Japanese Film Gets Respect in ‘97 (1997 in Review)

Thursday, January 29, 1998

1997 was certainly a year to remember for the Japanese cinema. Imamura Shohei’s The Eel (“Unagi”) and Kitano Takeshi’s Hana-Bi captured grand prizes at two of the world’s top three film festivals (Cannes and Venice respectively) and Miyazaki Hayao’s The Princess Mononoke set an all-time domestic box office record, topping Hollywood’s E.T.. For a cinema long thought to be in its death throes, 1997 could be called the year of the Japanese film phoenix.

There were other good tidings as well. Ichikawa Jun, a fine director little recognized abroad, won the Best Director’s prize at the Montreal Film Festival for Tokyo yakyoku and Sento Naomi (formally Kawase) became the first of the young generation to hit it big abroad by snatching the best new director award at Cannes for her Suzaku (“Moe no Suzaku”).

While anyone looking beyond the major studio output in the last few years has known of the vibrancy of the Japanese scene, it took the above kudos to finally awaken the media and filmgoing public. When the weekly Brutus could blare on its cover, “Only Japanese don’t watch Japanese films,” perhaps the collective shame over Japanese ignoring their own cinema–even when it is one of the world’s hottest–for the likes of the jingoistic Independence Day, would finally nudge them to respect their own movies.

Possibly as the first sign of change, last year theater attendance overall was up 25% and the number of theater screens, long in decline, rose as the multiplex invasion continued, indicating that people will leave their television sets if the films are good and the theaters comfortable.

A glance at the list of top box office films, however, reminds us that all is not rosy in Japanese cinema world. As exemplified by Mononoke, Doraemon and the cult disappointment, Evangelion, it is undeniable that animation still dominated. And whenever live action films turned up, like Mothra and Gakko no kaidan 3, were series films that, whatever their merits, were mostly supported by the dubious maeuri (advance ticket) system, which artificially inflates box office results as studios force loads of tickets on their corporate partners (and the tickets are then rarely used).

But the Toho, Toei and Shochiku film companies did distribute some decent films. Toho gave us such good comedies as Yaguchi Shinobu’s My Secret Cache and Takita Yojiro’s Sharan-Q no enka no hanamichi as well as Takenaka Naoto’s Tokyo biyori. Toei reheated the old-fashioned stew of sex and double suicide with Morita Yoshimitsu’s Paradise Lost (“Shitsurakuen”) and, even if you didn’t like it, at least provided us with a cultural curiosity.

Shochiku proved the most innovative of the three giants with its Cinema Japanesque series. Despite the project’s failure to establish its identity, it was an effort to shake up the moribund production and distribution system by directing smaller films at smaller markets. The result included some of the best films of the year, such as The Eel, Tokyo yakyoku and Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Cure.

However, last week’s coup d’etat at Shochiku makes clear that the old attitudes that shackle the industry remain. The departure of the dictatorial Okuyamas may be good for corporate morale, but the new leadership’s avowed goal to cut back on experiments like Cinema Japanesque and restore the “Ofuna tradition” offers little in the way of vision. These are the same people who couldn’t let Tora-san rest in peace and had to drag him out for first a computer graphics remake, and then the clonlike Niji o tsukamu otoko 2.

With bastard offspring of television like Parasite Eve and Koi wa maiorita also dominating the majors’ releases, the blame for the lingering impression that Japanese films are bad can still be laid on the majors.

One had to look to the independents to find what were actually the best films of the year. And often look hard: one of my top picks, Aoyama Shinji’s Wild Life, was only given a late night release and Nakashima Tetsuya’s delightful Summer Tale (“Natsu jikan no otonatachi”), passed with little notice.

Nikkatsu returned to action with Sabu’s adrenaline-filled Postman Blues and Zeze Takahisa’s first non-adult-rated film Kokkuri-san. (His adult Raigyo was also a cult hit).

Mochizuki Rokuro’s The Fire Within (“Onibi”) proved that hard-boiled action is still one of the most vibrant genres today. It has a market, so the video companies financing such films are proving the best sources for funding, giving us movies ranging from Aoyama’s An Obsession (“Tsumetai chi”) to Ishii Sogo’s Labyrinth of Dreams (“Yume no ginga”).

There was a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel in 1997, but Japanese cinema will not emerge from the darkness without major industry reform–that will allow the spotlight to be shared with some of these lesser known masterpieces. And as if to remind us of the shadows still haunting Japanese film, many of cinema’s greats passed away last year: Katsu Shintaro, Yorozuya Kinnosuke, Sugimura Haruko, Mifune Toshiro, Fujita Toshiya, and in an unfortunate year-end suicide, Itami Juzo. Their presence will be missed, but they have passed the baton to the young talent who should rightfully be taking the lead in Japanese cinema’s renaissance.

By Aaron Gerow onogerow@angel.ne.jp

Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 29 January 1998, p. 9.

Copyright 1998: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow