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Declining Soft Power Spurs Japan to Re-Galvanise Movie Production

Concerned that its sphere of influence – and domestic audience – is dwindling, the Japanese film industry is actively seeking joint productions and new markets, backed by government incentives and young, outward-looking directors.

Photo: Asian Three Fold Mirror 2016: Reflections – The TIFF’s first ever in-house production.
Asian Three Fold Mirror 2016: Reflections – The TIFF's first ever in-house production.
Photo: Asian Three Fold Mirror 2016: Reflections – The TIFF’s first ever in-house production.
Asian Three Fold Mirror 2016: Reflections – The TIFF's first ever in-house production.

One of the world premieres at this year's Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) was the event's first ever in-house production. This was an omnibus piece comprising short films from three of Asia's most intriguing directors – the Philippines' Brillante Mendoza, Japan's Isao Yukisada, and Sotho Kulikar, a Cambodian filmmaker.

While several Asian film festivals are currently involved in producing omnibus films – including the Hong Kong International Film Festival – this particular project, Asian Three Fold Mirror 2016: Reflections, is unusual in that it serves a strategic as well as an artistic purpose. Co-produced by the TIFF and the Japan Foundation's Asia Centre, the film is a key part of a bigger strategy intended to encourage Japanese filmmakers to collaborate with their neighbours across Asia.

Explaining the thinking behind the project, Kazumi Inami, Director of the Arts, Culture and Exchange Section of the Japan Foundation's Asia Centre, said: "While Japan is still a large market and our filmmakers are satisfied with their activities on the domestic front, our population is decreasing. Inevitably, the market and skills base will also start to decline.

"It's a different situation in South Korea, where they've accepted that their domestic market is relatively small. As a result, they have long been looking to the market outside their own country."

Inami's words pretty much sum up the growing concerns of the Japanese government over the country's declining soft power. While Japan has a thriving film, TV, animation and games industry, over the past decade it could only watch as South Korea became the dominant cultural power in the region, at least in terms of films and TV programming. At the same time, the film market in mainland China has overtaken that of Japan to become the world's second largest – worth US$6.8 billion in 2015, compared to Japan's $1.84 billion.

In a bid to counter this, Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs and UniJapan, an industry body, have recently introduced a series of financial incentives designed to encourage overseas producers to collaborate with Japanese film companies. To date, though, co-production activity has been mostly limited to Europe.

Earlier this year, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a well-established Japanese director, released his first French-language film, Daguerreotype. This was premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and also screened at the TIFF. At present, Japan has a small group of producers that regularly work with European partners, including Bitters End, the co-producers of Daguerreotype, and Satori Films, which recently co-produced Endless Poetry, the latest work by Chile's Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Getting Japan to co-produce with its Asian neighbours, though, has been far more difficult. Cultural differences, individual working practices and the fact that Japanese film studios and broadcasters are still primarily focused on the domestic market have all proved to be obstacles.

Recognising that Japanese studios don't have any real interest in venturing overseas, the government has taken the initiative and – in line with the country's broader foreign policy – has decided to focus on collaboration with the ASEAN nations. As the respective film industries across Southeast Asia are relatively small and at different stages in their development, this has provided considerably more scope for co-operation than has been the case with the highly-developed South Korean or booming mainland Chinese film industries. Indeed, a number of the Korean conglomerates – notably CJ E&M and Lotte – are several steps ahead of Japan, already operating cinemas in Vietnam and Indonesia, while investing in Thai, Bahasa Indonesian and Vietnamese-language films.

Established two years ago, the Japan Foundation's Asia Centre focuses on nurturing cultural ties by organising Japanese film festivals in virtually every Southeast Asian nation, while also supporting the screening of Southeast Asian films at festivals in Japan. Explaining the thinking, Inami said: "The opportunities for Southeast Asian films to be screened in Japan are still quite limited – usually just restricted to film festivals.

"Similarly, while audiences in such countries as Indonesia and the Philippines watch movies from Hollywood, China and Korea, they don't have the chance to watch Japanese films. Our role is to introduce Japanese and Southeast Asian audiences to each other's films."

In addition to screenings and a symposium revolving around Asian Three Fold Mirror, this initiative also underpinned the TIFF's Crosscut Asia section, which focuses on the cinema of a different Southeast Asian country each year. This year, this saw the screening of 11 Indonesian films, including the world premiere of Nia Dinata's Three Sassy Sisters.

Explaining the choice of Indonesia, Kenji Ishizaka, the TIFF Asian Future Programming Director, said: "Indonesian cinema hit rock bottom in 2000 but, since then, a younger generation has come into bloom." In other moves, Ishizaka confirmed that a second tranche of directors for the Asian Three Fold Mirror project is now being sought, with the initiative likely to run annually until, at least, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

While the festival at large was cosying up to Southeast Asia, over at the Japan Contents Showcase (JCS), held simultaneously with the TIFF on Daiba, an artificial island in Tokyo Bay, a number of industry delegates were discussing just why Japanese producers don't work regularly with their mainland China counterparts. While the two sides have made overtures to one another over recent years, to date there hasn't been a great deal to show for it. At the same time, China and Korea have initiated a number of joint productions, although their close relationship has been scuppered – temporarily at least – by Korea's decision to deploy the THAAD missile defence system.

Speaking at a JSC panel, Jeffrey Chan, Chief Operating Officer of Beijing's Bona Film Group, said there are two major obstacles to greater China-Japan cooperation – the fact that Chinese films are not popular in the Japanese market and Japan's own fear of piracy.

He said: "Around 10 years ago, Japan was the world's biggest buyer of big-budget Chinese films – you could make $2-3 million from one deal – then suddenly, around 2006 to 2008, all such films just stopped working. We can't really explain what happened because Japan is a very complex market. As a result, though, we stopped trying to find projects to do together because we couldn't find anything that worked in both territories."

Photo: Your Name: Japan’s box office smash of the year.
Your Name: Japan's box office smash of the year.
Photo: Your Name: Japan’s box office smash of the year.
Your Name: Japan's box office smash of the year.
Photo: Wolf Children: Mamoru Hosada’s anime hit.
Wolf Children: Mamoru Hosada's anime hit.
Photo: Wolf Children: Mamoru Hosada’s anime hit.
Wolf Children: Mamoru Hosada's anime hit.

Meanwhile, Japanese producers remain wary of the high levels of piracy in China. By contrast, Japan has very little piracy and tends to release films in cinemas much later than in other territories. It's also one of the few countries in the world to still have a thriving DVD industry, something that it is keen to protect. Chan said: "Generally there's a lack of trust because the Japanese know their release window is behind everyone else's and that only encourages piracy."

According to a number of the other speakers on the panel, however, there are still many reasons why China should continue to try to work with Japanese directors and producers. For his part, Phillip Lee, a Hong Kong-based Producer, said: "Japan has great IP and a lot of other material we can source apart from just Manga. We just have to find subject matter that works for everyone across Asia."

Lee's words were borne out just few days later when the film festival played host to a press conference by Chinese director Chen Kaige, as part of the promotion for his new film, Kukai, based on a novel by Baku Yumemakura, a Japanese author. Currently in production, the film is a joint venture by China's New Classics Media and Japan's Kadokawa.

In a similar vein, John Woo, the noted Hong Kong director, is currently in Osaka shooting Manhunt, an action-thriller based on a novel by Japan's Juko Nishimura. Although not a co-production with Japan, with the film fully financed by Hong Kong's Media Asia, it is being made using both Japanese cast and crew.

Elsewhere at the festival, a number of screenings and discussion panels highlighted that fact that it is now animation – rather than live-action movies – that is Japan's strongest cultural export. This is despite the retirement of Hiyao Miyazaki, the undoubted anime master. The festival also hosted a session dedicated to Mamoru Hosoda, the internationally acclaimed anime director behind The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Wolf Children and The Boy And The Beast. Much of his renown, it was agreed, stems from the fact he has remained true to the hand-drawn 2D style of animation, rather than adopting the kind of 3D computer-generated animation that is now so popular in Hollywood.

The festival also featured a special screening of Your Name, Matoko Shinkai's animated feature about two high-school students who swap bodies when they dream, a major commercial and critical hit following its release over the summer. The success of the film has led to international critics hailing Shinkai as the new Miyazaki. It was also the top-grossing film in Japan this year, with a box-office of $126 million. It is now set to be released worldwide after being sold to more than 80 territories.

Photo: Endless Poetry: A rare example of a Japan-Chile co-production.
Endless Poetry: A rare example of a Japan-Chile co-production.
Photo: Endless Poetry: A rare example of a Japan-Chile co-production.
Endless Poetry: A rare example of a Japan-Chile co-production.

The 2016 Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) took place from 25 October to 3 November at the Roppongi Hills Arena.

Liz Shackleton, Special Correspondent, Tokyo

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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