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Japanese Film, Producer’s Medium

door Tom Mes

Blame it on the auteur theory, but the balance of chronicled Japanese film history has long been firmly tipped in favour of the director. However, just as that paragon of director-led filmmaking called the French Nouvelle Vague needed a Georges de Beauregard to get its projects off the ground, so does the history of Japanese film – and not in the least that of the past fifteen years or so – demonstrate a crucial role for producers.

The producer system

The average Hollywood film today carries a whole string of producer credits, whose number habitually runs into the double digits. What exactly the difference is between a producer, a co-producer, an associate producer and an executive producer is anyone’s guess. Though such American terms have recently invaded Japan’s film industry as well, the Japanese production system is slightly more transparent, traditionally with only two, quite sharply defined, production titles: the seisakusha, or producer, and the kikakusha, commonly translated as ‘planner’.

In the studio system of old, the seisakusha was often the studio’s head of production, sometimes even the head of the company, as in the case of NAGATA Daiei’s Masaichi. The kikakusha had a more hands-on function. That the title of planner as such doesn’t exist in the American and European filmmaking tradition is an indication of a peculiarity of Japanese cinema: that of the producer as the originator not only of the project but also of the creative concept. The planner usually worked in close collaboration with the director and scriptwriter he had assigned to the project. One example is SHUNDO Koji at Toei, who shepherded the bulk of his company’s trademark yakuza films during the 1960s and ’70s, generating projects for an illustrious stable of stars like TAKAKURA Ken and TSURUTA Koji and directors that included KATO Tai and FUKASAKU Kinji. It was Shundo who came up with the idea for the Fukasaka's quintessential Battles without Honour and Humanity series, for instance.

The more fragmented production environment of the post-studio period of the 1980s saw the introduction of a third title, the anglicised term purodyusa (‘producer’). On the one hand this was an indication that the industry was trying to copy a Hollywood model. More importantly, though, with an ever larger proportion of films getting made through co-production and, in more recent years, production committee structures (in which each investor comes from a specialist market and receives a share of the rights – theatrical, video, satellite, merchandising, etc. in return for its money), the new term kept the delegates of the various production partners on equal footing, circumventing the hierarchical weight attached to studio-era terminology.

A counter current

The early 1960s saw the first cracks appearing in the studio hegemony, with television forming a growing threat. In part as a response to weakening studio power, the talent began to rupture with its employers and directors and stars went off on their own. The Japanese New Wave began at the Shochiku studios through fledgling directors OSHIMA Nagisa, SHINODA Masahiro and YOSHIDA (later Kiju) Yoshishige, who wanted to make a clean break with filmmaking conventions. It began to properly pick up steam when these names left the studio and came together in the new production and distribution outfit Art Theatre Guild (ATG), where they were united with figures from the underground and student filmmaking worlds. Simultaneously, several of the bigger stars founded their own production companies in order to have more control over their careers and the kind of projects they appeared in. Youth movie icon Yujiro Ishihara spread his wings in 1963 and produced ICHIKAWA Kon'sAlone in the Pacific (Taiheiyo Hitoribotchi) under his Ishihara Pro banner. MIFUNE Toshiro, NAKAMURA Kinnosuke and KATSU Shintaro followed his example and before the decade was out, actors and directors had become their own producers.

The result was a more radical, director-based filmmaking modelled after the French Nouvelle Vague on the one hand and an increase in tailor-made star vehicles on the other. But these upstarts were only partially independent, since they continued to rely on the majors that still held sway over distribution and exhibition channels. ATG was largely funded by Toho, while the stars who left the studios did so in the knowledge that a comfortable distribution deal with their former employers would be waiting for them as soon as they had their paperwork in order.

The Kadokawa years

The power of the studios continued to erode over time, culminating in the bankruptcies of Shintoho in the early 1960s and Daiei a decade later. By the dawn of the 1980s, the studio system was flat on its back, with the survivors abandoning production altogether, choosing to concentrate on distributing foreign (read Hollywood) films and movies from outside production houses through their networks of theatres. The exception to the rule was Nikkatsu, which soldiered on with its Roman Porno line of glossy skinflicks, all made in-house by a younger, and therefore cheaper, generation of scriptwriters, directors and actors.

Into this vacuum stepped a number of enterprising newcomers, business-minded men who mostly came from outside the film industry and who sensed the opportunities. Chief among these was KADOKAWA Haruki, scion of a publishing empire who invested part of his father’s fortune in the Kadokawa Film Company and began producing a series of self-conscious blockbusters modelled after the formula that had become the norm in Hollywood since Jaws and Star Wars. Employing all-star casts of now out-of-work stars like CHIBA Sonny and KUSAKARI Masao and former studio A-list directors including ICHIKAWA Kon and FUKASAKU Kinji, Kadokawa came to dominate much of the decade with a series of high-concept crowdpullers, including the disaster movie Virus (Fukkatsu no Hi, 1980) and the recently remade G.I. Samurai (Sengoku Jieitai, 1983). That it was the producer who called the shots on these films was unmistakable; the directors, happy to simply be able to keep working, gladly shaped them to their producer’s wishes, often going so far as to give the publicity-savvy mogul a bit part in many of the films. Not content with his cameo roles, Kadokawa also tried his hand at directing with 1982’s Dirty Hero (Yogoreta Eiyu), which he followed with another five titles before abruptly ending his reign in suitably headline-grabbing fashion: he was arrested for cocaine smuggling and sentenced to four years in prison in 1996.

Meanwhile, ATG had not remained complacent. In the late 1970s the company found itself a new head in the shape of producer SASAKI Shiro, who promptly began a rejuvenation of its output. Such young leading lights of the 8mm movement as ISHII Sogo, OMORI Kazuki, MORITA Yoshimitsu and NAGASAKI Shunichi took what was in many cases their first stab at a professional feature under Sasaki's tutelage.

Zen

the Grudge (Juon, 2003)
 

The commercial and critical success of Morita's Family Game (Kazoku Geimu, 1983) launched the young director into the big leagues and quickly saw him ensnared by the aforementioned KADOKAWA Haruki for the melodrama Main Theme (Mein Tema, 1984). Former actor ITAMI Juzo also got his start as a director under Sasaki with The Funeral (Ososhiki, 1980), the first in a string of hit satirical comedies that would see Itami grow into one of the decade’s main moneyspinners.

ATG also invested in SUZUKI Seijun Zigeunerweisen (Tsigoineruwaizen, 1980), the much-lauded enigmatic, haunting comeback film by the former Nikkatsu action director. It was produced by former theatre producer ARATO Genjiro, who devised a strategy that would allow the film to be screened outside of the regular distribution channels still dominated by the majors: he built a tent-like mobile structure that functioned as a temporary cinema, which could be erected in public spaces like parks or parking lots. By passing the system entirely, Arato's concept brought cinema directly from producer to spectator, cutting out the middlemen. His strategy had the desired effect: it drew crowds and won the film a slew of prizes.

Revival

The ATG saga ended in 1989, ironically the year that signalled the emergence of a new generation of young filmmakers, who would form the vanguard to a revival in the 1990s. ARATO Genjiro was such a turning point again, producing Knock-Out (Dotsuitarunen, 1989), the directorial debut of ISHII Sogo's former assistant SAKAMOTO Junji. Another of the signature films of that year was KITANO Takeshi's Violent Cop (Sono Otoko, Kyobo ni Tsuki, 1989), produced by the young Shochiku executive OKUYAMA Kazuyoshi, whose later falling out with the director over his international breakthrough film Sonatine (1993) would prompt the actor/director to set up his own production outfit Office Kitano, much like the stars of the 1960s had done. Okuyama had a vigour and a talent for playing the media that was reminiscent of KADOKAWA Haruki, never more so than when he had another falling out with a filmmaker, this time over Shochiku’s centenary film Rampo, a lavish and fanciful biopic of the famed mystery author Edogawa Rampo. Okuyama threw out the original director and reshot almost the entire film. Manipulating the furore to the film’s advantage, he released both versions into theatres in order to “let the audience decide which one is best,” meanwhile making sure that his own film played on far more screens than the original.

Zen

Eureka (2000)
 

Around the same time, video had given the film industry an entirely new market. With Japan’s miraculous bubble economy reaching its peak, money was flowing freely and the kind of tax-deductible investment offered by the straight-to-video (V-cinema) market was too good to pass up for many a new millionaire. With dozens of small companies churning out low budget production-line genre product, the days of the studio program pictures lived again, and with it a similar production structure that saw planners tailoring projects around their stable of stars. Though decidedly more modest in stature and quality than the old studio product, V-cinema gave rise to many of leading filmmakers of the last fifteen years. MIIKE Takashi, MOCHIZUKI Rokuro, KUROSAWA Kiyoshi, AOYAMA Shinji and many others found a receptive training ground with production outfits such as KSS and Excellent Film. Producers like ITO Hidehiro, KIMURA Toshiki and CHIBA Yoshinori lorded, fairly democratically, over a slate of projects that would include several epoch-making films, such as Miike's Shinjuku Triad Society (Shinjuku Kuroshakai, 1995) and Mochizuki's Another Lonely Hitman (Shin Kanashiki Hitman, 1995) and The Fire Within (Onibi, 1997).

It was the breakthrough film of one such V-cinema director, NAKATA Hideo's The Ring (Ringu, 1998), that would also launch a trio of producers into the limelight who would go on to play a key role in developments in Japanese cinema in the latter half of the 1990s and early 2000s. KAWAI Shinya, SENTO Takenori and ICHISE Takashige, delegated purodyusa in the production committee that financed the film, all had extensive backgrounds in both television and cinema. Kawai had worked for the Fuji TV network before producing IWAI Shunji's hits Love Letter (1995) and Swallowtail Butterfly (Suwaroteiru, 1997), and post-Ring he would come to head Pony Canyon, one of the mini-majors that would grow into a filmmaking force to rival the studios in the late ’90s.

Between 1997 and 2001, SENTO Takenori's name became virtually synonymous with Japanese cinema in the eyes of many a foreign film festival-goer, producing a string of films that seemed more tailored to the overseas arthouse crowd than the home market. KAWASE Naomi's Suzaku (Moe no Suzaku, 1997), SUWA Nobuhiro's 2/Duo (1997) and M/Other (1999) and AOYAMA Shinji's Eureka (2001) had the foreign press buzzing with excitement over a ‘New New Wave’ of Japanese film and won awards left, right and center. Intimate and auteurist, the films went down well abroad, but made hardly a blip on the radar back home. Sento was unashamed in his ambitions to cater his films to the foreign market, favouring the screens of Paris and New York over Japan’s hinterland.

Ironically, it was his attempt to make a film aimed at Japanese audiences that would prove to be his undoing. ISHII Sogo's lavish swordplay spectacle Gojoe (Gojo Reisenki, 2000) became a costly flop, bombing at the box office, underperforming on video and generating no foreign sales until a very belated American DVD release in 2005.

The star of ICHISE Takashige, on the other hand, is still on the rise and currently shining brightly on the Japanese film firmament. While Sento made it his mission to penetrate the foreign market, it was Ichise who found the breach. Reaping most of the benefits of the Hollywood remake of The Ring, he became the go-to guy for American producers looking for the next hot property in Asian horror.

It was no surprise that Ichise quickly and snugly settled himself in as a Hollywood producer in his own right after also selling the remake rights to SHIMIZU Takashi's The Grudge (Juon, 2003); he already had an extensive background in American-Japanese co-productions, having worked for Toei on such crossover action films as American Yakuza (1993, starring Viggo Mortensen and ISHIBASHI Ryo), No Way Back (1995, which coupled heartthrob TOYOKAWA Etsushi to a then unknown Russell Crowe) and a pair of vehicles for the exotic video action star Mark Dacascos, Crying Freeman (1996) and Drive (1997).

His given name conveniently shortened to Taka, Ichise is now in the unprecedented position of straddling the film industries of Hollywood and Japan. As if realising that Western audiences will inevitably reach their Asian horror saturation point within the next few years, if not earlier, Ichise is using his newfound bankability and Tinseltown clout to the benefit of films back home in Japan. That the first batch of these look suspiciously like product tailor-made to cash in on the success of The Ring and The Grudge while the going is good, is something for which we can hardly blame him. He is, after all, a producer.

Tom Mes is founder and editor of the website www.midnighteye.com, dedicated to Japanese cinema and author of the critically acclaimed book Agitator - The Cinema of Takashi Miike (FAB Press) as well as co-author, with Jasper Sharp, of the The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film (Stone Bridge Press). At the moment he is writing a book on Japanese filmmaker TSUKAMOTO Shinya.