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Is anime taking all the film making talent in Japan?

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    Ugetsu

    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?

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    Vili Maunula

    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.

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    Ugetsu

    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.

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    dylanexpert

    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.

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    Ugetsu

    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.

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    lawless

    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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    Ugetsu

    Just to revive this old thread, over the past few months I’ve been watching quite a lot of the anime available on Netflix (its only a tiny percentage of overall production of course) and I’ve been amazed at the quality. Not just in terms of animation, but in script, directing, storytelling skills, even the voice acting. I’ve been watching them side by side with various live action movies and TV shows from Japan and there really is no comparison in quality.

    I’m slightly embarrassed to note that my bias towards older and live action films meant I missed out some amazing anime. I’ve belatedly watched Cowboy Bebop (something everyone seems to have watched except me) and I now see why everyone seems to love it so much. And Your Name passed me by when it was a mega hit a few years ago – I find myself rewatching it multiple times its so damn good. Beautiful animation, wonderful characters, and a story with enough depth that I find something new on every rewatch. The anime series Aggretsuko is hilarious, and for me as good a satire on modern office life as, well, The Office. Maybe even better. Its even more impressive that its made by the same company that inflicted Hello Kitty on the world. Also on Netflix is the awkwardly titled Rascal does not dream of Bunnygirl Senpai which is beautifully written and animated, definitely one of the best series or films I’ve seen on the pain of growing up and adolescence. It mixes realism with a little fantasy and science fiction with terrific storytelling skill.

    In contrast, the live action TV from Japan I’ve been watching lately ranges from pretty good but not amazing (The Journalist, Alice in Borderland, My Husband does not Fit) to truly awful (Followers). Even the acting seems better in animation – I’m struck often by just how good the voice over actors are, while Japanese TV and cinema is so often afflicted with overheated acting (yes, I know its often a stylistic choice, but its still sometimes very awkward and noticeable). Midnight Diner is popular and pretty good, although I find the neat wrap ups at the end of each episode hard to take, but thats more down to my taste in storytelling rather than a criticism.

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    lawless

    I haven’t watched Midnight Diner since the last season (or series, if you’re British) dropped, but I don’t remember the end of the episodes generally being neat wrap ups of anything but the recipe at issue. Sometimes the story or moral are neatly wrapped up too, but not usually.

    Since I have a passing interest in the recipes, I don’t particularly mind. For a live action combination of recipes and cats, for those who might be interested, see the YouTube channel Jun’s Kitchen. Jun is Japanese but he speaks English during the episodes. Any Japanese used by others, like food purveyors (we see Jun purchase the ingredients), is translated in subtitles. And Jun is often compared by commenters to a living anime character. There’s also Rachel and Jun’s Adventures run by his American wife Rachel, which focuses on their day to day life and 4 cats – two pedigreed, two rescues.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless, yes, I know Juns Kitchen! Its a wonderful channel. I haven’t watched it for a while, you’ve reminded me to go look at it. My problem is that every time I watch it I crave good Japanese food and much to my annoyance, one thing Dublin lacks is a really high quality but not insanely expensive Japanese restaurant (as my Japanese friends never stop bemoaning). In typical Japanese style, they will often take the 2.5 hour train from Dublin south to Cork city to eat in the one restaurant in Ireland they approve of. The problem with having Japanese friends is that when I go to places I like with them hey sit there quietly with that ‘this isn’t really all that good’ look on their faces which makes me embarrassed to have actually enjoyed the tempura or ramen….

    I think my reaction to Midnight Diner is just me – I don’t know anyone else who agrees with me on this. Its a personal thing I find annoying about it, but perhaps its just my odd expectations. I keep enjoying the episodes up to the last 5 minutes, when I always feel let down. I’m not entirely sure why. But I’ve run out of good Japanese shows to watch on Netflix so I’ll return to it. I’ve just finished The Journalist 新聞記者 it got better as it went on – its an unusually hard hitting drama and quite skilfully made.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu, I don’t know if you knew that Rachel and Jun were having a house built for them on land they purchased in Fukuoka, but they moved in last month. There’s a video about that on the Rachel and Jun’s Adventures channel, and Jun posted a final Jun’s Kitchen from their apartment kitchen late in December. (A better kitchen for Jun is one of the reasons for the move.) They also said they would be taking a break from their channels for awhile (term unspecified).

    I know Vili likes cats, so he may appreciate the cat-oriented videos. I first came across their channels because of the video about their first rescue cat, Poki, titled “Rescuing the world’s most annoying cat.” He’s smart, mischievous and food-motivated, not mean, so his annoying qualities mostly have to do with food. Since he probably starved much of the time he was a stray, his food obsession is understandable.

    The Journalist is in my Netflix queue. From the description, I assumed it was a kdrama until I saw the names of cast members. The interest in corruption is very typical of Korean thrillers, which is almost the entirety of what I watch when it comes to kdramas. Stranger (both seasons, but season 1 is stronger) and Beyond Evil – both on Netflix – are my top recommendations. There’s also a journalism component to The Good Detective, which is a good but not great show.

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    Ugetsu

    Thanks Lawless for the recommendations. I’m ploughing my way through everything available to me in Japanese as I’m slowly trying to learn the language properly. Hence I find myself watching even things I wouldn’t normally watch (My Husband Doesn’t Fit as an example). There is a ton of Korean dramas I’d love to have the time to go through, I find them fascinating. I’m hoping to start learning Korean as soon as I’m happy with my Japanese level, but thats at least 2 years away! I will have a look at your recommendations though, they seem good.

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