I’m just back from my first cinema visit in well over a year! A (badly) dubbed version of Demon Slayer: Infinity Train. Fans of the wonderful Demon Slayer series (on Netflix) won’t need any encouragement to see this, although no doubt it is perplexing to those who haven’t become addicted yet to the adventures of Tanjiro and Nezuko. Its a little below the radar outside Japan, but its been a monster hit, even with Covid it beat all records at the Japanese box office last year.
I’m not here to give a review of it, but suffice to say that while there is nothing hugely original about it, the animation is fantastic, with brilliant characters and a gripping structure.
In the past here, I’ve posted about my huge disappointment with modern Japanese cinema. Not living there, its difficult of course to get a comprehensive overview, but I regularly check out whatever Asian films are released here ( a very limited number) and watch what I can on the annual film festival here. It seems that Japan seems only capable of producing a genuinely top class film every few years, and its usually by Koreda Hirokazu. Its not just in comparison to the past, Japan seems to have slipped far behind South Korea, and arguably other Asian countries such as Thailand when it comes to producing both high brow and popular films worth seeing.
For the past few years, I’ve had very limited viewing of anime and Japanese TV, and while the latter produces some good series (still inferior to South Korean output in my opinion), Demon Slayer has reawakened my curiosity about it, and I’ve been really surprised at just how much is produced (far too much to see even a fraction thats available, even on Netflix let along specialist sites), but also just how good much of it is. Everyone knows about Studio Ghibli of course, but there seems to be a wealth of talent in the many small studios. There seems to be some seriously high quality work out there, much of it well outside the best known genres.
So my question out there to those of you who know more about the workings of the modern Japanese industry – is the problem with modern Japanese cinema simply that anime is attracting all the really talented film makers? Given the huge profits some of the top anime seem to have made, it seems to have a lot of financial muscle right now. Maybe if Kurosawa and Ozu were young film makers today they’d be anime directors, simply because thats where all the money and action is?
It’s a very good question. And as I know fairly little about contemporary anime, perhaps something that I shouldn’t even try to answer. But try I shall.
I’m aware that the range of genres covered by anime is enormous, yet it seems to me that almost all anime that comes my way falls in one way or another into the realm of the fantastic, science fiction, the absurd, or some other genre that isn’t quite where realistic stories about contemporary issues live. It’s not that these works don’t tackle interesting themes, but those themes tend to be more universal or at least abstracted, rather than personal or directly grounded in contemporary social reality. (I am open for suggestions to prove me wrong, of course.)
Not that there is anything wrong with that, not everything needs to be commentary on social or political issues. But considering the extent to which the works of filmmakers like Kurosawa and Ozu were grounded on the issues of the day, I wonder if they would find funding for the stories that they want to tell, or if they would be interested in working within genres that do get funded.
In other words, while anime as an art form makes it easy to tell any kind of a story, from a production point of view it is in a particularly good position at telling certain types of stories, which are more difficult to pull off in live action productions, and which also happen to be very popular among viewers. So, that’s understandably where the money goes. When I look at the trailer for Demon Slayer: Infinity Train, it seems like a good example of this, with its fast-paced action, inventive characters and visuals. While those could probably also be done with live action, I think animation definitely still has an edge in terms of production costs and the quality of the end result.
While it’s impossible to know the answer to a hypothetical, my gut feeling is that the Ozus and the Kurosawas of the day are not working in the film industry at all. Some might be in television, with lower budgets and bigger decision making committees slowing them down. Maybe some are in theatre, with more freedom but less exposure. Or maybe they don’t have an outlet at all, instead working 9-5 jobs and possibly entertaining only themselves with their story ideas. After all, for every Kurosawa that emerges, there are hundreds of other Kurosawas out there waiting for the right opportunities, connections and support. But only a handful in each generation end up in a position to realise their vision and talent. Sometimes it’s due to their drive and persistence. Often times, it seems to me, it’s largely pure luck and circumstances. Which of course doesn’t take anything away from their accomplishments.
I’m only just beginning to get my head around the sheer scale of the modern anime industry, but what has struck me is that there are a surprising number of series that don’t fall into the hero/science fiction/fantasy/ young adult genres. There are plenty of straightforward dramas in anime now. A Japanese friend recommended this one – In this Corner of the World – but I haven’t had the chance to watch it yet.
Vili said: “After all, for every Kurosawa that emerges, there are hundreds of other Kurosawas out there waiting for the right opportunities, connections and support. But only a handful in each generation end up in a position to realise their vision and talent. Sometimes it’s due to their drive and persistence. Often times, it seems to me, it’s largely pure luck and circumstances.”
Talking about luck, we should always remember the story of the failed painter in 1935, wandering the streets of Tokyo in need of a job, who just happened to spot an ad in the paper for an assistant director at a little studio called P.C.L., and decided to answer it… just for the hell of it.
Just to add to my last post, I watched In This Corner of the World last night (its on Netflix). I was very pleasantly surprised – its a sort of bittersweet drama following the early life of a young woman in Hiroshima and Kure during the war years. The animation is gorgeous and the story was very good – it avoided the usual pitfalls of this sort of film of melodrama or preaching, it simply followed the lives of a few very ordinary people in terrible times.
As an occasional military history and architecture nerd I also very much appreciated that the film was so far as I can tell, extraordinarily accurate in its depiction of the period, even down to the finest military details. I would guess that this is one advantage of animation – recreating that world accurately in a regular film would require an enormous budget. I should say that I developed an interest in Kure (a very small place, but the long time headquarters of the Japanese Navy) having accidentally ended up there after buying the wrong ferry ticket. I had to quickly work out how to cycle out of the city to my hotel in Hiroshima without ending up in a tunnel, not an easy task in a Japanese coastal city.
The film does have similarities in period and theme and occasionally tone to Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies, but thankfully isn’t as emotionally devastating as that film, despite it not avoiding the horrors of death (I think thats the one film I loved that I would be incapable of watching a second time). It does actually give one of the finest depictions of the nuclear attack I’ve seen on film.
It does seem to have fallen in the the pit of so many Japanese films in getting such a half hearted distribution outside of Japan. This is one occasion I’m very grateful for Netflix.
It does go some way to confirm my impression that there are far more talented film makers at work in animation than in live action in Japan. I look forward to exploring more.
I don’t know if anime is taking all the filmmaking talent in Japan, but it’s largely where what filmmaking talent there is works.
I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned it, but the live action Netflix show Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories, based on a manga (the source of most serialized anime), is pretty good. I have some Kdrama recommendations too, mostly of the thriller/legal and police procedural variety. Also I don’t generally like zombie movies, but Train to Busan is awesome. And I think I’ve discussed Bong Joon Ho elsewhere here. (I’ve seen Snowpiercer, Parasite and the Host.)
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