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written as part of SAKKA Column

By Mark Schilling

Pre-pandemic, the Japanese film industry was releasing more than 600 films every year, reaching an all-time high of 689 in 2019, according to figures compiled by Eiren (Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan). Since the start of pandemic, however, that number has plunged, with 506 Japanese films opening in 2020 and 490 in 2021. Nonetheless, compared to the early 1990s, when local releases hovered around the 200 mark and doomsayers were predicting that they might someday fall to zero, these totals are still quite large.

But no one in the industry thinks its current state is anything like the so-called Golden Age of the 1950s and early 1960s, when major studios were churning out double features every week and movies sat atop the entertainment pyramid.

For one thing, indie films, which hardly existed then, now account for the majority of production, the percentage varying depending on the definition of ‘indie.’ One gauge is the number of films that earn JPY 1 billion ($7.4 million) or more, the traditional measure of a commercial hit in Japan. In 2021, 32 Japanese films, or 16 percent of the total, met or exceed that benchmark, nearly all of which were released by major distributors.

These distributors also had underperforming titles but the majority of the films finishing under the JPY 1 billion mark were indies, by almost any measure. Despite an occasional breakout smash like “One Cut of the Dead,” the zombie comedy that opened on two Tokyo screens but went on to earn JPY 3.12 billion ($23 million) after vastly increasing its screen count, indie films generally play in far fewer venues than the commercial competition and rarely challenge it for the box office summit.

Abroad the situation is somewhat different. Many foreign festivals actively seek out up-and-coming directors and judge films more on their artistic merits than commercial appeal. Indie films are their preference, not fall back.

happy hour
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s 5-hour epic “Happy Hour” was widely recognized by international festivals

Nonetheless, the number of Japanese indie films that play widely on the international festival circuit, and achieve some sort of overseas recognition in the form of prizes or critical acclaim, is quite small.

As the Japanese film advisor to the Udine Far East Film Festival, which screens nearly 70 new films from East and Southeast Asia annually at its venues in Udine, Italy, I have seen the selection process evolve firsthand since our second edition in 2000. (The first edition, in 1999, screened only films from Hong Kong.)

For several years now, we have been awarding a prize for first-time directors, called the White Mulberry Award, selected by a jury. Consequently, advisors for all territories are now on the lookout for films by new talents, though the festival’s focus has always been on popular Asian cinema, including comedies, dramas and actioners that sell millions of tickets.

Melancholic FEFF
“Melancholic” won the White Mulberry Award at the Udine FEFF in 2019 (director Seiji Tanaka and producer Yoji Minagawa)

But Udine FEFF has also widened its net from major territories like Japan, South Korea, China and Hong Kong to nearly every country in the region, while keeping its programming slots nearly the same. This means that number of new Japanese films shown in the main competition for our three audience awards has shrunk slightly, with eight being screened this year. One, Kawawada Emma’s “My Small Land,” qualified for the White Mulberry Award, while others could be called ‘indie,’ such as Nagasawa Ryutaro’s “One Day You Will Reach the Sea” and Katayama Shinzo’s “Missing.”

In the course of our selection process, which begins in the summer before our late April start date, we evaluate dozens of films from Japan, from releases by well-known directors to first features by young talent. Inevitably, films in the former group get priority consideration. Also, films by first-timers that premiere in major festivals such as Rotterdam and Berlin and are represented by established industry players tend to move into the ‘must see’ queue. (Films that are submitted to Cannes, which starts shortly after Udine ends, are out of reach by definition.)

That was the case with “My Small Land,” which had its world premiere in the Generation section at Berlin and was on the slate of Gaga, a major distributor and sales company that releases the films of Koreeda Hirokazu in Japan.

This doesn’t mean that Kawawada’s film had some sort of automatic ‘in’ because of these connections: The drama about a mixed-race girl in Tokyo whose Kurdish father is arrested for a visa violation deserved consideration on its own considerable merits, and proved to be popular with the Udine FEFF audience.

Another example is “Plan 75,” a film by a first-time director, Hayakawa Chie. Producers Eiko Mizuno-Gray and Jason Gray of Loaded Films not only shepherded the film though project markets, beginning with Focus Asia in Udine, but also assembled a multi-national team that included the Paris-based Urban Factory for production and its sister company Urban Sales for international sales and distribution. And Hayakawa herself workshopped the script at the Sundance Institute and elsewhere.

One result was a larger budget and higher production values than typical for an arthouse film by a new director in Japan. Another was a world premiere screening in the 2021 Cannes Un Certain Regard section, as well as a Special Mention from the jury.

Cannes Film Festival 2022

Again, this dystopian drama set in a near-future Japan where the state operates a ‘voluntary’ euthanasia program for the elderly had a timeliness and unsettling power that made it compelling viewing, but its French connections certainly did not hurt its chances with the Cannes programmers.

And its succès d’estime at Cannes helped lead to more invitations elsewhere, in a kind of domino effect. That meant fewer slots for indie films without “Plan 75”’s Cannes cachet.

We helped set dominos in motion at Udine FEFF with our screening of “One Cut of the Dead” in 2018, its first outside Asia. Following its rapturous reception by our audience, as well as its win of a second-place Audience Award, the film went on to play at more than 100 festivals around the world.

Interestingly, the film was not submitted by a sales company, but rather suggested to me by a producer with ties to the director. His email, with a link, was short, basically saying ‘this film is amazing,’ but because I trusted his taste, I saw it the day I got it. Immediately after, I told the programming team we had to invite it. The rest, as they say, is history.

So while agreeing that more Japanese indie films deserve to get out into the world, I feel too many are inadequately served by the local industry. Structural changes are needed – Japan lacks the equivalent of government-backed bodies like France’s CNC (National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image) or South Korea’s KOFIC (Korean Film Council) that finance and support local cinema – but so are more proactive and internationally-minded approaches at the company and individual level.

That said, the number of slots at an elite festival like Cannes is not going to get larger, even though submissions are now coming from every corner of the world. And, as noted above, festivals are always on the look-out for the next hot trend or territory, so if films from Laos are ‘in,’ those from Japan move down the list a notch or two.

Sho Miyake’s “And Your Bird Can Sing” premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival

On the other hand, the number of festivals that welcome Japanese films, indies included, has been growing over the past decade. One is Asian Pop-up Cinema, a biannual Chicago-based festival that Hong-Kong-born industry veteran Sophia Wong Boccio launched in 2015, with a line-up that featured both indie and commercial Japanese titles. For her first edition she and her team of advisors (including this writer) selected eight films, while her most recent edition, which ran from March 13 to April 10 of this year, screened twenty, with five from Japan. Examples could be multiplied from around the world.

Often in their programming, however, these festivals go for established names that will sell tickets, as well as films that have won awards and critical praise elsewhere. So more opportunities exist, but competition is still fierce.

With the advent of streaming sites like SAKKA, the window to the world for Japanese indie filmmakers is opening wider, but those who still want the festival experience need to think strategically. That is, not only research where and how to apply, but seek out workshops, project markets and partners that, step by often-laborious step, help make their film stand out from the crowd.

Or, like Ueda Shinichiro, the director of “One Cut of the Dead,” you win the trifecta – festival favorite, commercial hit and critical darling – by sheer talent and a bit of luck. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

You can find more Japanese independent films on our “Watch Now” or “Explore More” page.
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