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Banzai for low Budgets & Internationalisation: creative Solutions in Contemporary Japanese Cinema

door Luk Van Haute

If by Japanese cinema we mean “films made by Japanese in which there are Japanese on the screen speaking Japanese,” then does Japanese cinema actually exist? Veteran director Nagisa OSHIMA posed this question in 1992, in an essay called Perspectives on the Japanese Film. In the year 2005 it has become all the harder to answer it affirmatively. Just like with Japanese society as a whole, people insisting on talking about ‘Japanese cinema’ as if it were some homogeneous concept with common characteristics, would have serious trouble defending what exactly those common characteristics might be, especially thematically and stylistically. For each example, one could give an example of the contrary.


The Ring (2002)

The issue has become especially ambiguous with the recent trend of Hollywood remakes of Japanese films. On numerous internet discussion forums, the difference between the original Shall we Dance? (1996) or The Ring (1998) and the respective American remakes was simply explained in terms of nationality: the Japanese original was good because it was Japanese, the American remake was bad because it was American. In fact, it boiled down to the old nihonjinron-argument: Japanese comedy or horror is unique, and only Japanese can make it. As a result, this cultural specificity is bound to get lost in Hollywood translation. But then what to do with Takashi SHIMIZU’s own American remake (2004) of his horror film The Grudge (Juon, 2003), or Hideo NAKATA’s The Ring 2 (2005), an American sequel to the remake of his original hit, but itself not a remake? Are these still Japanese films (with the quality label that supposedly carries) or have SHIMIZU and NAKATA inevitably been corrupted and contaminated?

If at all, I’d argue that a common denominator for contemporary Japanese cinema should be discovered in the production circumstances. There is a peculiar (though I wouldn’t go as far as terming this ‘uniquely Japanese’) concurrence of three elements that urge Japanese filmmakers to become and to remain creative: low budgets, increasing internationalisation and a rapid inflow of new talent.

In praise of low budgets


The Soup, One Morning (Aru asa, soup wa, 2003)

No matter how stylistically and thematically different the works of, say, Naomi KAWASE, Takashi MIIKE and Hirokazu KORE-EDA may be, what they do have in common is the limited amount of money at their disposal in comparison to Hollywood productions. To give an indication, the budget for Gore Verbinsky’s The Ring (2002) was 40 million US$, while Hideo NAKATA had to make do with 1.2 million for his original version, incidentally about the same amount of money with which Dreamworks Productions obtained the remake rights (so, in theory, in order to recoup your budget, nobody in Japan even needs to see the film, as long as you can sell the remake rights to Hollywood).

Crucial to these conditions is the relationship between budget and the ensuing (lack of) freedom and creativity. One might be tempted to assume that the bigger the budget, the less restraints and the more possibilities a director enjoys. But in fact, often the reverse seems to be the case. Since less money is at stake, there is less interference and pressure from producers and investors. Takashi MIIKE has often stated that, in contrast to directors like Masato HARADA or Ryuhei KITAMURA, he is not all that keen on making a Hollywood film, exactly because the size of the budget would inevitably mean a restraining of the freedom ‘to muck around’ he enjoys so much.

Japanese directors have come up with all sorts of creative solutions to their low budget (or ‘no budget’) conditions. In fact, instead of being able to rely on the ‘easy’ way out to attract an audience (star actors, spectacular car chases and explosions, tons of special effects, in other words: spending money), the budgetary restrictions force them to be creative. For example, Hiroki YAMAGUCHI used discarded waste material for the sets of his The Bottled Fools (Gusha no bindume, 2004).

In 2001 Takashi MIIKE made a musical called The Happiness of the Katakuris (Katakurike no kofuku). At some point a vulcano erupts, and the live action suddenly changes into puppet animation. A splendid idea, but was it conceived in advance? Not according to MIIKE. “We didn’t have the money to show a live action eruption with lava overflowing the scene, so I asked these animation guys I knew. They make enough money doing TV commercials, so they did it for free, as a favour.” This illustrates a common enough characteristic of the Japanese film world: you are not in it for the money but for love of cinema. The money is elsewhere. ‘Movie star’ is a very relative concept in Japan.

Digital video and other advanced technology have made it possible to make films virtually on your own and with hardly any money at all. A recent, rather extreme, example of this is Izumi TAKAHASHI’s The Soup, One Morning (Aru asa, soup wa, 2003), which was shown at the International Film Festival Rotterdam this year in the Tiger Awards Competition. This feature-length film was shot on ordinary video and made with a budget of 30,000 yen (less than 250 Euro). Asked what exactly he used this curiously low amount for, TAKAHASHI said: “Some videotape and a curtain for the room in which most of the movie takes place.” That room is where the main actor actually lives, but since the story also features his live-in girlfriend, TAKAHASHI figured the room needed some sort of female touch. The Soup, One Morning was made by four people, all acting as both crew and cast, at times even simultaneously. Shots from the waist up often implied that the actor in the shot was holding a mike, thus being his/her own sound crew.

The absence of financial pressure to recoup invested capital has also inspired amusing initiatives, such as Makoto SHINOZAKI’s 2003 omnibus Cop Festival (Deka matsuri), a kind of parody of the Dogma rules. There are now already five series. SHINOZAKI asked director friends to shoot shorts with certain rules (which may change slightly for each series): the hero has to be a cop (in the first series all played by Susumu TERAJIMA, in the second series necessarily a female), the length should be ten minutes maximum, and there has to be a gag every minute. The cheapest of these shorts apparently cost 10 Euro, and Kiyoshi KUROSAWA shot his episode (Ghost Cop) in three hours (with an additional three hours for editing). Still, the results are often hilarious and stunning in their inventiveness.

Babel confusion

Another conspicuous aspect of Japanese cinema of the past decade is the increasing internationalisation. This internationalisation comes in various shapes and guises. The Hollywood remakes mentioned earlier are but one variation. As a reflection of the growing multicultural nature of Japanese society, more and more Japanese films also show an international mix, both on the screen and on the production level. In previous writings I have described how originally (mis)communication between Japanese and Western culture in Japanese films or films about Japan would almost exclusively happen in (often faltering) English, but gradually the scripts started featuring foreigners who speak Japanese.

This poses a number of practical problems though. In daily life, there is no longer anything exceptional about a foreigner speaking Japanese on the streets of Tokyo or Osaka. On the contrary, it has become kind of expected. But finding experienced foreign actors speaking Japanese has been less obvious.

In Hollywood, the usual approach has been not to care too much about such matters. In Rising Sun (1993) Sean Connery plays a Japan expert fluent in Japanese, but his utterances are hardly comprehensible. Clearly, this big budget production did not see the need for a dialogue coach. The scriptwriter of Mr. Baseball (1992) did not even bother to use real Japanese for the dialogues, but just strung together meaningless words that sounded Japanese to him (“No me hasa mira. Kito min do kai!”). The lack of interest in authenticity is also demonstrated in Steven Spielberg’s Memoirs of a Geisha project. When it was announced last fall that leading roles would be played by Chinese actresses Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, this caused considerable commotion in Japan (and even rumours that the Toei studio would withdraw from the project). But for Hollywood it is perfect marketing logic (no Japanese actress can match Gong Li or Zhang Ziyi in international appeal). It is not just Hollywood that takes the easy way out, for that matter. When Jean Reno travels to Japan in Gerard Krawczyck’s Wasabi (2001), he finds that all Japanese speak French: the immigration officials at Narita, the hotel staff, the bank employees. Convenient, but not very likely.

There are some exceptions. In Michael Mann’s The Insider (2000), Russell Crowe orders sake in a restaurant in pretty acceptable Japanese, but this is because Crowe took Japanese courses in Australian high school. And in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003), Uma Thurman has obviously made serious efforts to sound convincing, probably because Tarantino, unlike most other Western directors who have helmed films about Japan, has enough knowledge of and love for his subject material to try and get it right.

Similarly, Sylvie Testud clearly studied hard for her part in Alain Corneau’s Stupeurs et tremblement (2002). Significantly, Kill Bill also features Julie Dreyfus, a long time resident of Japan, hence fluent in Japanese, and with acting experience. A sign of the times.


Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)

So, how have Japanese directors handled the problem of portraying foreign characters who speak Japanese? Again, often in very creative ways.
Of course, things are easier than they used to be. In Ichigensan (1999) Isao MORIMOTO was able to cast experienced actor Edward Atterton in the role of a Swiss student of Japanese literature in Kyoto. Atterton had spent two years in Japan in the eighties (before the start of his acting career), so with some practice and training he was able to reach a certain degree of proficiency required to make the role credible. Similar examples are Ali Ahmed in a.o. Junk Food (Masashi YAMAMOTO, 1997) and Ruby Moreno in a.o. All Under the Moon (Tsuki wa dotchi ni dete iru, Yoichi SAI, 1993), both of whom live(d) in Japan and speak Japanese on the screen in accordance with their actual abilities. And Takeshi KANESHIRO did not have trouble playing a half-Taiwanese, half-Japanese in Lee Chi Ngai’s Sleepless Town (Fuyajo, 1998), because that’s exactly what this actor is.

For Kamikaze Taxi (1995) Masato HARADA was less ‘authentic.’ He chose a native Japanese (Koji YAKUSHO) to play the part of a Peruvian immigrant speaking only broken Japanese, and had him study and imitate the typical mistakes South Americans make. This was not really a commercial decision, since YAKUSHO at the time wasn’t yet the leading actor he would be in the late nineties. HARADA simply thought it might be ‘interesting’ that way.

Shunji IWAI went even further in Swallowtail Butterfly (1996), in which Japanese actor Hiroshi MIKAMI plays a Chinese man who does not understand a word of Japanese. Certain Caucasian characters in the film, on the other hand, speak virtually perfect Japanese but are non-actors (just like Iwai opted to let a non-actor, TV personality Dave Spector, play the part of a Japanese speaking foreigner his 1992 Ghost Soup).
Still other directors came up with more surprising, but often very efficient solutions. In Currency and Blonde (Tsuka to kinpatsu, 1999) Rokuro MOCHIZUKI introduces the character of blonde American Anna Mc Guire, fluent in Japanese after five years in the country. In the first shot she has her back and long blonde hair turned to the camera, but when she turns around we see a Japanese face. MOCHIZUKI does not even try to further disguise his deceit, as if posing the question: what exactly makes someone ‘foreign?’

For the unreleased Bad Film (shot in 1994) about street gangs of different nationalities in Tokyo, Sono SION let all characters simply speak their own language (Japanese, different kinds of Chinese, English, even some Flemish dialect), so no one understood anyone. In Dead or Alive III: The Final (2002) Takashi MIIKE does the same, but here everybody finds this natural and understands each other, as if Babel never happened. No one in Europe (where so-called Euro-pudding films are nonetheless a real problem) ever came up with that solution.

In Gozu (2003) MIIKE, whose films have probably been the most multicultural of all Japanese directors, also pokes fun at actors who pretend to be fluent in Japanese, when they’ve obviously just memorised lines they don’t understand. In one scene the American wive of a liquor shop owner is revealed to read her Japanese dialogue from cue cards on the wall.

No time for complacency

A third element to keep Japanese directors on the alert to be creative, is the rapid pace at which new talent appears on the scene, as is also apparent in the programming of this Dejima Film Festival, with films by Masafumi YAMADA and Hiroki YAMAGUCHI, both still in their twenties. To a large extent, this is made possible by the structural efforts of independent organisations and institutes like the PIA Film Festival, the center for experimental film Image Forum and The Film School of Tokyo, which play an important role in offering young people with film ambitions a training ground that is adjusted to the actual circumstances in Japan, and a chance to produce films and, importantly, show their work at home and abroad.

In short, considering the chronic budgetary restrictions, the ever changing social circumstances, and the constant influx of new talent, even established Japanese directors have little chance to become complacent these days (in contrast to the heyday of the big studios, when directors could acquire an unassailable, almost godlike status), and that’s a good thing for creativity. So, may the budgets remain low, society multicultural, and the new talent rising.

Luk van Haute wrote his PhD thesis on the early writings of Kenzaburo OE and also translated two novels of the Nobel laureate into English as well as into Dutch. He primarily does research into contemporary Japanese cinema. He is author of the book Revival of the Japanese film (Amsterdam University Press).