Japanese Film: The Sinking Sun : Film: Despite the reputation of its classic cinema, the industry is starving for good scripts, churning out plenty of movies that rarely make a profit.


After nearly 11 years of reviewing Japanese films in a weekly column for the Asahi Evening News, critic Alan Booth threw in the towel last December with a one-word verdict on the latest Godzilla movie:


He went on to pan the state of contemporary Japanese cinema. Booth, a trenchant British writer who first came to Japan in 1970 to study noh drama, confessed he enjoyed only a couple dozen of the 510 Japanese movies he had reviewed. A mere handful had been “memorable.”

“Most of the time, buying a ticket and going into a cinema has been a chore, not a pleasure,” Booth wrote. “In all honesty, I think that a weekly review of Japanese films is an unnecessarily promiscuous use of recycled rain forest timber.”


Such peevishness may seem at odds with the international reputation of Japan’s classic cinema. Only the other day, Hollywood paid homage to one of the great Japanese directors--the venerable Akira Kurosawa, 80, creator of “Rashomon,” “Seven Samurai” and “Ran”--with an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement.

But from the vantage point of the theater seat in Tokyo, Kurosawa and his ilk are phantoms of the past. The Japanese motion picture industry is now at its nadir, starving for good scripts, stifling creativity with miserly production budgets and churning out a lot of trashy movies that rarely make much money.

Consider last year’s No. 1 box office hit, “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” which pulled in about $35 million in ticket sales. This was an animated film about a clumsy adolescent witch who delivers packages by broomstick. Animator Hayao Miyazaki lumped dirigibles with television sets in an oddly incoherent European landscape, where signs at the boulangerie are written in Japanese characters.

Despite the cartoon’s conceptual flaws, Miyazaki’s fable about the rite of passage into teen-age self-confidence still managed to outshine most the rest of the domestic film industry’s 1989 crop, at least in terms of screenplay and production quality. And Kiki’s acting was arguably more realistic than the melodramatic outbursts of her human colleagues.

“Why is it that contemporary Japan is so advanced economically, but has so few serious movies to show the world its culture?” asked Kazuko Komori, a veteran film critic and James Dean fanatic who visits her idol’s grave in Indiana every summer.

“I see a lot of foreign films, so when I review a Japanese production I’ve got to lower my standards drastically,” said Komori, 81, who wore gold tights and pancake makeup during a recent interview at the “movie cafe” she runs in Tokyo’s Roppongi entertainment district. “The scripts are so bad to begin with (that) there’s not much you could do, even with the best of actors.”

Japan’s most prestigious film of 1989 was “Black Rain” (Kuroi Ame), in which director Shohei Imamura ministers over an agonizing, sentimental adaptation of Masuji Ibuse’s classic novel about a family’s suffering caused by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.


“Black Rain” swept the Japanese equivalent of the Academy Awards, garnered two prizes at the Cannes Film Festival and drew enthusiastic audiences in Paris and New York.

Curiously, the movie’s cinematographic style--grainy black and white--is a throwback to the 1950s. The viewer looks back with nostalgia to the “golden era” of Japanese cinema, when directors like Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu attracted international acclaim--and Imamura himself did some of his better work.

Although the A-bomb melodrama was an artistic success, it put on a flat performance at the box office. “Kiki,” the colorful cartoon movie, took in 27 times more in receipts than “Black Rain.” But the little witch earned only half as much as the top imported film of last year, the latest Indiana Jones installment, according to the trade magazine Kinema Jumpo.

“You have to be a little crazy to make quality feature films in Japan,” Imamura said the other day. “My work may have a high artistic reputation, but I don’t make any money at this. I’m not starving, but I have lots of debts.”

Imamura, 63, lives on a modest salary from a filmmaking school he founded.

Ironically, while independent producer-directors like Imamura are struggling to raise cash for their films, a surge of Japanese capital is now flowing into Hollywood.

Last year Sony Corp. raised xenophobic hackles about “buying the soul of America” with its $3.4-billion takeover of Columbia Pictures. Sony’s avowed aim was to satisfy an itch for American software to complement its formidable hardware capabilities in VCR technology and high-definition television.

Likewise, another major electronics maker, Victor Co. of Japan Ltd. (JVC), invested more than $100 million last year in a new U.S. film production company, Largo Entertainment. JVC had earlier funded director Jim Jarmusch’s “Mystery Train”--starring a young Japanese couple in search of Elvis.

Such corporate largess has so far eluded Japan’s most reputable filmmakers. Kurosawa, for one, has been forced to go outside the Japanese industry to finance his films for nearly two decades. At home, his genius is considered too expensive--and too risky.

Juzo Itami, the satirical master who directed “Tampopo” and “The Taxing Woman,” had to mortgage his house to finance his first film. Luckily, it was a hit.

“A film like ‘Seven Samurai’ could never be made today,” said Haruo Mizuno, prominent film critic and loquacious TV movie host. “The great directors can’t make movies anymore because producers are afraid they’ll have no control over how much money they’d spend. As a result, there’s no big work being done in Japan, only small work.”

Mizuno speculates that “a lack of social tension” is partly to blame for a kind of creative bankruptcy among today’s younger screenwriters and directors. It was no accident that the “golden era” of film coincided with the turbulent years of the postwar period, he said.

But money--or the lack of it--undoubtedly is a key to the artistic tailspin that Japanese cinema went into precisely about the time Kurosawa started going abroad to finance his films.

With the advent of television, Japan became a nation of what might be called “ tatami potatoes” ( tatami are the straw mats covering the floors of traditional homes). Movie fans abandoned the big screen and stayed home to watch their televisions and, later, VCRs.

The movie market peaked in 1958, when Japanese bought 1.3 billion cinema tickets. Last year attendence was down to 143.5 million--13% of the peak--and only 1,912 movie houses remained in business.

Pinched by the loss of revenues, the major movie studios have almost entirely gotten out of the business of producing feature films and diversified into such enterprises as pornographic videos, bowling alleys, real estate and off-track bicycle-race betting.

In a few cases, companies outside the entertainment industry have stepped in to underwrite film projects, with dubious results.

The most notorious example of this genre was “Dun Huang,” an extravaganza period drama filmed along the Silk Road in China with thousands of horses and extras in battle regalia arrayed across the desert. The heroes of “Dun Huang” emoted by screaming their lines at the tops of their lungs.

The $40-million production took in about $30 million in film rentals in 1988, a “big hit” in Japan but apparently a disappointment as an investment--despite aggressive ticket sales campaigns by two of its corporate backers, Marubeni Corp., the trading company, and Dentsu Inc., the world’s largest advertising agency.

“ ‘Dun Huang’ was childish, below the lowest common denominator, a lousy picture--and everybody knew it from the beginning,” said Donald Richie, the former film curator at New York’s Museum of Modert Art and one of the foremost authorities on Japanese film.

Yet the Silk Road saga signaled a new direction for the film industry. C. Itoh & Co., another major trading house, helped finance last year’s “Rikyu,” a lavish, dull production about a 16th Century tea master and his samurai political entanglements. Hiroshi Teshigahara, a star avant-garde director of the 1960s, returned from 17 years of silence to make the film. Theaters filled up largely because tea-ceremony and flower-arranging societies hawked tickets, critics say.

How Japanese corporate cash will behave in Hollywood will be a matter of keen interest. Although Sony has vowed to take a hands-off approach to managing its new studio, Richie is skeptical about the Japanese company’s ability to resist the temptation to meddle.

“I believe the genius of the Japanese is to never take their hands off things, to always be tinkering and making it better,” he said. “Will they (Sony executives) start giving orders? I can’t imagine them not. I can’t imagine any boss not giving orders.”

Meanwhile, in the anthropology of bad movies, Japan is a field worker’s dream.

Last year, for instance, Japanese films dissected small-town electoral corruption (“Conditions of a Virtuous Man”), transplanted the “Rocky” boxing myth to a seedy section of Osaka (“ Dotsuitaru-nen! “), illuminated the stinking internal politics of a big newspaper (“Corporate Funeral”), offered a guided tour to heaven--and hell--by an actor famous for playing gangsters (“The Great Spirit World”) and proved that the murderous leaders of a failed 1936 military coup were really sappy, sentimental family men (“Four Days of Snow and Blood”).

The ultimate in Japanese cinema kitsch is the “Tora-san” series, a maudlin comic drama that Japanese have been returning to every summer and winter for 21 years.

Director Yoji Yamada has racked up 42 installments so far of “It’s Tough to Be a Man,” a mark in the Guinness Book of World Records that not even India’s prolific filmmakers seem close to challenging. The films are so safe that they are among the few still being produced by a major studio. (Each installment earns Shochiku Co. about $10 million in film rentals.) Kiyoshi Atsumi stars as Torajiro Kuruma, or Tora-san, the wandering peddler who strikes a chord in the nation’s heart because he is so carefree, unattached and independent--characteristics that are exactly the antithesis of socially prescribed values. Tora-san is the inverse image of Japan’s group-oriented, sacrificing Everyman.

Until last January’s No. 42 in the series, each film had the same aging cast of characters and basically the same plot: Tora-san returns from his travels to a long-suffering family, falls in love with a new woman, gets rejected, passes her on to a rival, then takes to the road again.

“Seeing these films should be like wearing an old shirt,” said Yamada, Tora-san’s creator, scriptwriter and director. “People go to the theater to meet Tora-san, like a friend.”

There are signs now that the nostalgic ritual is finally winding down. In the latest film, Tora-san’s nephew takes the lead, while he steps back into an avuncular supporting role.

What makes the Tora-san formula work so well isn’t entirely clear to Yamada, but that doesn’t stop him from being philosophical.

“Tora-san doesn’t like to ride the bullet train--it goes so fast it leaves his spirit behind. He prefers to walk,” Yamada said in an interview. “The Japanese have forgotten something in their hurry to advance. Tora-san is going back and picking up what we’ve lost, so we can go forward.”