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".