Japanese film, music hold steady against the WestTOKYO -- While Japan's previously world-beating auto and electronics' powerhouses may recently be suffering crises of confidence, in the nation's entertainment world, quite the opposite is true. Japanese film and music has regained its swagger as it has beaten out the overseas competition, rediscovered its own voice, and felt less of a need to imitate Western styles and trends.
Helping to drive forward this sense of cultural self-assuredness are young producers behind some of the most successful and innovative domestic movies. They have grown up with truly global influences and have come of age in the digital era.
Despite the recent worldwide slowdown that hit Japan's export-driven economy particularly hard, last year's total boxoffice was the second-highest on record, with ¥206 billion ($2.3 billion). This was driven by domestic films, which recorded their best ever year, pulling in ¥117.3 billion ($1.3 billion).
Leading the line for the home team was high school baseball movie "Rookies," which took in more than ¥8.5 billion ($95 million). The producer behind this hit was 35-year-old Akihiko Ishimaru, who had also produced the hugely successful TV drama series that preceded it. Ishimaru has been winning major awards since 2004's "Crying out Love, in the Center of the World," though 2009 was the year when he really found his Midas touch. As if producing the biggest grossing film of the year, and coming up with a series of highly successful tie-up marketing campaigns for it weren't enough, Ishimaru also produced the number one ("Jin") and two ("Mr. Brain") rated dramas on commercial television.
Like most Japanese producers, Ishimaru is in-house, working at TBS, which has become a major movie player in recent years. Despite being part of a big corporation, he says he has always been determined to choose his own path and stick to it.
"I set myself objectives and goals -- always ones I know I can reach -- and work at them steadily until I achieve them," he says. He describes himself as a cautions type; a "tap a stone bridge before crossing it" personality, as they say in Japan.
"I've been like that since grade school," he says. "I was very sure of what I was good at and not good at. I didn't bother with things I knew I couldn't do, even if it meant teachers getting angry with me, which happened all the way through to university days."
Although Ishimaru's determination to stick to his guns has served him well recently, he's aware that tastes change and his style may not always be in fashion.
"You can't try to change to meet the flavor of the moment though," he insists.
Meanwhile, over at Toho, another young producer, 31-year-old Genki Kawamura, has been busy trying to bring a cutting edge to the most corporate Japanese studio. While still in his mid-20s, Kawamura was responsible for the planning of "Densha Otoko" ("Train Man,") which he says was the world's first film focused around an internet message board.
The apparently true story of an internet geek who turns to posters on Japan's massive 2channel message boards for advice on how to approach a woman he encounters on a train, certainly struck a chord with the net generation. The domestic success of the movie, and the setting of the film in the online social space, has drawn attention globally, leading to, "about 20 remake offers, including from Hollywood studios, one of which is moving ahead now," according to Kawamura.
The commercial TV networks have become such a force on the production committees that plan, fund, create and market movies, that even a major vertically integrated studio like Toho will link up with one of them for almost every film. A film that becomes a hit without the powerful backing of a TV net, is now rare enough to be newsworthy. In 2008, the Kawamura-produced "Detroit Metal City" was the only film in the year's top 30, not to have a network on board.
"My Unkind Senior"
Kawamura plays down the significance of this, though concedes he has no interest in producing the ready-for-TV-broadcast material that the networks are inevitably looking for.
"There was a lot of bad language in "Detroit Metal City" because it was the story of a death metal band, so very unsuitable for TV," says Kawamura, "though I don't want to make films that are suitable."
Of the diminishing popularity in Japan of western entertainment, Kawamura believes this is partly explained by growing cultural confidence, and should lead to further flourishing of a unique domestic voice -- which will itself then find more of an overseas audience.
Asmik Ace's 35-year-old Mitsuru Uda is also focused on the domestic market, but professes more of an interest in collaborating within Asia. He has built a reputation for himself for bringing through new young talent. Three of the first four films he produced were with debutante directors, while the fourth was with Michael Arias, who was making his first live-action -- "Heaven's Door" -- after his success as the first Westerner to direct an anime. His latest work -- "Watashi no Yasashikunai Sempai" (literal translation -- my unkind senior) -- is helmed by Yutaka Yamamoto, also taking his first step from anime to live feature.
Uda is a big fan of the new digital technology transforming cinema, and believes its real potential has yet to be exploited.
"It's moving forward all the time and so now every time we want to be producing something that hasn't been seen yet," Uda says. "3D certainly hasn't really been used properly yet."
Uda's "Watashi no Yasashikunai Sempai" and Kawmura's "Confessions" are slated for summer releases in Japan.