Toho towers over global film sector

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TOKYO -- In a small square near the up-market Ginza district of central Tokyo stands a bronze statue of one of Japan's most instantly recognizable sons. It is not the likeness of an author, politician or hero of the sports world. With fangs bared and claws extended, Godzilla is frozen atop his pedestal in the shadow of the headquarters of Toho Co., a motion picture company that has remained at the forefront of the Japanese movie industry, particularly in the dark days of the 1970s and early '80s.

"Things are not as good as they were back in the old days, when we were able to sell more than 1 billion tickets a year, but even with the arrival of a television in virtually every home in Japan, I still believe that the cinema is in a field of its own," says Toho chairman Isao Matsuoka, who is receiving the International Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's ShoWest confab.

"This world has changed," he adds, pointing to the quality of new releases, advances in such areas as 3-D imagery and digital cinema and a wider array of distribution routes. "It is my job to keep those changes and improvements flowing. It's going to be very interesting to be a part of that."

The revolutions that Matsuoka and his colleagues are overseeing are indeed a world away from anything that Ichizo Kobayashi could have imagined when he established the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater Co. in 1932.

Many Japanese consider Kobayashi, an entrepreneur who dabbled in many areas, to have been one of the leading lights in business management in the early 1900s. He ran the Hankyu Railroad Co. and sold properties near stations on his new lines before building Hankyu department stores near key stations.

In the small spa town of Takarazuka, in the western Japan prefecture of Hyogo that also happened to be the terminus of one of his railway lines, Kobayashi realized that he needed an attraction to get customers aboard his trains. So, he founded Japan's first all-female entertainment troupe -- a daring move in a country where men dominated the stage in the traditional entertainment of Kabuki theater.

The result, initially an operatic group named the Takarazuka Opera Co., was a spectacular success, and Kobayashi branched out into Western-style revues made with a distinctly Japanese flavor and promptly purchased two theaters.

The 1933 production "Horoyoi Jinsei" became Toho's first foray onto the big screen, but with Kobayashi's 1936 purchase of two film studios -- J.O. Studios and Photo Chemical Laboratories -- he was able to step up output of titles. Given the political climate of the times, a military government and Japan's invasion and occupation of China, many Toho films of the late 1930s and early '40s were propagandistic titles portraying heroic deeds by soldiers, sailors and airmen, as well as life on the home front.

The arrival of occupation forces in 1945 greatly impacted the business, however. The U.S. military requisitioned major theaters, censorship became commonplace and internal strife further eroded the business until the mid-1950s. It was then that a very unlikely duo -- a lumbering, fire-breathing lizard and one of cinema's greatest directors -- began to turn things around for the Japanese industry at large, and Toho experienced a joyous artistic rebirth.

Specifically, 1954 saw the release of the original "Gojira," a science-fiction classic that played on very real anxieties about the impact of nuclear devices on nature in the wake of the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Akira Kurosawa's landmark film "The Seven Samurai," about a group of warriors who band together to protect a small village from marauding bandits. Riding high on that significant theatrical success, Toho began adapting high-profile Broadway musicals for Japanese audiences, with productions like "My Fair Lady" sharing the company's stages alongside more traditional local fare -- all in an attempt to satisfy Kobayashi's drive to provide audiences with the highest-quality entertainment onscreen and onstage.

But with distractions like television stealing the attention of theatergoers, the company fell victim to the cyclical downturns that continue to plague the industry today. Profits from Kobayashi's real estate holdings kept Toho in the black, but by the early 1970s, the company, which was producing fewer and fewer features, spun off its film-production department, which remained relatively stagnant for the next 20 years.

In fact, Matsuoka, who was appointed Toho chairman in 1977 after 20 years with the company, deserves much of the credit for transforming Toho's entertainment businesses. Determined to bring back the golden age of Japanese cinema, Matsuoka first sought to diversify Toho's entertainment holdings, and under his leadership, the company has branched into animation and TV programming, as well as formed successful partnerships with professionals from the worlds of advertising and live theater.

That forward-looking approach made Toho one of the first entertainment entities to try to capitalize on its diverse holdings -- yes, the word synergy springs to mind -- and to strive to provide the public with captivating programming on every platform, from film and television to multimedia.

"Japanese people now want to see more movies that are made in Japan, and we're finding that there has been a gradual shift away from the family-type pictures that were popular in the 1990s to movies that appeal to young couples," says Shogo Tomiyama, president and executive producer of Toho Pictures Inc. "The samurai dramas have also bounced back in the last five years or so. We think there are several reasons for this, perhaps the most important of which is that young people are now no longer seeking to live the American life and are more interested in what Japan has to offer."

Tomiyama joined Toho in 1975; his first job was making model sets and fixing costumes for monster pictures, and he eventually co-produced 11 "Godzilla" films. Today, he says he sees potential for the growth of Japanese film throughout Asia, but he points out that distributors in Japan need to take a page from Hollywood if they wish to truly appeal to audiences around the world.

Other executives at the company agree. Toho managing director Yoshishige Shimatani, who is in charge of film programming and also heads up the TV division, says that there is a renewed emphasis on cross-purposing material like the hit TV drama "Unfair," which was adapted for the big screen and is set to debut as "Unfair: The Movie" in Tokyo this month. "Television people can use feature movies, and the movies can take advantage of TV stations in crossover projects, and it is my task to plan the best way to mesh them together," Shimatani says.

Satoru Terada, president of Toho International Co., is tasked with maximizing revenue from Toho's back catalog -- the "Godzilla" movies and the films directed by Kurosawa are, perhaps not surprisingly, the most popular around the world -- and he is optimistic that the cultural ties that unite Asia might lead to increased sales opportunities.

"We have had limited success apart from within Asia, but it is easier to overcome the language and cultural barriers here, although even then they will not generally make a great deal of money," he says of Toho's lesser-known titles, including the 2004 productions "Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World" and "Be With You," which have performed well in such territories as Hong Kong, Malaysia, South Korea and Taiwan.

Even though the Japanese film industry is far healthier than it has been in many years -- one only has to consider that in 2006, local titles earned more than U.S. films at the Japanese boxoffice for the first time in 21 years -- Toho president Hideyuki Takai does express concern about the way continuing technological advancements will impact the marketplace.

"The 20th century was the movie century, and I was worried that the 21st century might not be so good for Japanese movies," he says. "But the move to digital and the introduction of other new technologies suggest that this will again be a century of film. Satellite broadcasting, the Internet, broadband distribution, DVDs -- all of them can carry motion pictures, which in itself increases the demand for more films."

Takai began his filmmaking career as an associate producer on the 1981 production "Imperial Navy," and he names classics such as director David Lean's expansive 1962 epic "Lawrence of Arabia" and Carol Reed's 1950 noir thriller "The Third Man" among his personal favorites. Like many of the company's highest-ranking executives, Takai's enthusiasm for the film business is obvious, and he emphasizes that while Toho does have substantial business interests outside films, fully 65% of its revenue comes from the screen and stage.

"At the moment, we are regarded as the leading movie company in Japan, and so we want to continue to improve on our record to justify that description," Matsuoka says. "That is our priority."

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