Welcome to a special bonus issue of Your Japanese Film Insight and the second part of our interview and chat with Third Window Films CEO Adam Torel. Having touched on the realities of starting up a Japanese film distribution company and the origins of Third Window Films as a company in part 1 of our interview, our discussion moved towards discussing the company’s various co-productions and independently produced films.
Producing your own movies gives you more control over the content and the success, but that doesn’t always make up for the pitfalls and roadblocks that may come up along the way. Such work, particularly within the Japanese production committee system, can be difficult. Alongside that, we touched back on the company’s success with handling international distribution on One Cut of the Dead, the industry more broadly, as well as the what’s next for the company.
Before all that: what does it take for an international company to produce a Japanese film?
Co-Productions and the Issues With Japanese Production Committees
How does a company counter the precarity of streaming? You produce movies yourself and grab yourself a larger share of the pie.
Distributors involving themselves in movie productions is nothing new, since it allows them control over a final product they will eventually release, and this is something Third Window Films themselves got involved with starting at the beginning of the 2010s.
At the time, Third Window Films had found success releasing several of Sion Sono’s films in English like Cold Fish and Love Exposure, putting the beloved Japanese director on the radar of the company for any future licenses and releases. Then the Fukushima 3/11 earthquake and tsunami happened, and the director was struggling to get funding to develop The Land of Hope, a movie that wished to directly tackle the botched government response to the disaster in Japan.
‘I was working with Sion Sono a lot on films like Love Exposure, Himizu, and Cold Fish as a distributor, and they were really, really popular,’ explained Torel. ‘Coincidentally, because they were doing so well, there was a producer in Japan, who was the owner of a talent agency that Sion Sono was in, and he wanted to make this film about the Fukushima nuclear situation, but no Japanese companies wanted to handle that film. So this producer, knowing that I had been involved with the distribution of Sono’s films, came to me and said “do you want to be involved?”’
Alongside being the first movie Adam Torel had been involved with as part of Third Window Films, by acting as a producer, it gave him a seat at the table on that film’s production committee. Unlike Western entertainment products, many Japanese productions, whether movies or otherwise, are typically produced using a committee system, where many companies will contribute money towards a film. In this situation, if a film flops, it doesn’t bring down any singular company.
This is common across the industry, but while it sounds like a good idea in theory, it has its problems. ‘Even if it’s something like an independent film, you still have a load of companies involved with the production of the film. Which is a good idea, unless you know how Japanese companies work. These companies are filled with typical salarymen, even in the film industry. You end up just having loads and loads and loads of salarymen who can’t make any decisions, and situations where they have to ask their bosses who have to ask their bosses who have to ask their boss.’
The result is stifling on a movie’s production and creativity, while it can also be a drain on a film’s budget. ‘Even for a small film, it’s a small team of ten companies, and if it’s a big film, it’s 100 companies that each have a person in the meeting. They all discuss one thing and then they all go away and they come back and nothing has been decided, so they discuss it a bit more. It takes like three weeks just to change the color of a photo! Even for Sion Sono, we think of him as this independent director, but he’s just a director, and works within this system as well.’
‘As a Westerner and as a producer and as a distributor I want to support the director, but in Japan it’s not that simple,’ Torel sighed. Diving next into production on Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats, an indie comedy and the first five-country co-production in Japanese film history, similar issues cropped up. ‘I lost about 10 kilograms during the production, and when we finished filming, I was at the hospital for like a week because it was so stressful.’
With the stress that film committees provided, even if they did offer the chance to directly involve Third Window Films in the distribution of several important Japanese films, these pitfalls in the early 2010s led to the company taking a chance on their riskiest project to date: a 100% solo-funded independent production. That film was 2015’s Lowlife Love by director Eiji Uchida.
Perhaps fittingly, this was a movie about film production, albeit a much more questionable production than they managed on this film. This black comedy explored the shadier sides of the industry and the conditions of zero-budget productions, even being loosely inspired by stories Uchida had seen and heard during his time making films. The film discusses topics like abusive practices and sexual harassment in the industry, all centered on a sleazy man running an acting school he mostly manages so he can get into bed with his students.
It was a significant investment for Adam Torel and Third Window Films, while money was saved wherever possible to keep costs low. ‘I sold my records, and I sold a bunch of my stuff like my furniture and my clothes, then I also did crowdfunding in both Japan and England. We raised the money, and we shot the film in my house and in my local drinking pub with only about eight staff in total. It was the complete opposite of the films I’d done before, but it was also the most rewarding and the most successful.’
Without being held back by the production committee, they were free to experiment on set in a way previous film committee movies hadn’t necessarily allowed. ‘With zero-budget independent films you actually have more freedom to be creative. For example, we had an on-set idea like ‘oh, since this is a movie about making movies, we should make parody posters of films that are about lowlives such as Mean Streets, Eyes Wide Shut, and The Godfather’,’ recalled Torel. ‘So I got the actors on set and I showed them a photo of the Godfather poster, and we took a photo like that and used that to promote the film.’
All of these were far smaller productions than the more recent big-budget example the company was involved in with Tezuka’s Barbara, a return to the production committee on a far larger scale than before. This larger budget brought in big names, such as director Makoto Tezuka, with a cast involving former SMAP member Goro Inagaki alongside well-known actor Fumi Nikaido as Barbara. But while the film was a success (an entertaining and unique success at that), it was still a film where production committees were an issue even before the challenges of working with big-name talent.
‘Just because you have these large names, you have close to ten costume people on set and they’ll come on after every shot to, like, adjust a crease on a shirt. It takes ages to do anything, and you can’t do many shots because their schedules are so tight. We don’t even have time to do rehearsals for the films, and I bet they basically just know their lines and that’s it. They don’t have time to get into character like you see in these major films because they would shoot the film in the afternoon then be sent to do some other press on the night.
‘It’s difficult to have good creativity in that sort of situation.’
Production committees and bringing in major talent for co-productions may seem like good ideas on the surface, but they come with their share of problems even when they help fund productions that would never get off the ground otherwise. This same system of indecision can even be a hindrance when trying to release older, classic movies.
When circumstances present themselves favorably, like with Legend of the Stardust Brothers, it’s great to reach back into the industry’s storied history and give it a new release. But that was a film that flopped on its release in the 1980s and was a simpler proposition in terms of copyrights. It’s not always that simple, particularly when studios and committees aren’t always helpful in facilitating such a release.
’Studios will just sit on these films without any intention to rerelease or remaster them. But if you were to go to them and say, “can I remaster it, can I cover the cost” they don’t let you take the print either. So it’s like, you guys don’t want to do it, but you’re not allowing me to do it either. In one case recently, I had a print of a film that I said, “look, I just scanned this”, and they said no. But now this film is going to die now because it’s never going to be discovered by anyone, and they just don’t care.’
Finding Diamonds in the Rough: The Model That Brought One Cut of the Dead to the World
With difficult bureaucracy, difficult productions, and growing problems due to COVID and digital, why bother with the stress of it all? In the end, a passion for finding independent movies that are worth sharing with the world was the answer I was given. And Adam Torel has been successful in these efforts. The movies released by Third Window Films have helped to shift perceptions of Japanese film away from those late-1990s, early-2000s Tartan Asia Extreme days.
As Adam admitted, part of this shift also comes from a desire from audiences to learn about these films and how awards recognition has changed perceptions of Asian films more broadly.
‘With [South Korean director] Lee Chang-Dong and Burning, I’d released a bunch of Lee Chang-Dong films before and I couldn’t even get them into UK cinemas,’ remarked Torel. ‘Then you have a film nominated for an Academy Award and it becomes massive news. In that respect, I think Demon Slayer is so popular in America right now because it was so popular in Japan, and I think One Cut of the Dead was helped by its story in Japan where it was this $25,000 film that made over $25 million.’
Nowadays, it’s possible to see these films playing in arthouse theaters, even the genre films that were once a hard sell to theaters. Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite and One Cut of the Dead are both some of the biggest Asian films of recent years, and both are genre films. There is an ongoing revival of genre film internationally, but as a subsection of a deep and rich international market where these films have the room to thrive without becoming a sole representative for an entire country. For these films to gain that international recognition, they need curation and distribution just as much as they need headlines.
‘I go to the cinema five times a week and just watch every independent Japanese from out there, and it’s awful. 99% of them are shit. But you find these directors like Shinichiro Ueda, and you get the chance to see his short films playing in the cinema. You see these talents that could become something. With him, I loved his short films, and I approached him when I heard about One Cut of the Dead being made. Then I saw it once it was finished, and I loved it, so I took the international rights and started bringing it to film festivals.’
The story of One Cut of the Dead’s success is a fairytale rarely seen in foreign-language movie distribution, where a small film becomes an internationally renowned superhit. ‘It started getting awards at lots of film festivals while at the same time, in Japan, it’s becoming this big global news story. We had some press issues like the fact that it was bootlegged and put on Amazon and that became a news story too!’
Not that always being the center of the story was a good thing in this case. ’It was very stressful for me because it happened during Christmas and I was at my wife’s house in the countryside. I just spent the whole three days speaking to places like The Guardian, wanting to know how Amazon had pirated a film. But it got the word out in way that normal people who wouldn’t hear about that sort of film were hearing about it. Then with Rotten Tomatoes, the 100% score also helped.’
‘You have films like Shoplifters and [the works of Yasujiro] Ozu and all that, like winning awards. But it’s the genre films that are popular nowadays. And I think thanks to things like One Cut of the Dead.’
Through the interview it became clear that successes like these make everything worthwhile, and the fact that the company was involved in releasing One Cut of the Dead internationally also improved Third Window Films’ profile. More people began to approach the company to aid in bringing their films internationally.
What’s Next for Third Window Films?
So what’s next for Third Window Films? Could the next One Cut of the Dead be hitting international markets in the near future? ‘I’m looking at another one right now called Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes. It’s a very small film, and just like One Cut of the Dead it’s a one-take film, except it’s a comedy time travel movie. We got in very early and got the worldwide rights. In Japan it opened in a 30-seat cinema and played there for three months where it sold out, then it went to the Toho cinemas and ended up getting 20,000 admissions during COVID. It’s not the same level of success [as One Cut of the Dead], but it’s the same sort of story.’
Whether this ends up being a new hit like it or not, Third Window Films has both the plans and the ability to continue to push Japanese cinema to audiences around the world. Alongside releasing One Cut of the Dead: Hollywood Edition in English at the end of the month, Tezuka’s Barbara will see a region-free UK Blu-ray release this June. After 16 years of running the company, it’s fair to say the company has firmly solidified itself in the eyes of many Japanese film fans, even outside the UK, as a major source for independent Japanese cinema.
Through the hour I spoke with Adam Torel, through both the frustrations and joys of talking about the films that defined him and the company over the years, there’s a passion for Japanese film that shines above any complaints he may have about the industry. As soon as our interview was over, I soon found that the interviewer had become the interviewee as I was grilled further on my views on Tezuka’s Barbara, all to help him further understand the film from the perspective of someone removed from the stress of the film’s production.
Beyond a frank and open admission on the stress and toll that producing these films takes, it’s coupled with a desire to bring Japanese film to the passionate fan today, or to please his younger teenage self who was left to rent unknown films from a catalog of names in a Video Search store in Miami. When you reflect on where Third Window Films is today, I can imagine that person would be rather pleased with what he has achieved.
That brings us to the end of this bonus issue of Your Japanese Film Insight. Be sure to check out part 1 of our interview with Adam Torel of Third Window Films, where we discussed the company’s origins and the difficulties of founding and managing a Japanese film distribution company in the mid-to-late 2000s.
As ever, you can find a compiled list of all previous issues over on Letterboxd.
Are there any films you want to see discussed in the future? Contact me directly on Twitter @socialanigirl !