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Old Hollywood, new Japan

Times Staff Writer

OLD-TIME Hollywood moguls would have loved a film producer like Chihiro Kameyama.

Sure, they might have raised an eyebrow at the former TV executive’s designer glasses and, no, he wasn’t chomping a cigar as he held forth on the healthy state of Japanese movies from a corner office of Fuji TV’s headquarters, the eccentric Tokyo landmark that looks like it belongs on “The Jetsons.”

But when Kameyama talks pictures, well ... you can just feel the ghosts of Zanuck and Mayer and their studio yes-men nodding in agreement at his chatter.

Entertain, entertain, entertain! That’s Kameyama’s credo. Japanese audiences want movies that make them laugh and cry, he says. They want their made-in-Japan movies to have characters they can relate to, not some knock-off American superhero. (“Nobody would buy a Japanese Schwarzenegger,” he says. “It wouldn’t be credible.”) You gotta give them characters they recognize from everyday life, he says.

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Oh -- and not too much blood. “People don’t die in our movies,” Kameyama says simply. “We’re going for a mass audience, and you can’t have a lot of bloodshed and people dying. You’d think in a disaster movie people would ask: ‘How can nobody die?’ But they don’t.” He shrugs. “It makes me think that people don’t want to see so much violence after all.”

It’s a collection of aphorisms Kameyama has stirred into box office riches for Fuji, which, in addition to being Japan’s biggest commercial TV broadcaster, has become a prolific producer of the live-action feature films that are seriously cutting into Hollywood’s share of the box office.

Fuji is not alone. All four of Japan’s powerful TV networks have entered the movie business, creating a new source of domestic film production that is changing the economics of Hollywood’s biggest market outside the U.S.

“Hollywood still has hits, but overall, their movies have gotten boring and Japanese audiences have gotten up,” says Yoshio Kakeo, director of the Kinema Junpo Film Institute and a leading voice on the Japanese film industry.

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Audiences weren’t so picky back in the ‘90s, when Hollywood could send just about anything across the Pacific and the Japanese would pay to see it. The American invasion that picked up speed in the early ‘60s had finally surpassed the Japanese studios for ticket sales in 1975, a grip on the Japanese moviegoers’ hearts and wallets that seemed to only tighten every year.

But in the last four years, the Japanese share of the domestic industry has begun to claw back a portion of Hollywood’s market share. Domestic films bottomed out at just 27% of the Japanese market in 2002. Since then, that share has risen every year, reaching 41% of the country’s $1.68-billion box office in 2005.

Last year’s Japanese take was due, in large part, to the box office juggernaut of animation doyen Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle,” which grossed almost twice as much by year’s end as “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” its closest competitor. But the Japanese run of successes has continued through 2006, and not just in animation, where “Tales From Earthsea,” directed by Miyazaki’s son, Goro, has enjoyed a long run in the No. 1 slot.

This summer season’s movie buzz was also about live-action flicks such as “The Sinking of Japan,” a disaster epic in which the entire Japanese archipelago goes under, and “Umizaru 2: Test of Trust,” another disaster/rescue flick. That follows the surprising No. 1 run this year of “Suite Dreams,” a comedy (who said the Japanese wouldn’t pay to see comedy because their TV is full of it?).

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The trend looks set to continue into the fall with films like “Udon,” a late summer release about a man returning from a failed attempt to make it in New York who discovers pleasures -- and presumably the metaphor -- in the simplicity of a perfect bowl of udon noodles.

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U.S. blockbusters still strong

NO ONE is suggesting Hollywood’s footprint is about to disappear. The big American blockbuster remains safe in Japan, where Johnny Depp and his band of bandanas have been the year’s biggest hit, just ahead of “The Da Vinci Code’s” big box office take. For one thing, blockbusters still get the benefit of being shown on far more screens than any Japanese movie not made by a Miyazaki.

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It’s the middle market where Hollywood is being squeezed by this rediscovered interest in domestic live-action fare. With overall ticket sales flat -- stuck around 160 million a year in a country of 126 million -- competition is a zero-sum game.

And the losers have been American films like “Syriana,” “The Omen” and “Eight Below,” all of which swiftly came and went from the top 10, chased out by Japanese movies.

Kakeo says the major shift in viewing habits came when Japanese TV companies jumped into the business of making live-action films in conjunction with Japan’s major distributors and began pumping up domestic movie budgets. These are rich networks, which have proved immune to the terrifying economics of the shrinking mass audience faced by their U.S. counterparts. Cable is a minor player in Japan; TiVo not a factor.

“Until the late 1990s, everybody in Japan was making movies for Cannes and Venice, and that’s why Japanese audiences wouldn’t watch Japanese movies,” he says. “But in the late 1990s, the TV companies started producing movies. The four TV companies are still very influential in Japan. And they are very competitive.”

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Indeed, Kameyama’s credo could just as easily be “promote, promote, promote!” A large part of Fuji’s success, everyone acknowledges, comes from its huge advantage in being able to push a film on airwaves it owns. All the TV networks do it, perhaps none with the gusto of Fuji, which saturates its daily TV programming schedule, from breakfast talk shows and on into the “golden time” variety shows, with promos for its movies.

“It’s the strength of being on home ground: We have access to the strongest medium in Japan,” Kameyama says. “We can have the cast appear on all our shows, whereas with Hollywood, the A-list stars fly in for 24 hours, give a press conference, appear at a gala, and they’re gone.”

One result of this swing is that more movies are getting made in Japan. Last year, the Japanese industry released 356 films -- its highest number since 1992 -- filling the demand that has accompanied the emergence of multiplexes in Japan.

“The old school said people will go to see only one movie in the summer season,” says Kameyama. “It was like going to Disneyland. People planned it as a day out. They brought their lunch. But with the multiplexes, we want people to say, ‘Why not go see three movies?’ That’s how you expand markets.”

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The Hollywood studios are not oblivious to this challenge to their biggest overseas market, especially one in which most people still pay to watch the movies instead of pirating them.

They have begun buying and distributing more Asian films and are striking co-production deals of their own with the networks. “Death Note,” this summer’s massive horror hit, was a co-production between Warner and Nippon Television.

It’s an approach that allows American studios to tap the Japanese networks’ ability to find their audiences’ sweet spot.

The networks have been particularly adept at writing movies around TV shows and characters with proven appeal, such as Fuji’s “Bayside Shakedown,” originally a light police drama that had been a hit TV series for Fuji and is now a series of hit movies.

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Kameyama, who produced “Bayside Shakedown,” says the multimedia model was forged by the anime industry, which was the first to realize that it could showcase popular characters on media platforms from comic books to TV and movies. Some anime is now even downloaded onto cellphones. “We move side by side with the audience,” says Kameyama. “We don’t get too far ahead of them.”

To critics, that sounds too much like commerce and not enough like art.

“Fuji is aiming for entertainment, not good movies,” complains Kakeo. “It is just product. And because of the huge PR power of the networks, independent filmmakers are being pushed to the edge of the market. We are losing diversity.”

So are Kameyama and his TV brethren saving Japanese film? Or destroying it?

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“Both,” says Kakeo. “But I suppose,” he adds with a smile, “his contributions are still greater than his sins.”

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bruce.wallace@latimes.com

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On the Web

See more images from Japanese films and the people behind them at www.latimes.com/japanfilm.


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