Tokyo Pops

The Japanese film sector is in the midst of a renaissance, but insiders wonder how long it can last.

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TOKYO -- It's been quite a year for Japanese film since Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Tokyo Sonata" walked away with Un Certain Regard jury prize at the 2008 Festival de Cannes.

Victories for Yojiro Takita's "Departures" and Kunio Kato's "La Maison en Petits Cubes" at February's Academy Awards were followed precisely a month later by five wins at the Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong.

But despite the international acclaim, the divide at home between blockbusters and everyone else grows wider.

The foreign-language Oscar for "Departures" was the first Japanese win since the category was introduced in 1956, and the animated short win for "La Maison en Petits Cubes" made it an unprecedented double.

Similarly, Japan had only managed a single victory over the first two editions of the Asian Film Awards, but this year walked away with a quintuplet. There were two prizes for "Tokyo Sonata," another for "Departures," a best director nod for "Still Walking" helmer Hirokazu Kore-eda and a best composer trophy for Joe Hisaishi and his work on legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki's "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea."

The question for Japanese cinema now is whether this is simply a flash in the pan due to a number of quality films fortuitously arriving at the same time, or a renaissance that will be more sustainable.

The fact that Japanese films have outperformed imports at the domestic boxoffice in two of the past three years -- after not having done so once in the previous 20 -- suggests it may be the latter. But the looming challenge will be translating that success into the kind of meaningful international sales that have thus far eluded the industry.

Takita, fresh off his Oscar win, has no doubt that the current success is more than just coincidence. "The quality of Japanese films -- from the actors to the scripts to the technical side -- is getting the recognition it deserves," he says.

He also believes that the current tough financial conditions are actually having a somewhat positive influence on the way the industry and audiences are approaching films. "With the economy being so bad in Japan, it affects everyone, and a lot of people are reconsidering what is really important in films and the way they look at them," he says.

But there has been a fragmentation of the world's second-biggest cinema market in recent years, with bigger-budget films cornering more and more of the market. These blockbusters, often produced by TV stations and based on popular drama series and manga, have been arriving in ever-larger numbers and boosting the overall boxoffice. But with more than 400 films now made annually, the smaller players are left to fight over an ever-shrinking slice of the pie.

"With the segmentation of the market, the majors are now taking about 70%, while it's mainly older audiences that are going to watch the other films," says John Williams, a Brit who runs 100 Meter Films in Tokyo. "One very positive thing about the success of ('Departures') is that the bigger companies should be looking more at original scripts. Hopefully that will trickle down to the smaller companies."

"In some ways, the recent changes haven't affected smaller outfits like ours -- we've never had much money -- but the midsize companies, the mini-majors, are getting squeezed," Williams says.

Gaga Communications is one firm that has been feeling the heat, pulling out of production and acquisitions last year to concentrate on distribution and overseas sales.

"The budgets at the bigger end have gone from $10 million to $15 million over the last few years, and so they attract a lot of attention, across Asia as well," says Haruko Watanable of Gaga's international division. "The Asian buyers at Hong Kong's Filmart already knew all about the films that won the awards recently, so Cannes will be the test to see if they really will generate more business for the Japanese industry."

Gaga will hold the premiere of the dark comedy "Donju" (Dumb Beast), starring Tadanobu Asano, at Cannes. Directed by Hideaki Hosono, it follows the adventures of an editor who visits an oddball small town in search of her missing writer, who has been nominated for a literary prize.

Japan's only representative In Competition at Cannes is "Map of the Sounds of Tokyo." It was helmed by Spaniard Isabel Coixet but shot in the Japanese capital and stars Rinko Kikuchi ("Babel"). In Un Certain Regard, Hirokazu Kore-eda will be hoping to follow his success at the Asian Film Awards with "Air Doll," which stars Korean actress Du-na Bae as a blow-up doll that comes to life and falls in love with a video-store clerk played by Jo Odagiri.

Longtime festival favorite Naomi Kawase, meanwhile, will get this year's Carrosse d'Or lifetime achievement award to go with her 1997 Camera d'Or for "Suzaku" and 2007 Grand Prix for "Mogari no Mori." Despite the acclaim, Kawase continues to struggle to get the kind of attention in Japan that she receives for her films in Europe.

The organizers of the Tokyo International Film Festival, which will run Oct. 17-25, are banking on the current higher profile of the Japanese industry to give this year's event a lift.

"If people abroad can feel the potential of Japanese films, then it gives us a good position in the international market. A film festival can't really be successful without a strong domestic industry," says festival programmer Yoshi Yatabe. "With 400-500 films being made a year, we should be able to find 10 or 20 good ones."

Someone else who is always looking for the 'good ones' is L.A.-based Ko Mori, head of indie producer and distributor Eleven Arts. "There's definitely more interest in the Japanese industry recently. Now we have to see if that turns into more business," he says.

Eleven Arts is bringing "The Harimaya Bridge" -- a Japan-U.S. co-production executive produced by and featuring Danny Glover -- and Yoshihiro Nishimura's "Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl" to Cannes.

Local observers believe that the international success of films like "Departures" and "Tokyo Sonata" -- which was an international co-production -- should increase the number of tie-ups between the Japanese industry and its overseas counterparts.

"Departures" director Takita, for one, says he is hoping to work with people from around the world, and would be happy to try his hand at working on a script in a language other than Japanese.

"Tell everyone I'm sitting here all lonely waiting for them to get in touch with offers," he says with a laugh.