Cannes 2012: Japanese Directors Benefit From Aging Film Demo

Seijun Suzuki H 2012

Thanks to one of the oldest populations in the world, veteran helmers enjoy career longevity rarely seen in the global film business.

Japan is both the grayest society on earth and the one with the longest average lifespan; nearly a quarter of its population is over 65 and the average life expectancy is now over 82 years old. It is maybe little surprise then that the country boasts some of the oldest working directors in the global film business.

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Japan’s rapidly aging demographics provide challenges to nearly every area of the economy, government and business. The domestic film industry is already having to adapt to the realities of a dwindling number of young people and a burgeoning elderly audience. It does have the advantage though of directors who hail from, and are able to relate to, that demographic. 

“That older generation of directors had an influence on the next generation, who in turn influenced young directors such as myself,” says director Bunji Sotoyama, whose On This Side won Best Short Film at Monaco Film Festival last year. “Their films are filled with a very Japanese style and spirit; maintaining that identity is one of my goals as a director.”

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Profiled here are four of Japan’s senior directors, ranging in age from a youthful 76, through to a centenarian.  

Seijun Suzuki
Born: May 24, 1923

The 88-year-old Tokyo-native helmed his first project back in 1958 before a conflict with the boss of his Nikkatsu studio led to an extended "exile" to the world of television from the end of the 1960s. Retrospectives of his works have found fans at festivals around the globe in recent decades and he has been cited as an influence by directors from Tarantino to Jarmusch. A Deep Seijun Collection of his films was released this year. 

Though not yet officially retired, the prolific Suzuki has been quiet, bar the odd cameo acting appearance, since 2005's Princess Raccoon, which starred Joe Odagiri alongside Zhang Ziyi. His  energies may have been focused in other directions since, as that was also about the time he married a woman 48 years his junior.

Koji Wakamtsu
Born: April 1, 1936

A mere whip of a 76-year-old, Wakamatsu is showing no signs of slowing down. His latest film, 11.25 The Day He Chose His Own Fate, which tells the story of author and activist Yukio Mishima, has been selected for this year’s Un Certain Regard section.

Like many Japanese directors of his generation, Wakamatsu began his career in soft-core ‘pink films’ that allowed filmmakers a great deal of creative freedom once the sex scene requirements had been met.

Some of Wakamatsu’s early films were regarded as too controversial and avant garde, even for the "pink" genre, leading to a parting of ways with the Nikkatsu studio to form his own independent production company. Over the course of a career spanning six decades, his thought-provoking films have become favorites on the global festival circuit with the anti-war Caterpillar competing for the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2010.

“Koji Wakamatsu is like a global representative of independent Japanese film,” says Keihiro Kanyama, 33, whose debut feature Seesaw will get a theatrical release in Japan in June after screening at festivals around the globe.  "He has managed to take the message of his films to audiences at festivals around the world. When I started studying filmmaking, Wakamatsu had a huge impact on me.”

Yoji Yamada
Born: September 13, 1931

Eighty-year old Yamada has been going strong since the dawn of the 1960s, directing one of cinematic history’s longest running series in the "Tora-san" movies, and winning numerous awards both at home and abroad. The first film in his samurai trilogy, 2002’s Tasogare Seibei (The Twilight Samurai), won an unmatched 12 Japan Academy Prizes and competed for Best Foreign Language Film at the 76th Oscars.

Yamada’s latest project is an updated reimagining of the 1953 classic from Yasujiro Ozu, Tokyo Story – itself regarded by some as one of the greatest films of all time. Ozu was Yamada’s mentor when he joined the Shochiku studio. The film, to be titled Tokyo Kazoku (family), was due to begin shooting in March 2011, but was put on hold following the disasters that struck Japan that month. Yamada said that he wanted to reflect on the events and incorporate them into a revised script, on which production  began this spring.

Kaneto Shindo
Born: April 22, 1912

The undisputed grandaddy of Japanese directors, 100-year-old Shindo completed Postcard, Japan's Foreign Language Oscar entry this year, when he was 98, declaring that it would be his final film. Shindo began studying screenwriting in 1934 -- he has nearly 240 scripts to his name, as well as 47 films -- meaning his career has spanned no fewer than nine decades.