Sunday, July 25, 2010

Kameyama Chihiro: know your enemy

Television is both the savior and the destroyer of the Japanese film industry. Five of the top-grossing Japanese films in the first half of 2010 were TV show adaptations, and it is these productions that have played a major role in bringing audiences back to cinemas and driving multiplex construction around the country. On the other hand, they have done so by ushering in non-cinematic television production values and aesthetics, catering to a subtitle-abhorring demographic that can be herded into cinema complexes with excessive television promotional campaigns utilizing the lure of big small-screen names and familiar properties. To film fans such as myself who view this development with the kind of disdain reserved for fascist dictators and Johnny Kitagawa, the great Satan is the head of Fuji Television's film department, producer Kameyama Chihiro.

The following interview with Kameyama by (Fuji Sankei group) news site Iza on the eve of the release of the third film in Fuji's “Bayside Shakedown” franchise provides a glimpse into the mind that brought you such worthy dramas as “Mt. Tsurugidake” as well as utterly irredeemable abominations like “Shaolin Girl.”

Iza: How do you go about selecting the projects that you produce?

Kameyama Chihiro: Above all, they're TV station projects, so I consider them with a view to future television broadcast. Splatter horror and erotic subject matter are out. We'd never be able to get involved with something like [Nakashima Tetsuya's] “Confessions.”

I: Bluntly speaking, do you have a “hit formula”?

KC: Not at all. If I did have a formula, I'd be creating huge hits with original material. When I heard that Yaguchi Shinobu was going to make “Swing Girls,” I told him, “Comedies with girls are difficult, so you should give it up,” but it was entertaining when I saw it. If there's one thing I have, it's not a hit formula, more a rule of thumb I guess.

I: Using that rule of thumb, what kind of strategy did you come up with for “Bayside Shakedown 3”?  

KC: It's an event film, so this time we didn't hold any public previews, and just gave it heavy exposure on television to stimulate audiences' hunger. This method doesn't come from my knowledge of marketing, but rather it's a way of doing things that developed from my firsthand experience up until now. We created the video series “Kakaricho Aoshima Shunsaku” exclusively for streaming on the Docomo mobile phone network, and hoped that people would think “Bayside's really wild right now.”

I: Originally you wanted to become a film director, and in your university days you studied under Gosho Heinosuke, who made Japan's first talkie film “The Neighbor's Wife and Mine” (Madamu to Nyobo).

KC: Gosho spent his later years in my hometown of Mishima in Shizuoka, so during the summer holidays in my first year at university, I visited him hoping that he'd introduce me to some part-time film job. When I went to his place, he suddenly ordered me to “Go to the second floor and tidy up the bookcase.” He was the chairman of the Directors Guild of Japan, and when I asked him if he'd write me a letter of introduction for presenting to film companies when I started to look for work, he told me: “Film's no good anymore, go into television instead.”

I: Then you were employed by Fuji Television, but what had happened to your passion for filmmaking?

KC: I no longer had any. I loved ATG's films, but as a television professional I banned myself from watching strongly auteurist films.

I: In your fourth year at Fuji in 1983, the company began its involvement in film production with “Nankyoku Monogatari.” What was that like for you at the time?

KC: I looked after Taro and Jiro [the canine stars of the film] when I was working in the programming department (laughs). I wasn't envious of the young film department staff at all. I'd really lost all interest in film itself.

I: Later, the idea emerged of turning popular TV series “Bayside Shakedown” (Odoru Daisosasen) into a film.

KC: Even though I had no filmmaking experience, I bragged that we'd make a film to rank in the top three of [venerable film magazine] Kinema Junpo best ten list, but screenwriter Kimizuka Ryoichi and director Motohiro Katsuyuki told me that wasn't what fans of the series wanted to see in a movie. I came to the decision that we couldn't change the feel of the TV show for the film, so apart from the cameraman we shot it entirely with the show's crew.

I: That was the birth of 'TV company films.'

KC: I asked them to use the same camera angles as the TV show for the first half of the film so that fans wouldn't get confused. I took the stance that it's a film made by TV people, so why not.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Nakadai Tatsuya on screenwriting

At my age, I really don't want to say expository lines anymore! (laughs) Some scripts are full of explanatory dialogue, and they have many scenes where I have to say something just to make the other character say something. In film, silence works much better.
The great Nakadai Tatsuya decries the current state of Japanese screenwriting in the July edition of Eiga Hiho magazine.

Monday, July 19, 2010

"8000 Miles" director Irie Yu: Indie filmmaker wa tsurai yo

I'm sure there are more than a few foreign fans of Japanese cinema (myself included) who at one time or another have harbored dreams of becoming a filmmaker in their own right in Japan. My own such ambitions lasted about as long as it took for me to learn the realities of the industry from people already working in it. This is not a vocation you take on if you want to lead a comfortable lifestyle, let alone become affluent, and yet there are still plenty of young people signing up for film schools, or making their own films on their own buck, out of a sheer love for film.

Irie Yu is one of them. Inspired by the films of James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, he enrolled in Nihon University's College of Art (famous for producing such luminaries as Ishii Sogo, Tsukamoto Shinya, and Fukasaku Kinji among others) hoping to eventually make movies on a similar scale, and supported himself with random gigs such as shooting footage of plankton for the National Museum of Science and Nature.

His independently-produced low-budget comedy "8000 Miles" (a play on the title of Eminem vehicle "8 Mile"; the original Japanese title translates as "Rappers from Saitama") about aspiring b-boys in the boondocks started out in cinemas with the kind of limited late-show release usually given to obscure self-made films that invariably disappear within the space of two weeks.

The response surprised Irie more than anyone. Word of mouth was overwhelmingly positive, boosted by its grand prize win in the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival's off-theatre competition, as well as praise from influential supporters such as veteran Japanese-language rapper and self-styled film critic Utamaru who championed it on his popular Saturday night radio show. Its burgeoning popularity led to it being picked up for screening by other cinemas around Japan, as well as several overseas film festivals, and eventually garnered a best newcomer award for Irie from the Directors Guild of Japan. A sequel, "8000 Miles 2", is currently enjoying a much wider release than its predecessor, and Irie's ultimate aim is to turn it into a long-running series to rival Yamada Yoji's "Otoko wa Tsurai yo".

However, such success doesn't necessary pay the bills, as Irie himself explained in an eye-opening blog entry that offers an insight into the kind of difficulties facing independent filmmakers in Japan today.
Due to insurmountable circumstances, I'm leaving Tokyo after living here for over 10 years.
There are lots of reasons why, but the main one is financial.
The impracticality of being constantly involved in promoting and distributing “8000 Miles” and making “8000 Miles 2” since late 2008 has finally come to a head, making it extremely difficult for me to keep on top of things as they are, such as rent and living expenses.
You could also say that I've totally failed to manage my own situation, but it seems quite amusing (maybe “interesting” is a better way to put it) when looking at it objectively, so I'd like to write a few notes about it and give it some consideration in my own way.

In a nutshell, I have to leave Tokyo because my silly little film “8000 Miles” was “acclaimed” (even if I do say so myself) beyond all expectations.

It's perfectly reasonable to think “Huh? If it was acclaimed, aren't you well off now?”, and even people who are making independent films these days are probably less aware of the reality than you'd expect.
If you're reading this blog and hoping to get a chance to have your self-made film theatrically released, I hope it'll be of some use to you.
(There are plenty of people in the film industry with a background in self-made films, but they don't talk very openly about it.)

Ultimately, the harder you work to have your film shown, the poorer you get.
This is totally unrelated to how the filmmaker and the film itself is received.

So, why are things this way?
I'll describe how it works step-by-step as follows.

At the very least, this is how it happened with “8000 Miles.”
I've measured the financial achievement (FA) and critical achievement (CA) of the film at different stages on a positive and negative scale, and as “8000 Miles” was completely paid for out of my own savings, I've started out suddenly with a negative 100 in terms of financial achievement (the 100 isn't equivalent to a yen amount; it's just a relative figure).

1) The film is set for a theatrical release. I did it!
FA: -100
CA: +10

2) The promotional campaign begins.
I begin making flyers, setting up a blog, fielding interviews etc.
My spirits are running high, so I pay off all the production costs.
FA: -150
CA: +30

3) The film's theatrical release commences.
The reaction is better that expected, and its run is extended.
FA: -150
CA: +50

4) Surprisingly the response continues to improve, and after the film's release is expanded to venues outside of Tokyo, I make every effort to do onstage greetings, radio appearances and the like so that non-Tokyoites will come and see it.
FA: -170
CA: +80

5) The film's reputation grows, and I end up taking it to film festivals overseas.
Meanwhile, I have no time to work because of all the promotional activities, stage greetings and what have you, so I have zero income.
Day after day I find myself burning through the money I need to pay living expenses.
FA: -180
CA: +100

6) About a year has gone by since the film first began showing in theaters and it's still playing, so I continue to promote it in a low-key way.
Distribution of the income from the theatrical release finally begins, but by this point there's been a pretty big timelag since the film first opened.
The payment order is cinema→distributor→(promotions)→filmmaker (me), and on top of that each takes a predetermined share of the profits.
(In some cases, filmmakers don't even recoup half of their production costs.)
On the other hand, the film wins awards which further enhances its reputation, as well as my own.
I realize that my financial situation and critical reception are diametrically opposite.
FA: -150
CA: +150

So, I've simplified things quite a lot here,
but the reality of independent film promotion is that the more you push on with promoting your film, the less you're able to work, and the longer your film screens, the more money you lose.
(Recently, the fact that 'regular' films are being heavily promoted over as short a period as possible and released on DVD as soon as their theatrical run finishes could be because filmmakers want to avoid income losses and delays.)

Plus, with independent films you often don't have famous actors in the cast, so it's necessary for directors to handle interviews and promotion themselves.
There aren't many directors who don't want people to see their films, so in most cases they'll jump at any interview or talkshow offer that comes their way, and travel here and there to drop off flyers.
When a film is well received, actors and camera operators and composers receive offers of other work as a result, but even if they do take up a job on another production, it's standard for the director to remain focused on his own film for as long as it's screening.
Besides, if the colleagues who kindly toiled away on your film for a pittance manage to find other work through its success, that's about the only way a director can repay the favor.
Striving to promote your film as much as possible is also something you do for the people who helped you out.

In my case, I was also involved in the production of another independent film, my latest work “8000 Miles 2,” and have spent about a year and a half (three years if you count the work I put into the first “8000 Miles”) making and promoting it, so its rather amazing that I've managed to eke out a living this long.

So, I think the essence of this situation is that “it's nobody's fault.”

The cinemas who decide to screen your independent film, the people who take a liking to your film and write about it to help get its name out there, the filmgoers who are nice enough to say they want your film to be screened near where they live too, and the film festivals at home and abroad who can only cover transport costs but still want you to present your film in person, are all people who are supporting your film, and their contributions are invaluable to a filmmaker.
Without those people, it's not possible for a film to be seen by a wide audience.
Therefore, if someone calls me up today, I'll gladly go along.

If I was to go out on a limb and blame someone, I'd have to say it's the fault of the guy who passed up part-time jobs and contract work in putting his film's promotion first, namely me.
(The number of film and video production jobs I've turned down since I began work on “8000 Miles,” large and small, is well over twenty or thirty.)
But I don't think there are many directors out there who would normally decline jobs like that if their film was already being screened (that's because they probably would have gone through quite an ordeal to get their film shown).
This systemic problem is something that I think the few directors I know have all experienced, but in actual fact, hardly anyone is aware of it.

Unfortunately, right now don't know of an effective way to solve this problem.
You could say this could be averted by cutting yourself free at some point, but the choice to cease promoting a film that's still screening in order to shift to a new project, or to refuse interviews from media who take more of an interest in independent films than major ones, or to receive payment as a director even though the staff haven't been paid a decent wage, are ones I don't want to make.

That's exactly why I intend to reboot my lifestyle and write new scripts and things, while attempting to change this 'insane' situation in Japanese filmmaking.
Because “8000 Miles” fortunately enabled me to keep making films (I've no idea about the future though) I view this as my responsibility.

So, it's sayonara to Tokyo for a while.

I'll still pop back in whenever I'm being interviewed.
That's because I want my films to be seen by as many people as possible.
Jason Gray kindly provided an update on Irie's situation:
Was told some good news today that Irie's video royalties have allowed him to come back to Tokyo. He's working on a script about a crazy band and their manager. Band is real, film will be a combination of narrative/documentary.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Call him Dragon Ishii

When Ishii Sogo's rickety homepage suddenly went off line earlier this year, I was more than a little worried. As the Japanese filmmaker who has probably influenced me the most, his long lamented absence from the screen since the experimental “Mirrored Mind” had only been tempered by two comprehensive DVD box sets of his earlier works, the result of a long process of regaining rights to these films in order to put them behind him once and for all. He had finally left Tokyo, a city which the Fukuoka native never quite adapted to, and relocated to Kobe to become a university lecturer, a common career choice for established yet financially-challenged filmmakers lured by the security of a regular wage.

Then the welcome news broke that he was now Ishii Gakuryu (or as the man himself has said, "People can call me Dragon Ishii"), and has several new projects on the boil that are actually coming to fruition. Details began to emerge during Ishii's recent visit to Switzerland for a retrospective organized by the Neuchatel International Film Festival, where he was interviewed by film news site Cinema Today. I've excerpted and translated the key info below.
Cinema Today: This year you announced that you had changed your name to Ishii Gakuryu and would become more active [as a filmmaker], but why the name change?

Ishii Gakuryu: Actually, I'd wanted to change my name for a long time (laughs). When I was in my second year of high school, my parents suddenly made me change my name to Sogo [聰亙], and people would often write it with the wrong characters, so I decided to change it at the same time as the announcement of my new projects. I'm fond of the work of Katsushika Hokusai, and he also changed his name several times. I made up my mind on the name change in the same way that bands rename themselves.

CT: Please tell us about your new projects.

IG: I've been teaching a class at Kobe Design University, plus I'm planning to shoot two features and one short based in Kobe, and we're scheduled to start filming.

Until now I've tried to cram everything I wanted to do into a single film, but from now on I want to keep on churning out as many films as possible within the budgets I have, regardless of whether they're short films or features. The people I've taught at the university in Kobe have been developed as the kind of filmmakers that I'd like to work with, and the progression of digital technology has made it possible to keep costs down, so from here on I want to throw myself into making films. One of my feature film projects is scheduled to being shooting in Kobe in mid-October, and the other one, a fantasy, is being set up with a view to start filming in March of next year. At the university I want to cultivate artists with a craftsman-like approach who can function in any situation, so I plan to continue teaching film classes.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Not so much outraged, more mildly disappointed

Another of my Asahi Shimbun translations and yet another piece on Kitano Takeshi, this time on his latest effort "Outrage."

Kitano delivers a beat-down to today's Japan

In February, an autobiography of Kitano Takeshi entitled “Kitano par Kitano” was published in France. It was compiled from five years worth of interviews by Michel Temman, a journalist for daily newspaper Libération, and delves into his upbringing, his views on television and film, his near-fatal motorbike accident and more. A Japanese translation will be released in Kitano's homeland on July 7th, and news site Iza ran a few excerpts which I've translated below. You can always count on the Beat for some tasty soundbites.

I hate computers. Email too. There's a mobile phone in my car but I've never answered it. Take Twitter for instance: it's fine if you're sharing jokes and playing around, but I can't quite figure out the idiocy of treating it as a source of information.

Information comes to you while you're walking down the street. Even if you do your best not to watch television, I think the information that you'll receive will still be correct. But people these days are always searching for information. Because they chase after it, the information they come across seems amazing to them, even if it's no big deal.

It depends on who's putting the information out there. Advertising agencies and lots of different interests go about creating a narrative, where it has to go next and that sort of thing. It allows them to shift everyone from cage to cage like domestic animals. They don't notice that construct creates inequality.

In Japan today, people don't say whether something is dignified or not anymore. When we were kids, we had a sense of shame about lining up at a soba noodle joint or a standing eatery, but nowadays, everyone stands and eats at a furious pace. How did we become so bad-mannered?

Women doing their make-up on the train is a lot like a drunk pissing in a corner, but now they think it's fine to do it.

There are too many business models that trap poor people in poverty and circulate money within that. Whether its clothing or food, if you only buy what's sold cheaply and line up at places that are fast and cheap, you'll never be able to break out of that cycle. Hold back from eating three times and eat once instead. You can eat a 1,000 yen meal slowly to make up for it. It's the same with clothes. People were taught that way in the past.

There's no question that [news regarding] political corruption, or the sumo world's connections with organized crime that have become an issue lately, in other words Japanese society itself, is presented to us like “Hey, hey, check this out.” As much as the media say they take a stand against powerful interests, they're pretty timid towards their own advertisers. Lately that's come out into the open, which I guess is why everyone's got a frosty view of the media.

The film world's in a terrible state as well. The Japan Academy Awards are shared around by the major film production companies, and independent productions are shut out. Even though film critics and journalists have to write bad things [about movies] and give harsh critiques from time to time, film companies now only grant access to people who'll promote and praise their films. They have a strangely cozy relationship with them, and now it's gotten to the point where the whole system is rotten.

Politics is the same. The [DPJ's] manifesto became a talking point when they took over control of the government, didn't it. I said they'd never be able to make the highways toll-free. I asked how anyone could take one look at the people in the DPJ and still think it'd be possible.

[Former prime minister] Hatoyama was like a mayor who says “This town has no need of gangsters” even though things were running well when people were paying them. People who try to become marginally virtuous because they don't have what it takes to be a bad guy all make that kind of mistake. Essentially, politicians are people who can even take the initiative to start wars that could result in numerous deaths, so they're in no position to talk about small virtues. If they want to be a great power for good, they've got no choice but to do the full Gandhi.

It appears as though I'm having all sorts of adventures because I've got things like film, television, and acting to take refuge in. I always think, if I get picked on doing one of them, I can slip away to another bolthole. That just looks like I'm on an adventure.

Since my bike accident, I don't think at all about the amount of time I have left. Even if you told me today that I've only got a month left to live, I have the confidence to go on working and living the way I am. When I was younger I thought for some reason that I'd kick the bucket somewhere around the age of 63, and I've reached that age now, but my career's going well at this point, so if I'm not careful I think I might end up living about another ten years.