For those outside of Japan, the first thought many have when it comes to Japanese entertainment is anime, an industry whose popularity around the world is only growing as time goes on. One area often overlooked, however, is the Japanese film industry, where only a few directors like Sion Sono, Kore-eda Hirokazu and Takashi Miike have succeeded in achieving recognition outside of their home country; even then, many of their films are often overlooked. For that reason I welcome you here to the inaugural edition of ‘Your Japanese Film Insight’, a regular series of articles which aims to catalogue past, present and future trends within the Japanese film industry. This column plans to discuss the current state of the industry within Japan, highlight upcoming films from creators of all sizes which showcase the diversity of the industry’s output, as well as shine a light on classic films from the industry’s past. This week, as an introduction to the regular series, I’ll be explaining why the Japanese film industry is worth covering, discuss the upcoming release of ’37 Seconds’, before recommending one of my favorite Japanese films of recent years – one which makes Netflix’s recent release of the 210-minute long Martin Scorsese film ‘The Irishman’ look short by comparison.
Let’s get going.
The Japanese Film Industry is Increasingly Isolationist – Why Discuss It?
The Japanese film industry is both in its healthiest state since the early postwar era and in a worrying decline for relevance on the global stage.
While perhaps a slight over-generalization, it wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that the mainstream of Japanese cinema has becoming increasingly isolated, forgoing potential international success to create cinema that earmark consumer trends and often creating films exploiting produced such trends with safe, committee-led, focus tested successes that exploit well-known local IPs.
Taking a look at some of the biggest domestic cinematic hits of the year showcases a worrying trend seen mirrored within Disney’s increasingly-monolithic dominance of the Hollywood film industry: the rise in studio-led and analytics-influenced cinema over auteur vision. Many major releases rely on name recognition for characters and actors over original ideas and brand-new IPs. October’s ‘Way to Find Your Best Life’ (最高の人生の見つけ方), a remake of 2007 Hollywood film ‘The Bucket List’, heavily featured idol group Momoiro Clover Z within its promotion despite the group’s less-prominent role in the film.
Not only that, as can be similarly seen with how a majority of works within anime and anime film sectors are adaptations of existing work, Japanese mainstream cinema relies heavily on adaptation or continuation in order to encourage audiences to show up. Looking back at some of the biggest titles of the summer in Japan reveals a live action adaptation of Kaguya-sama: Love is War and a story continuation to the hit TV drama Ossan’s Love standing alongside Weathering With You and international successes such as Aladdin as the big summer hits. While this is not to suggest these films lack merit having personally enjoyed Kaguya-sama’s live action adaptation myself, with the exception of films like Shoplifters receiving both critical and commercial acclaim, much of Japanese cinema can feel driven by the same nostalgic forces driving modern Hollywood.
Why even bother discussing the Japanese film industry then? Well, there’s a few reasons. Although anime has been a successful commercial export for the country for years, it is only a tiny proportion of the entertainment output of any given year. There is a common assumption within anime fandom that the most popular anime or manga of any particular moment in time is the biggest media property in Japan, and while not entirely inaccurate it can often be an exaggerated half-truth. In order to understand trends within anime and the Japanese entertainment industry more broadly, an understanding of the complexities and circumstances surrounding the film industry is required.
But there’s more to it than that. As I noted a few months ago during my article discussing Japanese indie movie We Are Little Zombies, even looking beyond the big name successes can reveal a whole host of fascinating creative projects that deserve a chance in the spotlight. Yet aside from names like Sion Sono, Takashi Miike and a few select others, with most being unaware of even these few directors who found international success, such films are rarely discussed within English-speaking media. Views of Japanese society’s supposed ambivalence to things such as the #MeToo movement, LGBTQ+ issues and inequality are also often informed by the failure to bring awareness to the political debates and protest surrounding such issues within the English press, alongside minority voices within Japanese entertainment rarely seeing their work translated and made available to international audiences. Though this has begun to shift, clearly visible with Seven Seas’ success in translating LGBTQ+ manga such as My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness and The Bride was a Boy, that perception still remains, while such voices in other entertainment sectors including film continue to be overlooked.
This is what I hope to achieve with this series: through discussion of high-profile success stories which shed a light upon what Japanese audiences are choosing to see on a weekly basis as well as analyzing and discussing the creative underbelly of the Japanese film industry. The aim of this column is to showcase is to both highlight these minority voices and to discuss filmmakers experimenting with the medium itself to create adventurous and exciting new work that deserves more attention than it receives.
Future Film Focus: 37 Seconds (2020) by HIKARI
While I have briefly brought up this film once before while discussing the slate of Japan-produced cinema making an appearance at the BFI London Film Festival back in October, I want to use this first column to bring attention to 37 Seconds, a feature film directorial debut for HIKARI currently on an international film circuit tour ahead of a streaming release through Netflix currently slated for 2020.
It can often be difficult to judge a directorial debut before release, with no established body of work to reassure viewers that the creator will be able to deliver on their vision. 37 Seconds follows manga artist Yuma, a 23-year old young woman with cerebral palsy, as she increasingly tries to strike independence from her mother’s care and to explore and discover the art she wants to create. In order to do so, she determines she needs to learn more about herself, taking her down a path of sexual and personal discovery.
Within the trailer for the film, we become introduced to Yuma and her mother, a loving, caring yet overbearing ever-present at her side. The support she offers Yuma is contrasted by scenes of Yuma drawing explicit art, exploring the Shinjuku nightlife and examining a dildo she purchased online. This contrast is stark, yet it comes from an increasing desire for independence now she’s an adult and a perception of what this entails, as the story promises to address personal and sexual barriers for people living with disabilities within Japanese society, alongside external attitudes regarding their condition.
Stories like these are what I want to highlight with this column. Movies featuring characters with disabilities have found success within Japan, many of these examples would rarely place a focus on what it was like to live with the condition, or would choose not to cast actors who also had the condition. Not only did HIKARI state in interviews on the film circuit their decision to seek out an actor who fit their character, 37 Seconds attempts to discuss life as a disabled person within Japan from a practical, social and societal perspective, with the obstacles and benefits of living with the condition becoming a central aspect of the narrative rather than an accessory to the story. While 2006 film Song to the Sun (タイヨウのうた) featured a character with xeroderma pigmentosum that made sun exposure potentially deadly, this film mainly utilized this condition to facilitate a romance over portraying the realities of their situation. With a promise to discuss disability in a positive light there are many reasons to be hopeful for this film, only boosted by the praise it has received during its festival tour; 37 Seconds has won awards at the Berlin Film Festival among others.
The news that 37 Seconds will be made available on Netflix can only be considered a good thing here, as it will allow audiences both inside and outside of Japan access to this intriguing debut work that explores life and sexuality for disabled people within Japan. This film will launch on the service next year.
Film Flashback: Happy Hour (ハッピーアワー, 2015) by Ryuusuke Hamaguchi
Alongside discussion of the industry of the present and future via discussions and previews, I also want to look to the industry of the past. There are many incredible films just waiting to be discovered. For this first column, following on from the recent Netflix release of Martin Scorcese’s most recent movie, The Irishman, I want to recommend a film by director Ryuusuke Hamaguchi that makes the complaints surrounding its 210-minute runtime seem petty by comparison: the 317-minute long movie Happy Hour.
Happy Hour was originally released in 2015 and was lauded by critics upon its release, having been rated the third best film of the year by Japanese film critics. Following the lives of four women, Akari, Sakurako, Fumi, and Jun, living in Kobe while one of them begins to go through a messy divorce, the most impressive thing about this film is that no moment ever feels wasted. Every moment is in service of eking out emotional responses from its audience caused be events these women face over its runtime.
This is a slow film, with the opening 80-or-so minutes dedicated to introducing audiences to the movie’s cast and their personalities before events truly begin. Often used are real-time cinema techniques that allow the characters to live in the moment, a workshop the characters attend shown without interruption over the course of 30 minutes. These early moments exist to establish a status quo, an understanding of these characters, their moral compass and ideology, before Jun’s divorce forces the women to re-evaluate their own lives.
While a long film, one which is understandably off-putting to many for this reason alone, its one which succeeds because of this length. Sure, it can feel meandering, at times confused. Then again, so can life. Having encountered other examples of long cinema in the past, this is perhaps the one which stands out the most for the ways in which it utilizes its length not to expand its scope but to shrink it, focusing in on what’s important through an extended runtime. For that, it stands as one of the best Japanese films of recent years.
And hey, if you watch it, The Irishman will feel like a TV episode by comparison!
Happy Hour is available on Blu Ray, DVD and iTunes in the US via Kimstim.
That brings us to the end of the first ‘Your Japanese Film Insight’. Hopefully, through future installments we can bring to your attention more exciting Japanese films and expand your knowledge of the Japanese film industry and the trends which underline it. Are there any films you want to see discussed in the future? Contact me directly on Twitter @socialanigirl!