International Image of Japanese Film

stephen cremin asianfilmlibrary at
Tue Jan 5 14:06:45 EST 1999

In his recent posting concerning Izumi Kyoka adaptations, Joseph 
Murphy stated:  "Still, it's remarkable how much the screening effect 
of translation alters the picture of Japanese cinema that circulates 
outside Japan."  Perhaps I'm misinterpreting the comment, but I'd like 
to read it as a general concern about the image of Japanese cinema 
that circulates internationally, suggest some reasons and integrate 
some points made in the "Re: Titanic" mailings.

Distributors internationally don't have much knowledge of Japanese 
cinema.  Ignoring the special case of Suo Masayuki, they're aware of 
the films which win awards at Cannes, Berlin and Venice and the films 
handled by European sales agents such as Celluloid Dreams and 
Fortissimo.  That means Kitano Takeshi, Sabu, Kore'eda Hirokazu, 
Tsukamoto Shin'ya, Hashiguchi Ryosuke and Imamura Shohei.  None of 
these directors are particularly successful in Asia but they represent 
the modern international face of Japanese cinema.  These are also the 
directors who dominate the international festival circuit.  But 
whereas distributors have to survive financially, I think its a great 
shame that festivals aren't more imaginative in their programming.

My dissatisfaction with Rotterdam's Asian lineup is that it's almost 
indistinguishable from other recent international film festivals.  
Rotterdam was born against the backdrop of attacks on the bourgeois 
nature of Cannes, Berlin and Venice: its supposed to represent 
marginalised cinema.  While once an important festival for Asian film, 
now its only reflecting the dominant form of Asian film 
internationally.  But when the margin becomes the centre, what role 
does a festival like Rotterdam have?  (I guess a parallel can be drawn 
from the music industry when indie music became the mainstream, but it 
wasn't the only music available.)  Outside of (relatively) cine-
literate Paris and Tokyo, the experiment to establish the Asian 
international art film has failed.  While "HANA-BI" was a success in 
the UK, "The River" (Kawa) and "Happy Together" (Buenos Aires) failed 
to find an audience.  "April Story" (Shigatsu Monogatari) and "The 
Eel" (Unagi) made a small profit, but nothing comparable to the risk 
involved.  (There are reasons why "HANA-BI" was successful in the UK: 
it was his fifth release so his image had been slowly developed, 
largely by one distributor.  The way that the festival circuit is now 
seen as the means to establish a director into a "hot" product with a 
high price doesn't allow for this development process.  The manner in 
which Wong Kar-Wai has been handled by four different distributors 
with short-term goals has damaged him in the UK.)

But the bottleneck for establishing a broader range of Japanese film 
currently lies with distributors.  A re-financed Fortissimo has 
recently changed direction and picked up international rights to films 
which have been commercially successful in Japan: Mitani Koki's 
"Welcome Back, Mr McDonald" (Rajio no Jikan) and Shunji Iwai's "Love 
Letter" (and "April Story").  But internationally, distributors can't 
see beyond the narrow definition of Asian film created in the 1980s 
and 1990s so Fortissimo are finding it impossible to sell Mitani's 
comedy despite the fantastic audience response it receives at 
festivals.  Fortunately, there are a new generation of distributors 
emerging internationally who are taking risks while some of the 
established distributors face bankruptcy.  (Fortissimo are also 
finding it difficult to get "April Story" into festivals with both 
Rotterdam and Berlin turning it down: Asian films are supposed to be 
male-themed films about death, not female-themed films about life.)

Mark Schilling also points to the potential international market for 
Japanese films such as "Ring" and "Rasen".  I agree, but unfortunately 
Japanese studios are subtitling and promoting films such as Izumi 
Seiji's "Friendship" (Yujo), Yamakawa Gen's "Ping Pong Hot Springs" 
(Takkyu Onsen), Sato Jun'ya's "The Peking Man" (Peking Genjin: Where 
are you?) at market screenings which have little chance of being sold 
internationally.  I wanted to run a season of psychological horror 
films in my festival last year recognising the trend (including Kon 
Satoshi's "PERFECT BLUE" and Kurosawa Kiyoshi's "Cure"), but "Ring" 
and "Rasen" hadn't been subtitled and I couldn't afford the costs.  
Several films I considered for my opening gala were also unavailable 
in subtitled form, including Okawara Takao's "The Abduction" (Yukai) 
starring Watari Tetsuya and Nagase Masatoshi.  I've been told that the 
studios aren't interested in the international market which sounds 
ludicrous, but when you talk to the international sales managers of 
Japan's studios you do get that impression.

I think the solution is information, which is a control issue.  
Outside of "Variety" and "The Japan Times", where do you read about 
these films?  If they don't feature a cute actress (preferably Saeki 
Hinako) or special effects, they won't be mentioned on the Internet 
Movie Database.  The National Film Centre of Japan, Kawakita Memorial 
Institute and The Japan Foundation (Tokyo) are far too secretive about 
the films in their collection which just adds to the centralisation of 
control among the few people who have access.  And access to 
information to Japanese film has to be democratised if there's to be a 
range of work shown internationally which goes some way to reflecting 
the breadth of Japanese cinema.  Despite the amount of animosity 
between certain international film specialists on Japanese cinema, 
what's interesting is that their taste is almost exactly the same.  At 
least the territorial infighting in Japan is between critics and 
programmers with a range of taste in Japanese film.  That range of 
taste won't appear internationally until access is opened up.  But I 
do believe there is a new generation of critics, festivals and 
distributors emerging, many of whom are members of the KineJapan 
mailing list.  And thank god so many of you are bilingual and not so 
damn territorial.

Stephen Cremin

PS:  I'm aware that some staff of the Japan Foundation subscribe to 
this list.  I do adore your organisation, particularly the London 
Office and ASEAN Centre, but please be more pro-active and not 
dependent on a handful of critics and programmers operating outside 
Japan who don't really know Japanese film as well as they'd like to 
pretend.  And please be aware of the critical/political games at play 
when you throw money at Rotterdam in 2000 for their Japanese film 

The Asian Film Library
[London Pan-Asian Film Festival]
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