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Midnight Eye and the state of Contemporary Japanese Cinema

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    Shintsurezuregusa

    Midnight Eye (midnighteye.com), after fifteen years as “the world’s go-to source for info on Japanese cinema in English” is retiring. I often visited the site to find out about new releases or to learn of other directors that I might be interested in, so it’s sad news for me.

    Midnight Eye has posted a final reflection piece on the last fifteen years of Japanese cinema which visitors here might find interesting. You can read the entire article here, but this is the section that jumped out at me, and I certainly agree with it:

    Much has changed on the Japanese film scene during [the past fifteen] years as well. The dawn of the new millennium was a really exciting time for Japanese cinema, with people like Takashi Miike coming up, J-horror breaking through internationally, directors like Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Shinji Aoyama, Hirokazu Koreeda and Naomi Kawase establishing themselves as new auteurs on the festival scene…

    The situation today is much less dynamic. Filmmaking in Japan has largely polarised, with very high budgets (by Japanese standards, i.e. US$ 10 million or a multiple of it) on the one extreme and no-budget indie (or amateur) filmmaking on the other. Films in the former category seek to emulate the Hollywood blockbuster formula and are produced by “film committees”: consortia of production partners, the majority being television stations, advertising agencies and talent agencies rather than traditional film production companies. Each partner has a stake and a say in the filmmaking and the result more often than not literally comes across as something made by committee rather than artistic vision. It is a type of filmmaking that takes no chances: all the stories are based on hit properties (TV series, manga, novels) and the lead actors are pop musicians or TV talento, while the important share of media companies in the production committees is resulting in self-censorship and/or conservative political stances in line with the policies of Shinzo Abe’s government.

    By contrast, there is still quite a bit of guts and artistic vision on the no-budget end, but that side suffers from a lack of outlook – for the vast majority of young indie filmmakers there is nowhere to grow after they make their first self-financed feature, even if they had their film shown at festivals abroad and picked up a few awards along the way. Self-financing a movie is an exhausting process that you are not terribly likely to repeat (unless you are Shinya Tsukamoto and it’s in your DNA). They can’t go professional either, because there is simply no room for them in the industry: since the collapse of the video and DVD market medium-budget productions have to all intents and purposes vanished, while the production committees of the high-budget films prefer to hire someone of whom they can be sure, which means either a TV director familiar to the network that has a stake in the production or an experienced hand like Takashi Miike or Yukihiko Tsutsumi who already has a track record making hits.”

    I wonder what others think. When did you first really get into Japanese cinema? For me, it was in the late-90s-early-2000s – there were so many great films being released internationally at that time. I haven’t really felt the same way about the majority of films coming out of Japan over the past five years or so (with a few exceptions – Kore’eda rarely misfires) – if they aren’t adaptations of manga or anime then they’re these weird sexploitation Geisha Zombie movies. Most J-Horror movies, post-Ring, have left me more irritated than impressed. These are the films released internationally and generally they’re of a better quality than than the films which only reach a domestic audience; most of the big Japanese “block-busters” have a soap-opera quality about them – mainly because all of the actors are pop-stars. But there is something very superficial and unconvincing about even the “best” Japanese cinema now: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata falls into this category for me, personally, but most others seem to think it is a masterpiece. Is it because the bar is so low now? Perhaps I am just looking back on the past through rose-coloured glasses.

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    Ugetsu

    Leaving to one side animation, I agree completely with that view. Its obviously very hard from far away to keep up with Japanese cinema as only a tiny percentage of releases make it to Europe, but I’ve certainly given up the effort of trying to follow modern Japanese cinema in detail – I’ve wasted too much money on tracking down what look like interesting new film makers, only to be terribly disappointed. Kore-da is the only live action director now I’d be bothered making an effort to see his most recent works. Its not just the general quality issue – I find the depoliticisation of film making really quite odd – I’m finding it hard to think of any Japanese film which is ‘serious’ about contemporary issues. Tokyo Sonata is one film which stands out which made a half hearted attempt, but was so hopelessly inept and naive I actually felt embarrassed for all involved while watching it. I still can’t work out how that film attracted so many good reviews – I think there is still an ‘aura’ around Japanese cinema (when viewed from a western perspective) which allows some mediocre film makers to get away with very poor work.

    I always had a vague interest in Japanese film – always trying to catch the rare releases when they came out, but its only about 8 years ago I started making a serious attempt to find out more and to track down harder to find releases. I had a twin interest – the classic Japanese cinema of the golden era, and also a taste for later exploitation cinema. I loved (and still love) how so many film makers managed to make genuinely good, interesting, and relevant films while working within standard genres such as pinku or yakuza features. I enjoyed the more recent wave of horror (even though I’m not really a horror fan) such as Ringu and Audishion. I did find that a lot of the acclaimed films of the ’60’s and ’70’s went a bit over my head – I could admire them, but I’ve never really warmed to film makers like Nagisa Oshima. Perhaps they just didn’t date as well as some earlier films. But what did strike me comparing the classic era films and later ones is how technically inept many later films are in comparison – straightforward things such as cinematography, editing and blocking seem to have taken a step backward. I assume this is related to budgetary issues and the loss of technical staff due to fewer films being made.

    Hashimotos wonderful book ‘Compound Cinematics’ seems to point to one clear reason – the lack of government action to make up for the decline of the studios by creating a national cinema venue and supporting a non-commercial cinema. I’ve posted before about my issues with auteur theory, I very much believe that good cinema comes from good structures – people like Kurosawa and Ozu don’t arise randomly – they come about because there is a national cinema which allows and nurtures talent. The Golden Age of Japanese cinema occurred because rich powerful studios found it in their interest to promote talent internally and to ensure that they had decent budgets and technical support – so even if the studio heads were hopeless philistines, they could still be responsible for great films. This structure seems to have dissolved in Japan. You have the worst combination of a rigid, ultra conservative system for commercial cinema, with a grossly underfunded independent sector which seems to depend entirely on individuals who manage to self-fund. The result is as described in that article. It is almost a miracle in those circumstances that any good films do get made.

    If you compare Japan to South Korea cinema in the last two decades or so, the former seems to be very staid and unimaginative. I know South Korea went through a major bubble which burst some years back leading to much reduced budgets, but it still seems to produce genuinely world class films. Its also noticeable that South Korean films tend to be highly relevant and political, and are often excoriating about South Korean politics and society in a way which modern Japanese cinema seems incapable (I assume its not just a cultural thing – plenty of Japanese cinema in the late 1950’s to 1970’s was equally daring). A lot of films pose as being daring (such as those made by Takeshi Miike), but in my opinion are quite reactionary, using a certain gloss of satire to give an excuse to shock and titillate – the opposite to what those directors of the better Pinku or Yakuza films of the 1960’s and 70’s were trying to achieve.

    Its not all hopeless of course – Studio Ghibli and other animators show that there are still great artists at work in Japanese cinema, and that they can make films which are both of very high artistic quality and can be commercially successful. But even here it seems that the very best names are dead or retiring. Reading between the lines it would seem that Studio Ghibli is on hold simply because its not clear that there is a younger generation coming through who can live up to the Masters. Its very sad if that is the case.

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    Vili Maunula

    It’s a real pity to hear about Midnight Eye’s retirement, but I can very well understand it. It takes a hell of a lot of time and effort to run a website like theirs, and although Akira Kurosawa info is a smaller venture, I would be lying if I said that I don’t occasionally think about the same option. As long as it stays a passion project, a labour of love, it’s great. But when it starts to feel like work (on top of your day job), you really start questioning how you are spending your free time.

    Hence me sometimes disappearing for a while, to take in a deep breath. 🙂 And not always fixing everything right away — like the smiley system which the last software update seems to have broken. I’ll get to it when I find the time. Bear with me.

    Anyway. I cannot say that I am a huge expert on Japanese cinema, or that I would really keep up with what’s going on there any more than I keep an eye on other national cinemas. It would be fair to say that everything I know about Japanese cinema has been the result of my interest in Kurosawa, and the community here on this website. I also spent a year in Japan in the late 90s, and that pretty much removed any sort of a romantic notion that I may have had with Japanese cinema until then. I went to see plenty of new films that year and saw how the average quality was in no way higher than what was being produced in Europe. Lots of really forgettable films. My only real discovery that year was Koreeda, whose After Life screened at a local cinema with the director holding a discussion event afterwards, and I absolutely loved it. There are only three other films that I remember being quite enthusiastic about: After the Rain (for its Kurosawa connection of course), Oshima’s Gohatto and the now totally forgotten film Poppoya.

    Yet, even with my limited knowledge of the subject, I too would agree with Midnight Eye’s assessment of the situation.

    And I think Ugetsu’s view that the problem has to do with the lack of proper structures is a major part of the problem. If we look at, say, Nordic film, there is a reason that it is Danish and not Finnish or Norwegian films and television series that reach international audiences and attract Hollywood remakes. The production structures in Denmark are much more robust and supportive of a vibrant and healthy film industry. While Finland may produce a Kaurismäki or a Renny Harlin every couple of decades, it requires those people to fight their way up and make do with what limited opportunities there are, rather than being lifted up by supportive structures.

    At the same time — and this is something that I have said before — I think that the last decade hasn’t been particularly good for cinema anywhere in the world. There have been some great films of course, but to me it seems that we are going through a very strongly commercially focused period in film production, as we did in the 60s and 80s as well. The blockbuster rules at the moment, much more so than I would say was the case in the 70s and 90s which, although with their own share of commercial cinema, had quite strong and popular art/indie film scenes as well. I want to believe that an era like that will return again, and that we are just going through a phase at the moment.

    Perhaps if and when the change happens, the quality of Japanese cinema will pick up again and Midnight Eye too will return.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    Hence me sometimes disappearing for a while, to take in a deep breath. 🙂 And not always fixing everything right away — like the smiley system which the last software update seems to have broken. I’ll get to it when I find the time. Bear with me.

    We do appreciate the work you do, so take your time when you feel its getting too much! It doesn’t benefit anyone if you burn out doing it.

    At the same time — and this is something that I have said before — I think that the last decade hasn’t been particularly good for cinema anywhere in the world. There have been some great films of course, but to me it seems that we are going through a very strongly commercially focused period in film production, as we did in the 60s and 80s as well. The blockbuster rules at the moment, much more so than I would say was the case in the 70s and 90s which, although with their own share of commercial cinema, had quite strong and popular art/indie film scenes as well. I want to believe that an era like that will return again, and that we are just going through a phase at the moment.

    I think this is true. There was an interesting interview with Dustin Hoffman yesterday in the Guardian and he made a number of points, including that digital filming may have had a negative impact on quality as it encourages producers to think they can substantially reduce shooting time. It certainly does explain why some modern films seem to have a sort of rushed, unfinished feel to them, almost like they are a first draft. Its been said many times of course, but TV is where its at these days. I don’t own a TV, but on my netflix account I find it far more rewarding to binge watch the best series (currently on Spartacus) rather than watch conventional films. Although I think this is maybe a bit more of an American phenomenon, I don’t think (so far as I understand) that TV drama in Asia or elsewhere is any better than it used to be.

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