Japan ratings body is on the defensive

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TOKYO -- Japanese society has changed enormously in the 51 years since the Administration Commission of Motion Picture Code of Ethics was set up to monitor the movies that are shown in theaters here. Its examiners say they take those changes into account when they classify a film, but critics say some of their decisions are out of touch with modern Japan.

Known by the abbreviated title Eirin, the organization's eight examiners -- none of whom are women -- watched and rated 312 Japanese movies and 327 imported titles last year, classifying them into four categories: general, PG-12, R-15 and R-18.

Rarely the subject of attention for its decisions, Eirin has this year been criticized for attaching an R-15 rating to the Oscar-winning British-South African collaboration "Tsotsi" and again in July for demanding that the Japanese distributor of the British mock documentary-style film "Death of a President" change its Japanese name and change its advertising posters.

"We did not have a problem with the content or the style of 'Death of a President,' but the Japanese distributor wanted the title to be 'The Assasination of Bush' and the poster showed the president's face as he was being shot," examiner Junro Otagawa says. "We went back and forth with the distributor for about a month until they finally accepted our decision."

Ironically, he admits, the publicity the case generated probably encouraged more people to go and see the movie, which won the international critics prize at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, even though it had a limited release in Japan.

"Tsotsi" was given an R-15 rating because of depictions of violence, in particular a scene in which a man is stabbed on a subway train. Eirin refused to grant it a lower rating because of the "detailed and prolonged" violent images, Otagawa said.

"I feel they made the wrong decision," says Atsuko Murata, who handled the release of the film in Japan for Nikkatsu Corp. "It was no more violent than the films or television shows that are on regular TV here now, and I specifically wanted younger children to see it because of the content.

"When I first saw it, I thought it had to be shown to a young Japanese audience because they need to know what is happening in the world around them," she says.

From the opposite viewpoint, a number of politicians were up in arms in 2000 over the violence between children in Beat Takeshi's movie "Battle Royale," saying the R-15 rating was inappropriate. That led to suggestions that laws be drawn to regulate content -- a move that would be closer to censorship, many believe.

Otagawa defends the examiners' decisions and says Eirin is pleased that there has been discussion of the matter because it enables the public to better understand how ratings are decided upon.

"We have become more relaxed in the past 10 years or so when it comes to love scenes between consenting adults and natural nudity, but at the same time we have become stricter on depictions of crimes involving minors or sexual violence," he says. Eirin also has a long tradition of refusing to classify titles that depict children smoking or drinking alcohol.

"These are social issues, and the public today is more accepting of certain expressions that are on the screen, but there have also been legal changes -- including a new law two years ago about children and pornographic images," he says.

Still, distributors can circumvent the process entirely. Of the 3,062 screens across Japan, only 2,848 are members of the Japanese Association of Theater Owners, which requires films to have been examined by Eirin. The remainder -- usually smaller, independent theaters -- have no such obligation.

Eirin's predecessor was set up in 1949 and was a panel of industry officials, but a dispute over sex and violence in a 1956 film led to a shake-up and the organization becoming independent of the industry, though its officers are largely drawn from the world of Japanese broadcasting.

It has only refused classification to 10 films in the past decade, primarily because the content was judged to be too pornographic or violent, but Otagawa believes Eirin has a key difference over similar organizations in other countries.

"We do not simply make a decision on a film," he says. "We see our job as to consult with producers and distributors and persuade them of what is the best course of action. It is very important that both sides understand each other."
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