Ready For Some Action (Nikkatsu and Aisuru)

Thursday, November 14, 1996

The words “Nikkatsu is back” may not only result in a nostaligia trip for many an old film buff. Now that the company has reorganized after nearly going bankrupt in 1993, an event which symbolized the decline of the Japanese film industry, maybe there is also new hope on the horizon for this nation’s film production.

When Nikkatsu filed for corporate reorganization in July 1993–effectively declaring itself bankrupt–the Japanese film world was stunned. Not only was Nikkatsu the industry’s oldest studio, having been formed back in 1912 with the merger of four early film companies, it had frequently been a trend setter throughout those 80 years.

In the 1930s, it supported the realism of Yamanaka Sadao and Uchida Tomu and, after giving up production because of a war-time reorganization, came back in the late 1950s with the man who would come to most represent postwar Japanese culture: Ishihara Yujiro.

While shown alongside the eccentric productions of Imamura Shohei and Suzuki Seijun, and the virginal youth film of Yoshinaga Sayuri, it was bold and aggressive figure of Yujiro and his daring cohorts, Kobayashi Akira, Watari Tetsuya, and Shishido Jo, that give birth in the 1960s to a powerful brand name: Nikkatsu Action.

Even when Nikkatsu gave up regular film production in 1971 to concentrate on its soft-porn Roman Porno flicks, that genre helped foster the genius of Kumashiro Tatsumi and gave early jobs to such current top directors as Ishii Takashi, Morita Yoshimitsu, Nakahara Shun, Takita Yojiro, and Kaneko Shusuke.

Production dwindled, however, entering the 1990s. And when the company filed for protection, listing about 49.7 billion yen in debt, the move was not brought on by box office bombs but by poor investments in three golf courses that burst with the bubble.

Nikkatsu still had significant assets. Beyond the theaters it owned, there was its studio in Chofu, one of the best in Asia, a newly formed satellite channel, a video production company, and its library of thousands of films. These subsidiaries together even made about 2 billion yen in profits since 1993.

In a multimedia age where “soft” is gold, it was the library and the potential to produce more films that attracted the most attention. In the end, the video game maker Namco stepped in with investment money, estimated between 3 and 5 billion yen. On Sept. 27, Nikkatsu’s debtors and the court agreed to a reorganization plan.

Under the plan, Nikkatsu’s subsidiaries will again merge with the parent company which will now be headed by Namco’s president, Nakamura Masaya. Nikkatsu will, in effect, become a part of Namco.

While Nakamura has voiced his intention to use Nikkatsu to feature his Namco characters (he is currently producing a $40 million computer graphics movie in Los Angeles that Nikkatsu will distribute), to the delight of fans of Japanese film, he has expressed his determination to continue with regular feature production.

Last week it was announced that the new Nikkatsu’s first film with be Aisuru (“To Love”) based on a work by Endo Shusaku, the famous novelist who died last month after helping with the script. The love story will be megaphoned by Kumai Kei, a former Nikkatsu director in his third Endo adaptation after Sea and Poison (“Umi to dokuyaku,” 1986) and Deep River (“Fukai kawa,” 1995), and star young talents Sakai Miki and Watabe Atsuro.

Nikkatsu has already released the delightful DANGAN Runner under its new corporate banner, but that film was technically produced by Nikkatsu Video. Aisuru is a more appropriate choice for the restart, if only because it also features such former Nikkatsu stars as Shishido Jo, Matsubara Chieko, and Kobayashi Keiju, and staff like designer Kimura Takeo and editor Inoue Osamu.

Filming will commence this month with a release in time for the first anniversary of Endo’s death.

By Aaron Gerow

Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 14 November 1996, p. 9.

Copyright 1996: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow