On the State of the Japanese Film Industry and Also Myself

Electric Asano

The less I write on this site, the more the writing on this site becomes centered around apologizing for not writing more on this site, but The Hammering Heart was never intended as a blog about not writing, so I will spare any excuses and simply say, “Hello.”

This past summer was defined in part by a series of wakeup calls. Each of the calls suggested that, despite how I’ve constructed an identity for myself as a Guy who Likes Japanese Film, I might not actually be that into Japanese film. 

Or at least, I’m not nurturing that aspect of my identity despite still toting it around. My living room is partitioned from the dining area by a large media shelf containing about eighty of my favorite Japanese movies. None of these movies released more recently than 2008. Over the course of the summer, though, I’ve realized that this speaks not only to how I’ve changed, but also to how the Japanese film industry has changed. In fact, it’s probably more indicative of the latter.

The first wakeup call was this: On Twitter, I made casual contact with Tom Mes, who is probably safe to dub the most prominent Western voice on contemporary Japanese film. That may be a pretty thinly sliced superlative, but that prominent voice of his was one that guided my interest for years. And I mean his literal voice. Those who share my interest may know Tom Mes from his countless DVD commentary tracks, as well as his small but essential library of authored books. He was also a co-founder and main contributor to MidnightEye.com, a site which I’ve long held as, again, the number one Western authority on contemporary Japanese film.

I had already been following Tom Mes on Twitter, and on this particular occasion he retweeted this:

I used this as an opportunity to say this:

To my delight, he replied directly with this:

Cool. It is in this way that, sometimes, Twitter is cool. With minimal effort, I had what sort of constitutes a conversation with someone I admire but don’t actually know. From that, I walked away with a kernel of hope–he might someday write that book I wish existed. Mr. Mes even courteously followed me back, which felt like the Twitter equivalent of a celebrity asking for my autograph.

And yet, several things bothered me about the exchange. First was that, not only was this the first I’d heard of Mr. Mes’s upcoming book on V-cinema–a subject which I have at least told myself I would like to know more about–it was the first I’d heard of Re-Agitator, one of the books pictured in the initial tweet, and one that had already been out for two years. Re-Agitator, of course, is the follow-up to his first book about the films of Takashi Miike: Agitator–a book which I do have, and have barely touched. Considering how excited I was to hear from this personality, I sure wasn’t tuned into anything he’d done lately.

Second was that the man only had about 180 followers. Now, some people aren’t that active on Twitter, and that’s fine. But I couldn’t believe there were fewer than 200 people who, like me, thought to look him up and follow him simply because he had an account–simply to facilitate the potential scenario in which his words might sometimes appear in a feed of words from people whose words you’re interested in reading. By comparison–and I assure you this is 100% a lamentation and 0% a brag–my own follower count has been wavering around the 985 mark for about the last six months (a period over which my activity has rapidly waned, though you wouldn’t know it from that figure). Going by Twitter stats alone, that indicates that there are nearly five times as many people out there interested in hearing the inane shit I have to say as interested in what this highly influential and insightful expert has to say. I don’t know what the takeaway is here, but I suspect it says more about the state of the Japanese film industry and international interest in the topic than it does about anything else.

That day, I vowed to purchase Re-Agitator, his V-cinema book whenever it dropped, and anything else he released that could be purchased.

The next wake-up call was in late July. My wife-elect emailed me one day during work with a link to this. San Francisco was throwing a “J-Pop Summit,” which I still think is a comically staid name for any event for which you can expect “fake maids” to be a category with its own visible slice on the attendee pie chart. Of course, as is the local tradition here with Japan-related events, the summit encompassed not just one facet of Japanese culture, but a wide and seemingly random assortment of Japanese Things, including a Japanese film festival.


↑ Fab artist Yusuke Nakamura was in attendance. Probably should’ve checked that out. =\

Looking at the festival’s schedule, I was a little disturbed to find that the only film that interested me enough to brave the trip into the city was the opening night screening of Electric Dragon 80,000V, which was both the oldest movie on the list by a significant margin, and one I’d already seen.* I think this spoke quite clearly of two realities that had already been gradually dawning on me since before even the Mes Tweet Incident: that the Japanese film industry ain’t what it was ten, fifteen years ago, and that I wasn’t doing much on my part to keep the passion ignited.

It was the prominence of bold and convention-bending auteurs creating deep, dissectible films that drew me to Japanese cinema in the early 2000s. Maybe it was my imagination, but to me this film festival seemed less a celebration of Japan’s great filmmakers, more a string of straightforward documentaries and chicken soup for the soul-type films that happened to be made in the country of Japan. Even the Takeshi Kitano offering, Zatoichi, was probably the most Hollywood Kitano film they could have picked–an upbeat (albeit violent) deviation from his usual deadpan fables of duty and honor, complete with a classic TV license and buckets of digitally enhanced gore.**

Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 12.30.05 PM

Still not sure if the unexplained, extended dance sequence is the most Hollywood thing Kitano’s ever done, or the most Kitano thing he’s ever done.  

Among this selection, Electric Dragon stood out not only because I knew I liked the movie, but also because it was the kind of movie I’d always wished I could have shared with a community of invested viewers, if only to better understand it. This screening seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so: opening night at a Japanese film festival in one of the nation’s most famous and historic theaters, with the Japanese superstar (who plays the lead in Electric Dragon) Tadanobu Asano in the audience, with a Q&A following the screening.

The screening was terrific and I’m glad I went, but again something troubled me. Asano spoke frequently of his recent work overseas, which has mostly been in roles requiring him to speak languages he doesn’t speak. As a long-time fan of the actor, I was excited to see him show up in big-name movies like Thor and (ugh) 47 Ronin, but there’s no denying that these types of roles underutilize his true talent and nuance. 47 Ronin in particular felt like a two-hour long ESL class, with Asano all but visibly updating his resumé as he phoned in each parroted line.

Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 12.14.31 PM

↑ During his attendance at the festival, Asano received an honorary award presented by the  Consulate General of Japan. It wasn’t for Thor. 

I haven’t seen 2007’s Mongol, in which he speaks in phonetically memorized Mongolian, but it’s hard to imagine him faring any better in that. More than once over the course of his Q&A session, Asano expressed his hope that audiences overseas would deem him “necessary,” which I couldn’t help but interpret as a call for help–as though he’d grown weary of the Japanese film industry and was seeking refuge. Or perhaps he simply saw overseas film as the next stepping stone in his career. To be completely fair, Asano himself professed during the Q&A that there was “not a single difficult thing” about playing out the role of Dragon Eye Morrison in Electric Dragon 80,000V; all of his overseas roles, by contrast, have presented the inherent and immense challenge of convincingly delivering dialogue in an alien language (which is extra challenging in a film set in Japan where all but one actor are doing that, and the one actor not doing that is–no offense–Keanu Reeves). Whatever the case, I found it troubling that one of the most prolific, era-defining Japanese performers of the last twenty years was now hanging his hopes on bagging worse roles for which, frankly speaking, I don’t think someone of his talent is necessary.

The third and final wake-up call was more of a death rattle.

Screen Shot 2015-09-22 at 5.24.06 PM

↑ Noooo.

The aforementioned MidnightEye.com announced its retirement, after fifteen years of authoritative writing on Japanese cinema. In fact, it announced its retirement in June and it took me two months to notice. I can’t even protest; I’m part of the problem.

The site’s farewell reflection piece lays bare all the realities that had slowly been dawning on me all summer (and perhaps subconsciously for years), and it does so more eloquently than I can hope to, so I’ll simply offer an excerpt.


The dawn of the new millennium was a really exciting time for Japanese cinema, with people like Takashi Miike coming up, J-horror breaking through internationally, directors like Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Shinji Aoyama, Hirokazu Koreeda and Naomi Kawase establishing themselves as new auteurs on the festival scene. Thanks to a decade of feverish filmmaking activity for the video market, the medium budget range (roughly US$ 400,000 – 1 million per film) was alive and well, with both genre films and arthouse indies (the line between the two was blurry to begin with) making their money on the mini-theater circuit and on video. It was a very diverse and vibrant scene, and our excitement for it led to the decision to create Midnight Eye.

The situation today is much less dynamic. Filmmaking in Japan has largely polarised, with very high budgets (by Japanese standards, i.e. US$ 10 million or a multiple of it) on the one extreme and no-budget indie (or amateur) filmmaking on the other. Films in the former category seek to emulate the Hollywood blockbuster formula and are produced by “film committees”: consortia of production partners, the majority being television stations, advertising agencies and talent agencies rather than traditional film production companies. Each partner has a stake and a say in the filmmaking and the result more often than not literally comes across as something made by committee rather than artistic vision. It is a type of filmmaking that takes no chances: all the stories are based on hit properties (TV series, manga, novels) and the lead actors are pop musicians or TV talento, while the important share of media companies in the production committees is resulting in self-censorship and/or conservative political stances in line with the policies of Shinzo Abe’s government.

By contrast, there is still quite a bit of guts and artistic vision on the no-budget end, but that side suffers from a lack of outlook – for the vast majority of young indie filmmakers there is nowhere to grow after they make their first self-financed feature, even if they had their film shown at festivals abroad and picked up a few awards along the way. Self-financing a movie is an exhausting process that you are not terribly likely to repeat (unless you are Shinya Tsukamoto and it’s in your DNA). They can’t go professional either, because there is simply no room for them in the industry: since the collapse of the video and DVD market medium-budget productions have to all intents and purposes vanished, while the production committees of the high-budget films prefer to hire someone of whom they can be sure, which means either a TV director familiar to the network that has a stake in the production or an experienced hand like Takashi Miike or Yukihiko Tsutsumi who already has a track record making hits.


It is true, however, as the piece goes on to say, that these things tend to occur in waves or cycles, and this is certainly not the first time the Japanese film industry has become stagnant. And to be sure, there are still signs of life for those looking closely enough. Columnist Don Brown’s recurring ONE TAKE ON JAPANESE CINEMA column gives hope, as do new works from veteran auteurs like the somehow still independently funded Shinya Tsukamoto.

I, for my part, walk away with a lesson well learned: If you feel passionate about a trend or scene or thing, you’d better make time to nurture that passion, because it, along with the trend or scene or thing itself, might not always be there. Let alone you yourself. Take it from Rodger Swan.

*To be fair, The Wind Rises definitely would have been worth the trip had I not already seen it relatively recently, and I probably should have checked out Princess Kaguya as well. But after all, half the point I’m trying to make is that I haven’t been doing my part.

**For the record, I do like Kitano’s Zatoichi, and even own a copy of the DVD, which comes with his much more career-defining Sonatine packed in as a slightly odd double-feature presented with an introduction by self-proclaimed Asian film authority Quentin Tarantino: “The thing about Beat Takashi [sic] is…”

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