to reflect the culture and the period in which they were made, often more intimately than big prestigious or art house-targeted films. Comparing and contrasting Japanese comedies to American ones, the differences and the similarities of cultures, is endlessly fascinating I think, and I suspect Americans interested in Japanese cinema would find much to like in Toho's best "Shacho" and "Ekimae" movies, as well the later stuff with The Crazy Cats and The Drifters and the earlier films with people like Enoken, Achako & Entatsu, and Tony Tani.

Toho made some of the most interesting World War II films of any Japanese studio, both propaganda films during the war, and interesting postwar movies that walk a fine line between nostalgia and nationalism and tragedy and contriteness.

I think cross-cultural films are also extremely interesting, international co-productions with Toho, or Toho films shot on location abroad. Susumu Hani's Bwana Toshi, for instance, about a Japanese man in Tanganyika (and played by Tora-san himself, Kiyoshi Atsumi), was a big critical and commercial success here in Japan but it hasn't been seen in the U.S. probably since the mid-1960s when it played the "sukiyaki circuit."

DB: What aspects and themes did you focus on?

SG: Well, it's a reference book, basically a filmography, so I wanted to include the kind of information not normally available (or incorrect) on resources like the Internet Movie Database, and to present it in such a way that, in addition to looking up individual titles, readers can also leaf through it page-by-page and note gradual technological changes, the rise and fall of different actors, directors, and genres, and so forth.That's why the films are presented chronologically; it's really amazing what you can learn just by examining a single year of Toho's long history.

DB: How long did it take to write, from inception to completion?

SG: That's a difficult question to answer because I actually started working on it way back around 1998, about the time Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! was released. The project was put on hold during most of 1999-2001 while I was writing The Emperor and the Wolf, then it got sidetracked again as it went through several different book designers and there were other delays. Actually, to give you some idea, when I first started writing it I was saving it on old-style floppies and printing out pages on a daisy-wheel printer! And every few years I had to go and bring it up to date -- the finished book is complete through the end of 2007 -- and the last bit of work I did on it was early this spring, so in a sense you could say it was 10 years in the making!

DB: Were you commissioned by the studio, or was it your idea?

SG: Toho had absolutely nothing to do with the book. At one point I toyed with the idea of selling them a significant piece of it in exchange for the use of lots of photos. I'd have liked to have included one still for every entry in the book - several thousand in other words. But I've also seen the extreme frustration many colleagues of mine have gone through -- Steve Ryfle on his Godzilla book on now his documentary on Toho's special effects films, for instance -- and I don't have his incredible patience and tolerance for such arbitrary idiocy.

DB: Toho are notorious for being very protective of their properties.

SG: I don't think anywhere in the world there's a company quite as perversely self-defeating as Toho, though to some degree this attitude is industry-wide. In Toho International's case, they've got obscenely expensive digs in Century City, a big office in some of the priciest real estate in Tokyo -- I was in their older offices before they moved, but that was huge --and high-priced attorneys on retainer in L.A. I suspect they have to justify all those salaries somehow, yet one suspects the money generated from American sales is disproportionately small. I mean, how money can U.S. DVD rights on The War in Space really generate? But if they can sue Subway Sandwiches for a gazillion dollars they look like they're at least protecting their company's interests, even if most of these lawsuits over the years have been pretty ridiculous.

Incidentally, there's a stark contrast between these front office types and the folks actually in the trenches making the movies. Toho's ever-shrinking studio is some distance away in Setagaya, and many of the older directors, actors and the like I've interviewed over the years live or lived nearby. They were always, without fail, extremely courteous and generous with their time, and always happy to help foreign researchers. It's the front office - people that really had nothing to do with the production of these films we love - that's so meddlesome.

The sad thing is Toho and the other studios are really shooting themselves in the foot. For several years I tried launching my own boutique DVD label, hoping to release some of the very same films I've described, basically movies 50-60 years old probably no westerner ever even inquired about before, and which in most cases their international departments never even bothered trying to sell abroad. I met with representatives from Shochiku, Kokusai Hoei (keepers of the Shintoho library), Toho and others but they all made outrageous demands on the most obscure of movies, as if we were negotiating the rights to Star Wars instead of some obscure Tony Tani comedy three people in the U.S. have vaguely heard of.

I kept trying to explain that the titles I was asking about required the kind of special nurturing someone like myself could provide, but even so you're still talking about DVDs that would in all likelihood sell less than 5,000 units apiece -- actually, probably closer to 1,500 units. Adding insult to injury, on top of the obscene licensing fees some also charge a separate rate, several thousand dollars as I recall, to access their video masters, even though big American companies routinely provide those for free or at cost to licensees. I know. I worked at MGM and was involved in exactly that.

What this means is that only a few companies with deep pockets like Sony or Janus Films can afford to deal with companies like Toho, and that they aren't likely to take chances with marginal titles, even ones of exceptional interest to classic Japanese film fans.

I think also there's a proprietary attitude by the Japanese toward their own cinema, a feeling by some Japanese that, for instance, foreigners can never truly understand Ozu, that movies like that are really for their consumption alone, and not the world's. Here in Japan, you can routinely buy DVDs of Hollywood movies for under 1,000 yen while most Japanese DVDs are ludicrously expensive, usually 4,800 to 6,000 yen apiece. I asked Donald Richie once why he thought Japanese home video labels almost never provide English subtitles on their DVDs, and he had a very interesting answer: "Battaa kusai" ("stinks like butter"). In other words, by putting English subtitles on the disc, you ran the risk of "tainting" it with the whiff of Americaness, a foreigner accessibility, therefore somehow making it less purely "Japanese." I tend to agree with Donald Richie.

DB: The book appears to be a very comprehensive record of the studio's activities - how did you go about researching it?

SG: In retrospect it's kind of interesting. When I started on it back in 1998, my only real options were to go to Japan and buy Japanese-language cinema reference books, while in Los Angeles, at USC's Cinema-Television Library with a friend named Tony Sol, I photocopied virtually every review and advertisement for a Toho movie in the pages of Kinema Jumpo since its inception. I also relied on picture files at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Margaret Herrick Library and my own private collection of studio magazines and UniJapan booklets. Back then I could read a very limited amount of Kanji, mostly common names like Yamada, Tanaka, Yasuda, etc., but relied heavily on my Japanese translators.

Now, ten years later, I'd say about 90% percent of all that information is readily available, at least in Japanese, on websites like Kinema Jumpo's MovieWalker and the Japanese Movie Database. I'm well over the hump of my second "Studios Story" book now and I'm amazed that I've been able to compile the same kind of information probably 10 times faster. And because of both my improved Japanese, such as it is (it's still pretty terrible!), and thanks to the Internet, many difficult-to-read Japanese names are accompanied by hiragana readings, so I can do a much larger percentage of the work myself.

DB: Did you experience any difficulties in writing and researching the book?

SG: The biggest problems with a project like this are things like trying to nail down Japanese names definitively. The producer commonly known as Tomoyuki Tanaka is usually called "Yuko Tanaka" by those that knew him, actor Akira Takarada for instance, because the characters for Tomoyuki can also be read as "Yuko." Which is correct? Oftentimes, there's no way to know for sure short of knocking on the door of the family home and asking their spouse or children.

On some of the older films, even my native Japanese translators couldn't read the title of the movie because the Kanji characters had fallen out of use in the years since, and they'd have to spend several hours on a single title trying to figure out how it was read and what it meant. Other titles didn't translate easily to English. My favorite example of this is a comedy called Showa hitoketa shacho tai futaketa shacho - Getsu Getsu Ka Sui Moku Kin Kin. That translates as "First Decade Showa Company President vs. Second Decade Showa Company President - Monday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Friday," but do you leave a title like that alone or attempt to simplify it and make it more understandable to readers (such as translating the last part as "Open Seven Days a Week"), even if you have to change the meaning a little? I pretty much invariably opted for the more complete and direct translation approach, but these are issues that cropped up all the time.

DB: Toho is still the largest and most successful Japanese film studio, but how has their position in the industry changed, especially in light of the current influence of television companies?

SG: Toho is virtually out of the business of making movies. Back in the late-1950s and early-'60s, they were producing upwards of a hundred movies every year. Nowadays they're making only one or two fully in-house productions while owning small pieces of maybe a dozen others, mostly in distribution fees. The New Face system of training and building up young actors, the same system that gave rise to Toshiro Mifune and lots of other stars is long gone, which is why filmmakers are turning to TV non-talent and J-Pop stars like the guys from SMAP. There's no nurturing of filmmakers like Kurosawa and Okamoto who rose up through companies' apprentice programs. That's why there aren't many good films being made in Japan by people under the age of 70.

DB: Is that possibly a matter of personal taste? Could you possibly name any films or filmmakers by younger directors that you feel are worthy of praise?

SG: Partly it's a matter of taste, but when something like Japan's dumb rip-off of The Matrix, Returner, gets four major Japanese Academy Award nominations, it's a sign that expectations have been significantly lowered. Yeah, there are filmmakers out there that I like: Shunji Iwai, Junji Sakamoto, Kokki Mitani, Hirokazu Kore'eda. But I don't think they're necessarily as consistent or as groundbreaking as the great Japanese filmmakers working in the 1930s-1960s, when there was this great big orgy of incredible films and filmmakers. What I meant by that statement was, particularly 10 or 15 years ago, for me the most interesting films were being made by veterans like Imamura, Shinoda, Shindo, Kon Ichikawa and Yoji Yamada. Of course, most of these guys are gone now. And another thing: where the ordinary Japanese program picture of the '50s and '60s was extremely well made for what it was, the same kind of comfort food cinema Japan cranks out today tends to be miserably bad, almost unwatchable. Of course, it could be a matter of taste, and that I'm hardly in the targeted demographic for stuff like Umizaru 2.

DB: How would you characterise Toho in comparison with the other film studios operating today?

SG: As I discuss in the book, big companies like Toho are now huge conglomerates that make most of their money managing subsidiary companies. Toho has their hands in all kinds of things: nursing homes, pet stores, home improvement centers - you name it.

At this point there's really only Toho, Shochiku, and Toei. They're all pretty out of step with contemporary Japan, though Toei maybe less so, just as they've been since the early '70s. Director Yoji Yamada is about the only glue holding Shochiku together; I had to think of what will happen to the company after he's gone; probably it and Toho will become virtually indistinguishable, while Toei might maintain its gangster reputation for another decade.

DB: What about the revived Nikkatsu? They seem to be in a much better position than in recent years.

SG: Maybe, but I don't think its successes are any indication of a major revival of studio-based production. Of course, we haven't discussed anime - and that's the real international success story, and I don't see peaking anytime soon. In fact, I'm amazed U.S. rights to characters like Doraemon and Anpanman haven't been snapped up yet - or have they? I can see each of those becoming monstrously successful with American pre-schoolers.

DB: If television companies continue to be successful in producing commercial films, can what's left of the big four studios continue to justify their existence?

SG: Good question! I guess now primarily they're all trying to find new venues for their film libraries -- probably with Blu-ray and down-loadable movies in a big way over the next few years -- while generating additional income renting out studio space and equipment.

DB: What drives you to keep writing about Japanese cinema? I imagine the amount of personal investment is disproportionate to the financial return at least, so how do you keep motivated?

SG: It is pretty disproportionate, and what motivates me has changed over the years. When I first started writing about Japanese cinema almost 20 years ago, there was a fair amount of film theory-style literary analysis of directors like Ozu and Mizoguchi, but almost nothing in English about the nuts and bolts of the Japanese film industry other than the seminal Donald Richie/Joseph Anderson book The Japanese Film - Art & Industry, and virtually nothing about genre films.

To say that's changed in the years since would be an understatement. There are lots of good people out there -- Chris D, Markus Nornes, Patrick Macias -- who're exhaustively exploring areas of Japanese film that were pretty much virgin territory 20 years ago. Really, now there are so many people writing about Japanese film in books, magazines, and on-line that I really don't feel the sense of urgent obligation I once did.

I'd still like to write biographies or do genre studies, but those projects require time and money to research properly - and there aren't any publishers left offering advances so that the writer can at least break even on the deal. So I'm sort of semi-retired from the field, though I enjoy tinkering with these filmography books for the sheer enjoyment of it, and because it's new and useful information for people who enjoy Japanese cinema.

DB: Do you have any other books or projects on the horizon?

SG: Taschen is still planning to release a book I did that originally was called Cinema Nippon but which has since been retitled Japanese Cinema. It's one of their typically picture-filled coffee table-type books that's being designed by Paul Duncan, who handles many of the cinema history titles. Last I heard, it's released has been pushed back to early 2009.

In the meantime, I'm still plugging away at more "Studio Story" projects. I'd like to finish all of the major studios -- Shochiku, Nikkatsu, Toei, Shintoho, and Daiei -- and maybe a separate volume of major independents like Art Theater Guild within 7-8 years. We'll see.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Kore-eda's dugong-inspired musical documentary

Singer-songwriter Cocco has been a reliable source of theme songs for numerous movies including Anno Hideaki's "Shiki-Jitsu", Kurosawa Kiyoshi's "Kairo" (Pulse), Tsukamoto Shinya's "Vital" and Yukisada Isao's "Toku no Sora ni Kieta" (Into the Faraway Sky). Now she's getting a film of her own, directed by no less than Kore-eda Hirokazu who has returned to his documentary roots to make "Daijobu de aru yo ni - Cocco: Owaranai Tabi".

The project came about through the Okinawan leg of the worldwide "Live Earth" concert project in July of last year, where Kore-eda became inspired by Cocco's performance of her song "Jugon no Mieru Oka" about two dugong that appeared in the waters off the site of a planned U.S. naval base. Here's a clip of that performance from YouTube:

Kore-eda subsequently linked up with Cocco from last November in Nagoya for the start of her "Kira Kira Live Tour," which celebrated the passage of 10 years since her debut. The documentary also closely follows her life on her home ground of Okinawa, and delves into her concern for environmental issues.

Klockworx will be giving the doco a roadshow release, beginning with Cinema Rise in Shibuya this December. (source: Variety Japan)

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Yagira Yuya nearly emulates Heath Ledger

Details are still sketchy, but this morning 18-year-old actor Yagira Yuya was admitted to hospital after swallowing a bunch of pills and suffering an acute drug overdose in an apparent suicide attempt. Fortunately he seems to be OK and is conscious. News reports have been reading heavily into an entry in his official blog dated August 16th where he thanked fans for their loyalty despite his absence from the media since the release of the Tsutsumi Yukihiko-directed film "Bandage Club" last September, and explained that he's been in "poor health" for the past year.

Yagira is best known for winning the Best Actor award as a 14-year-old at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival for Kore-eda Hirokazu's "Nobody Knows," and for not being able to receive the trophy in person due to his school exams taking priority (poor bugger). He subsequently headlined such films as "Shining Boy and Little Randy" and "Sugar and Spice," and also lent his voice to the first "Genius Party" anime omnibus. Then there were the TV commercials he appeared in with his screen mum from "Nobody Knows," You, which feel a bit creepy in the context of that movie:

Monday, August 25, 2008

Django rides into NY and LA

Miike Takashi's "Sukiyaki Western Django" opens in New York on August 29th and L.A. on September 12th, so if you're in the area be sure to check it out. Whatever your opinion of Miike is, this is one film that should definitely be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated.

Shame about the rather non-descript poster that marginalises Django himself (Ito Hideaki) and pushes villain Iseya Yusuke to the fore - and where's the love for fellow baddie Sato Koichi?

Here's an interview with Miike culled from the production notes, courtesy of Rachael Kitchen at Deep Focus:

Interviewer: You’re more of a “dragon generation” rather than a “macaroni western generation, aren’t you?

Miike Takashi: Yes. There weren’t many macaroni westerns in the theaters when I was growing up but they used to broadcast two to three of them every week on television… I can’t tell you how many times they aired One Silver Dollar. My mother used to tell me to go to bed, but I usually stayed up and watched them with my parents. My father loved macaroni westerns and he used to buy me toy guns and pistols. My grandfather was a hunter and used to shoot birds with rifles. So the macaroni western was certainly very familiar to me. But having worked in the movie industry for a long time, I never thought that I would be making something like this as a Japanese film.

I: Neither did we (laughs). How did it come about?

MT: Toshiaki Nakazawa, a producer at Sedic International, whom I had worked with on The Happiness of Katakuris, asked me if there was any project that I wanted to do. That’s when the words ‘How about a sukiyaki western?’ fell out of my mouth. It’s what they call talking through one’s hat, I guess. But it wasn’t totally groundless. When I was a kid, I used to imagine myself growing up to be a wandering gunman. I don’t remember the specific stories but I was impressed with such things as the cool posture of the gunman, the intensity right before the shoot-out, and the dramatic effect of the music that starts after someone falls to the ground. Those kinds of things were imprinted on my mind. And I thought that anything a child can create in his imagination, surely a movie can bring to life.

I think that any other producer would have just dismissed the idea with a laugh but Mr. Nakazawa didn’t. He said it was interesting and went along with the idea. Although he may have said “No” if I had suggested a Sushi Western (laughs).

I: Was it Masaru Nakamura who linked that idea with the Tales of Heike?

MT: As we watched and studied macaroni westerns, we realized that they were rooted in Japanese movies. And then we thought that the root of all Japanese movies is the Taira-Minamoto War. We started writing the script based on that concept. Masaru writes a very literary script, which I made into more of a screenplay by incorporating my ideas on how I would shoot on set.

I: And this time you had it translated to English ….

MT: When you have so many leading men and women as in this movie, it’s a tough job just to give them satisfying answers to all their questions. So, I raised the hurdle a notch so that they’d be too busy to come up with any questions. I thought I could go ahead and quickly shoot the movie while they were struggling with their English (laughs).

But their English is not an imitation of native speakers. Their accent is unique to the Japanese people. It would be interesting if English-language speakers think their Japanese English is cool and start imitating them, then I think we might change something! Japanese actors would be able to expand the scope of their careers. And for Japanese movies, surprising possibilities might result.

I: Unexpected dividends, so to speak… Italy’s macaroni westerns and Hong Kong films were something of that sort, to start with, weren’t they? Did making Masters of Horror: Imprint in English lead you to this film?

MT: Yes, it did. If I hadn’t made Imprint, I don’t think I would have come up with this idea of a sukiyaki western. Maybe not even the idea of making a western at all. Even if I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have been able to pitch it to the producer. The fact that an American producer had said “Yes” to “Imprint” encouraged me.... Although I don’t personally understand English, it was a big thing for me to know that I have people like Nadia Venesse, the dialogue coach from Hollywood and (Masahito) Tanno the assistant director who speaks it, to make up for my inadequacy. Having Toyomichi Kurita, who has worked extensively in Hollywood, also helped a great deal. My directions were the same as usual but when I looked at the result, I was amazed. It looked totally different from any of my films. That is a wonderful thing. You can change by collaborating with other people. That’s what makes filmmaking fun.

I: I certainly felt the change. This film definitely has the same Miike vision but the quality of “blood” has changed, if you will. As a sukiyaki western, while keeping in mind the violence that is associated with director Takashi Miike (laughs), the blood ties from parent to child seem to have become thicker, which relates to you watching macaroni westerns with your father and to playing with your toy guns.

MT: (Laughs) If possible, I want to make this into a trilogy with “Sukiyaki Amazons” and “Sukiyaki Emmanuelle.” I think it would be pretty cool. Quentin said he will invest in it if I would cast him as a sex slave who’s beaten up by Chiaki Kuriyama (laughs again).

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Aoyama Shinji's French short film

Another familiar face participating in an overseas omnibus project is Aoyama Shinji, whose 35-minute short film "Le Petit Chaperon Rouge" screened at the 61st Film Festival Locarno earlier this month. Paris creative centre Théâtre2Gennevilliers and "Demonlover" director Olivier Assayas commissioned Aoyama and two other filmmakers to make short films in the town of Gennevilliers, apparently using local actors and crew.

Delphine is 20. She is too young to have experienced the anarchist activism of the 70s, but for her it is not over. She decides to find something that will enable her to take action, and that, she says, will be to her credit. Directed by Shinji Aoyama, this short film interrogates the connection of political ideas between two eras.

Incidentally, does anyone out there know why Aoyama's 2006 film "Crickets" (Korogi) hasn't been released yet in Japan despite screening at festivals in Tokyo, Venice and elsewhere? Mark Schilling described it as "brilliantly loopy", and with Suzuki Kyoka, Yamazaki Tsutomu, Ando Masanobu and Ito Ayumi in the cast you'd presume it would warrant at least a late show run or even go straight to DVD, but for some reason it's disappeared without a trace...

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Iwai Shunji and Brett Ratner: the new Chan and Tucker?

Shimizu Takashi, Nakata Hideo, Tsuruta Norio, Kitamura Ryuichi... and now Iwai Shunji?! Although he's hardly the kind of filmmaker you'd expect to see directing an American film one day, that's exactly what he's done with an instalment of the omnibus production "New York, I Love You", which will screen as a work in progress in the Toronto International Film Festival's Special Presentations category. Iwai has been popping up in snapshots on U.S.-based producer Ichise Taka's blog for a wee while now, so now we know what he's been doing stateside. Not much is known about the content of Iwai's contribution except that Orlando Bloom and Christina Ricci will star (no idea if any Japanese actors appear). Apart from his 2006 Ichikawa Kon documentary and various screenplay credits under the nom-de-plume "Amino-san", this will be his first dramatic work since "Hana and Alice" back in 2004.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Yoshino Kimika extends her range

Tokyograph inevitably got there first, but I thought I'd add a little more context to the news that actress Yoshino Kimika is going hardcore. Although it's not uncommon for former gravure and teen idols to resort to porn to prolong their lifespan in showbiz (and pay off debts accrued during their bid for stardom), until now the furthest that most recognised actresses facing career downturns due to age or indifference have been willing to go is a nude photo/video shoot, or the scorched-earth approach of a tell-all book.

In that sense, Yoshino has become somewhat of a pioneer as the highest profile Japanese actress ever to go porno. Although far from a household name, she has nonetheless built up a solid filmography that includes the first two "Eko Eko Azarak" movies, Nagasaki Shunichi's authentic karate actioner "Kuro-Obi", and numerous straight-to-video titles. But she's probably best known to readers of this blog as the yakuza moll who gives birth to Aikawa Sho in Miike Takashi's "Gozu", or as the unfortunate bystander that Tsutsumi Shinichi accidentally stabs on his way out of a bank heist in Sabu's "Unlucky Monkey".

Just as gravure idols endeavour to avoid a future in skin flicks by parlaying their physical attributes into acting or celebrity careers, many women who go into porn here harbor dreams of breaking into television and film by following the examples of the few who have made the jump, especially the resilient and now retired TV celebrity Iijima Ai. Among recent converts are Takagi Maria, who was quickly devoured by the dead in Sato Sakichi's "Tokyo Zombie" and now finds regular gigs in television serials; Ozawa Maria, who Jason Gray reports has been cast in "Taiwan's first-ever slasher horror"; and "The Machine Girl"'s Asami and Honoka, the latter of whom has snagged a role alongside Danny Glover in U.S.-Japan co-production "The Harimaya Bridge".

Now that Yoshino and celebrity-seducing specialist AV label Muteki have penetrated the flesh ceiling, will we see more faded thesps tempted by hefty porn pay-days?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Thoughts on "The Sky Crawlers"

If "The Sky Crawlers" is really Oshii Mamoru's stab at making something more accessible and commercial than the challengingly dense and philosophical films we've come to expect from him, then he really needs to get out more. For better and for worse, with an emphasis on the latter, it doesn't stray far from his comfort zone at all.

Europe is at war as corporations vie for territorial dominance in aerial battles, employing eternally young fighter pilots called Killdore to engage the opposition while the detached and unaffected general populace keeps score via television. A new recruit named Kannami immediately impresses his teammates with his deadly proficiency but grows increasingly distracted in seeking the truth about the fate of his predecessor, which has something to do with his aloof commander and former ace pilot Kusanagi.

Instead of delivering yet another anti-war message, Oshii unashamedly depicts the mechanical carnage with his typically meticulous attention to detail and to great aeshetic result, while the considerably less engaging characters struggle with the more personal (or perhaps self-absorbed) dilemmas of their own im/mortality and the meaning of life. It's this gap between the exhilarating technical mastery displayed in the all-too-brief battle scenes and the cold, gravely serious interaction on the ground comprising the bulk of the film's running time that lets it down the most. The photorealistic CG dogfights are visually breathtaking, but it's the equally detailed audio design by Skywalker Sound that truly puts you in the thick of the action. Screaming engines and stuttering cannons rip through the air, then the scene switches to within the cockpit and we experience the pilots' respirator-assisted breathing and the muffled explosions outside the canopy. Even after the camera returns to earth, every rustle of the uniforms and creak of the furniture is imbued with life. Some fine performances by Kase Ryo as Kannami, Tanihara Shosuke as fellow pilot Tokino and especially Kikuchi Rinko as Kusanagi help breathe some much-needed humanity into their less than vibrant animated surrogates, but unfortunately the script largely confines them (and consequently the audience) to an interminable sequence of gloomy conversations and underwhelming revelations. Then there's the gratituitous chain smoking, ostensibly used as a motif for the Killdore's disillusionment with their immortality but might just as well be to give the doll-eyed stony faces something to do as they gaze blankly into space. Somewhat fittingly, due to the protagonists being perpetual teenagers, it makes the film look all the more 'emo'.

Oshii been quoted as saying he'll quit directing if this doesn't succeed at the box office, but after opening in 7th well below the chart-topping trio of Ponyo, Pokemon and Naruto, he could have done worse.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Spoiler: she dies

The concept of a terminal disease tearjerker starring Eikura Nana and Eita sounds tailor-made for the small screen rather than a theatrical feature, but will Hiroki Ryuichi's directing talents be enough to prevent it from becoming just another hankie wetter? "Yomei Ikkagetsu no Hanayome" (bride with one month left to live) takes its story from a TV documentary broadcast on TBS last year that followed Nagashima Chie, a young woman battling with breast cancer (pictured above with her husband Akasu Taro). Filming begins in October with a view to a release in May next year around the third anniversary of Chie's death.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Kanna cast for "20th Century Boys"

"20th Century Boys" now has its Kanna: Taira Airi, a 23-year-old former idol who had two previous cracks at stardom without leaving much of an impression (pics here). As the niece of the story's main protagonist Kenji (played by Karasawa Toshiaki), the character is introduced as an infant in the first film and later takes on a pivotal role as a teenager in the second and third instalments in the trilogy. At the very least, Taira is close enough of a match to creator Urasawa Naoki's original design.

I finished reading the manga a month or so ago, and it's an engrossing but bloated read with an intriguing plot that ultimately leaves a lot of questions unanswered, in much the same style as U.S. TV series "Lost". Tsutsumi Yukihiko, a director known more for flashy visual gimmicks than convincing dramaturgy, and the screenwriting team that includes two TV specialists as well as Urasawa himself and his collaborator Nagasaki Takashi, are suspect choices for making sense of the sprawling narrative and convoluted 50-year timeline that constantly jumps back and forth, not to mention keeping track of its huge ensemble of characters. The casting of comedians familiar from the boob tube in the numerous bit parts (and also gourmand funnyman Ishizuka Hidehiko in the major role of Maruo) raises further doubts about the filmmakers' priorities, but despite some other dubious choices (such as Karasawa being a bit too good-looking to play Kenji and Yusuke Santamaria clearly miscast as the pitiful Sadakiyo), there are also plenty of perfect matches including Toyokawa Etsushi as tough guy Occho and Kagawa Teruyuki as reluctant resistance leader Yoshitsune. This is an all-star cast comparable to that of a Mitani Koki extravaganza, so box office expectations will be through the roof. Just don't be surprised if the potential of the source material is squandered by the familiar TV-influenced school of thought that manga adaptations have to be turgid, hysterical gurn-fests.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Cast update for "Shikisoku Zenereishon"

As mentioned here last week, Taguchi Tomorowo's second directorial effort "Shikisoku Zenereishon" is currently shooting in Kyoto and on Tuesday Stylejam held a press conference to introduce the rest of the cast. Lead character Jun is to be played by minor punk band Kuroneko Chelsea vocalist Watanabe Daichi, who auditioned successfully from a field of 2000. He'll be joined by fellow warblers Kishida Shigeru of the band Quruli (who supplied the soundtracks for Inudo Isshin's "Josee, the Tiger and the Fish" and Yamashita Nobuhiro's "Ramblers") and Gingnang Boyz' Mineta Kazunobu, who played protagonist Nakajima in "Iden & Tity", as well as model/actress Usuda Asami. Cinematopics also has Ishibashi Anna ("Your Friend") listed, although no mention was made of her on Stylejam's blog.

Photo: back row - Usada, Lily Franky, Hori Chiemi, Kishida, Mineta
front row - Miura Jun, Watanabe, Taguchi

Monday, July 28, 2008

"Volcano High" director teams up with "Death Note" screenwriter

While the governments of South Korea and Japan continue to engage in petty squabbles over the Liancourt Rocks, the Mainichi reports that filmmakers from both countries are uniting to combat a far more sanguine issue: vampires.

"Higanjima" is a manga currently being serialized in Young Magazine about a high school boy named Akira and his friends searching for his lost brother on an island ruled by bloodsuckers and populated by various other monsters.

Only director Kim Tae-gyun and screenwriter Oishi Tetsuya (also the script perpetrator for Fukasaku Kenta's "X-Cross") have been announced so far for the adaptation, but Bunka Tsushin say the rest of the cast and crew will be Japanese. Due in summer of 2009.

You can read the first instalment of the manga by clicking on the link at the bottom left of this page.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Nishijima and Kase co-star in "Tonan Kadobeya Nikai no Onna"

How is it that a film headlined by two of the best actors of their generation, Nishijima Hidetoshi and Kase Ryo, is lined up to screen in only two cinemas? And what enabled its 27-year-old female director to cast such big names in her first feature?

"Tonan Kadobeya Nikai no Onna" (The Woman in the Second-Floor Apartment in the Southeast Corner) director Ikeda Chihiro is an alumni of The Film School of Tokyo whose short graduation piece was nominated for the Cinefondation program of the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. After working as an assistant director on several films, she joined Tokyo University of the Arts' graduate film course where she studied under Kurosawa Kiyoshi and Kitano Takeshi. That's quite a pedigree.

Then there's the film's wealth of talent behind the camera, including cinematographer Tamura Masaki ("Lady Snowblood", "Tampopo", "Eureka" and "Sad Vacation"), editor Ohshige Yuji ("2/Duo", "The Mourning Forest", "Then Summer Came"), composer Nagashima Hiroyuki ("Angel Dust", "Eli Eli Lema Sabachthani") and producer Isomi Toshihiro ("Blood and Bone", "Nobody Knows", "Adrift in Tokyo").

September 20th is the date set for opening day at Shibuya's Eurospace with the Kawasaki Art Center in Kanagawa to follow, but amazingly those are the only two screening venues that have been announced so far. Although I can't vouch for the film's actual quality as I haven't seen it and there's no trailer on its homepage yet, I feel confident enough to venture that in a utopian society, this would be playing on more screens than "Boys Over Flowers".

This is what it's all about:

After his father dies leaving behind a mountain of debt, Nogami (Nishijima) comes up with a plan to redevelop and sell off land owned by his grandfather Yujiro (Takahashi Masaya) on which stands an old apartment building. Convinced that it's the only way to rebuild his life, he resigns from his job. However, Yujiro won't even so much as nod his head. He says nothing. As if fearing the damage he could do if he did speak, he remains stubbornly silent...

Nogami's former colleague Misaki (Kase) decides he can't take any more of dealing with his clients' outrageous complaints and suddenly quits his job, simultaneously losing his girlfriend.

Neither life nor work is going well for freelance food coordinator Kyoko (Takebana Azusa). Consequently she can't pay the renewal charge on her apartment, and seeing marriage as the only solution she registers herself with a matchmaking service. The man she is introduced to is the virtually unemployed, debt-laden Nogami.

Lives falling apart, all lacking something, all unfulfilled...

The trio find themselves drawn to Musashino Womens' Apartments, managed by pub Fumito owner Fujiko (Kagawa Kyoko) and standing on Yujiro's land. In the block, there is one apartment for which a key can't be found and thus no-one can enter. Kyoko moves in next door and discovers a hole in the closet wall that divides the two apartments, on which is written: "wishes granted". Skeptically, all three drop their wishes into the hole's vast pitch blackness.

Apartment owner Fujiko has visited widower Yujiro for years in order to care for him. It makes her beam with girlish joy.

Then she learns of Nogami's debt.

Several days later, Fujiko invites Yujiro to go on vacation with her for the first time. Fumito regular and tatami mat maker Roku (Shiomi Sansei) is pleased for them. While Nogami, Misaki and Kyoko look after the pub in Fujiko's absence, he gets pleasantly drunk and raves on about a journey to Africa in his youth and the history of human evolution, lost dreams, and that which he gained from them. The three find themselves entranced by Roku as he cherishingly recounts his many experiences.

The next day, a fierce typhoon moves in as if trying to blow away the old apartment building. In the powerful winds, the storm shutters of the never-opened apartment are blown away. Sneaking in through the window, the trio enter the sodden room and make an unexpected discovery.

Ayase Haruka = breasts

Ayase Haruka has largely got where she is today through restrained usage of her substantial bust, and South Korean director Kwak Jae-Young took this to hilarious extremes earlier this year when he made her bosom the integral theme of his mildly creepy but not altogether irredeemable "Cyborg She", so now she's taken the next logical career step by playing the lead in "Oppai Bare", which I am delighted to translate faithfully as "Tits Volleyball".

Gee willikers, that's just a provocative title designed to conceal another wholesome played-out teen music/sports storyline, I hear you say. After all, the Kaho choir comedy "Utatama" used to be called "Atashi ga Sanran suru Hi - Salmon Girl" (the day I spawned). And of course you're right, voice in my head. Don't be sucked in by co-distributor Toei's press release that kicks off with the line: "Win this game, and teacher will flash her boobs!"

Ayase plays a teacher named Mikako who has lost confidence in the meaning of her work but gets her groove back through growing together with her studentzzz. Aoki Munetaka plays her colleague and confidante Kenji, while Nakamura Toru is a former volleyball player who coaches the school's useless team. Former national womens rep and comedy connoisseur Obayashi Motoko has been brought in to whip the actors into shape. The source material is a novel by scriptwriter and TV writer Mizuno Munenori, "The Silver Season" and "Umizaru" series director Hazumi Eiichiro directs, and the screenplay is by... someone who gives a shit. Shooting began yesterday and it's set for release next February.

Hiroki Ryuichi's "Your Friend"

Hiroki Ryuichi's "Your Friend" (Kimi no Tomodachi) finally opens in Japan this weekend after screening earlier this year at the Hong Kong and Udine film fests, and Mark Schilling attentively tells you everything you need to know about it here. There's a postage stamp-sized trailer on the film's homepage, but you're probably better off with the YouTube one below.

Although recent Horipro find Ishibashi Anna is getting the most attention for her first lead role, for me the real draw is Yoshitaka Yuriko, who displayed her usual talent for scene-stealing in Miki Satoshi's "Adrift in Tokyo" as spacey teenager Fufumi. So far she's performed a succession of supporting turns stretching back to her debut in 2006's "Noriko's Dinner Table", not counting an installment of the omnibus film "Yubae Shojo" based on the works of Kawabata Yasunari, but September presents her biggest chance so far for cracking the big time with the release of R-15-rated "Snakes and Earrings" (Hebi ni Piasu) in which she plays the central character of split-tongue revering body-mod novice Rui. I get the feeling it won't be the vehicle that elevates her to Miyazaki Aoi or Aoi Yu-like status, but she definitely has the potential.

Update: Mr. Schilling gives "Your Friend" a glowing review and an atypically high rating in his weekly Japan Times spot.
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From prosaic to just plain stupid

The Tsumabuki Satoshi-starring South Korean-Japanese co-production "Boat" now has a brand new title (in Japan at least): "No Boys, No Cry". For accuracy's sake, I hope Tsumabuki's drug-smuggling human trafficking character is also a gay rastafarian.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Stills from the set of "Shikisoku Zenereishon"

In Kyoto. That's director Taguchi Tomorowo wearing glasses in the top photo, and Hori Chiemi in the middle one.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The men with the balls to remake "Seven Samurai"

Whatever happened to Nakano Hiroyuki, once a hot property after the success of his self-consciously hip "Samurai Fiction" and subsequently a pariah due to the abject failure of "Red Shadow"? Why, naturally he's been remaking Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai".

For a pachinko machine.

Current Kurosawa Production Co. president Kurosawa Hisao has already been vilified by some for frittering away the rights to his Dad's films and image on sub-par remakes and canned coffee commercials, so this is hardly going to do him any favours.

That being said, just look at the talent assembled: former Kurosawa-gumi members such as costume designer Wada Emi, cinematographer Ueda Masaharu and action director Kuze Hiroshi, as well as this all-star cast:

Nagase Masatoshi as Kikuchiyo
Chiba Shinichi as Kanbei
Fukikoshi Mitsuru as Kyuzo
Musaka Naomasa as Shichiroji
Masato (pretty boy K-1 fighter who's also in Hong Kong beat-em-up "Shamo") as Katsushiro
Taguchi Tomorowo as Gorobei
Tanaka Yoji as Heihachi
Aso Kumiko as Shino

The official site has a bunch of clips that admittedly look quite well-realised, although that might just be thanks to "The Last Princess" lowering the bar for Kurosawa remakes to subterranean levels. This being a Nakano 'film', the soundtrack features the wholly appropriate musical accompaniment of The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction", "Paint It Black" and "Jumping Jack Flash".

I'm not totally down on the guy though - his video for Photek's "Ni Ten Ichi Ryu" matches the song's atmosphere perfectly.

"Ponyo" detractors sharpen their sushi knives

If Zakzak are to be believed, "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea" is unloved by kids and movie hacks alike:

The opinions of film critics and veteran writers who attended previews are split down the middle. Here's a sample of some of the harsher ones:

"Compared to his last three films that addressed environmental destruction, morality and pacifism head-on, its themes of love and keeping promises are important but overly minimal."

"Although it's set in the sea there's no sense of scale, and there's not much in the way of uplift either."

"Kids who are used to greater stimulation will probably go for the "Pokemon" movie that opens on the same day instead."

In fact, even Miyazaki himself has admitted that "the reaction from kids at preview screenings was absolutely non-existent, and he's down in the dumps because he tried making something for kids but failed to hit the target."

Ghibli expert and film writer Abo Yukiko takes an affirmative stance.

"Those who want to argue over content should go and watch one of his other films. 'Ponyo' is almost a film to be savored in its entirety rather than picking over it in your head. Ponyo's subtle movements are delightful, and it illustrates Miyazaki's powers of human observation."

I'm sure if Miyazaki had taken his customary polemic approach with this one, certain media would be having a go at him for his 'inveterate left-wing didacticism' or something along those lines instead. It's also instructive that publications who allow the holders of critical opinions to remain anonymous (or more accurately just make shit up) are often the same ones who love to go off on editorial campaigns against internet bulletin boards because they offer their users the exact same courtesy. Me, I'll wait until the crowds die down a bit before going to see the film, but surely it can't be as disappointing as "Howl's Moving Castle".

Thoughts on "Chameleon"

Despite my better judgement I braved the teeming Marine Day holiday masses in Shinjuku yesterday to see Sakamoto Junji's "Chameleon" at Toei's - or rather T-Joy, their distribution arm - flagship multiplex Wald 9. Located on the upper floors of a trendy department store, it's an absolute bastard to get to on a busy day while you either wait an eternity for a filled-to-capacity lift or impersonate conveyor-belt sushi as you stand in single file on the anorexic escalators. In a crowded metropolis on first-name terms with earthquakes and high-rise fire hazards, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more life-endangering screening environment.

Strangely, Toei didn't present capital dwellers with much of a choice. Although the Fujiwara Tatsuya actioner was released in regional multiplexes throughout the country on July 5th, only three cinemas in Tokyo City's 23 screen-replete wards came to the party. Variety Japan explained why:

...distributor Toei has put together a unique theatre market for it with Tokyo's Shinjuku Wald 9 multiplex as the primary venue. This configuration of cinemas represents something of a new direction for the company, which has worked mainly with theatres specialising in domestic films through a system called block booking, and its outcome will be keenly observed.

In contrast with the growing trend of wide releases spread across an array of Tokyo mini theatres, this set-up involves a combination of Tokyo multiplexes and cinemas owned and operated by Toei as well as regional cinema complexes. Similar arrangements have been attempted before, but the results have generally been underwhelming. This has largely been due to the mismatching of films and markets.

A proper screening environment alone isn't enough to make a dent in the box office. However, what's important to note this time around is that the film that's been booked is well-suited to its release pattern.

Releasing "Chameleon" simultaneously around the country in theatres specialising in Japanese films would have been a tricky proposition, but with a limited market of three inner-city Tokyo cinemas and a selection of multiplexes, it just might be able to fulfil its potential to the fullest. The idea of Sakamoto Junji directing a script written by Maruyama Shoichi for the late Matsuda Yusaku is a perfect fit for Toei. As a contemporary outlaw film, you can sense its high potential.

Previously, Toei owned a distribution company called Toei Central Film and built up its own market of theatres outside those dedicated to local product, generating starring vehicles for Matsuda and independent films to create a new era. "Chameleon"'s close connection to Matsuda ramps up interest even further. In terms of content and promotion, it could prove to be the most challenging of Toei's recent output.

"Chameleon" snuck stealthily into cinemas with relatively little in the way of promotion since its initial introduction in the press months ago (this also seems to have been the case with Kore-eda Hirokazu's brilliant "Even If You Walk and Walk" (Aruite mo Aruite mo), which also opened with minimal fanfare). Perhaps that's partly because Fujiwara isn't seen as an actor who can 'open' a film (regardless of his female fanbase and the success of the "Death Note" franchise), especially not this self-styled throwback to the good old days when men were men and locally-made action films weren't viewed as box office anathema.

Here, as a scam artist with a mysterious past that includes stints as a mafia bodyguard and apprentice mercenary, the flyweight Fujiwara is severely miscast and no amount of back story and hackneyed cigarette posturing is going to transform a rail-thin babyface into a charismatic arse-kicker. Although he only looks convincing when up against someone his own size - who unfortunately happens to be the sole female thug - the action scenes manage to achieve some degree of realism due to their gimmick-free simplicity and chaotic choreography in which no-one is left unhit. Director Sakamoto deserves recognition for allowing the brawls to breathe by shooting them from mid-distance and cutting only when necessary, but it's action director Nikamoto Tatsumi who really deserves the credit. As a veteran of Sonny Chiba's Japan Action Club who became a fight choreographer after catching Matsuda's eye and the man responsible for Kitano Takeshi's "Zatoichi", it's his expertise that brings the film closest to recapturing the glory days of old. Unfortunately the film peaks too early, with its exciting action centerpieces of a warehouse siege and demolition site car chase (you heard me, an actual car chase!) far surpassing the final anti-climactic raid on the villains' lair, for which Fujiwara's character commits the last of his fashion crimes in switching to stunna shades and standard-issue black trenchcoat (the latter is at least justified in the last scene, despite what Twitch's review says).

Direction, script and performances all fall uniformly in the 'adequate' basket and there's nothing here that you haven't seen done recently with more style and originality in Hong Kong or South Korea, not counting its novel assertion that taking several sniper rounds in the back isn't necessarily lethal. Then again, it's not bad enough to make you ask for your money back and it won't lose much in translation to DVD except perhaps from some knuckle-crunching sound effects. I can't help wondering if it could have been improved by casting Fujiwara and the more effective but under-utilised lead heavy Toyohara Kosuke in reverse, but that would only further emphasise its low budget V-cinema aesthetic. Would talent agencies even be willing to take a risk on someone like Matsuda Yusaku today?