You were a film producer at Shochiku, one of Japan’s leading companies, after which you started your own company, Team Okuyama, in 1998. How do you view the Japanese film scene in recent years?
My path in the film industry is long and thus represents many twists and turns. The big director names that gave Japanese film an international reputation – such as Kurosawa Akira and Ozu Yasujiro – have given way to the next generation that was influenced by them.
I have worked with directors such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Yamada Yoji, and documentary maker Matsue Tatsuro, whose films continue to be worthy of international praise.
They, like their famous predecessors, portray the essence of what I believe is a good movie. That is, they make films that become landmarks after the screening rather than those that are produced to appeal to a market.
A good film is one that can stun an audience, not cater to it. I would say a director must be able to stand alone, without being complicit with the market. Sadly, most of the new films released in Japan have lost this core value.
Films that are popular today are often produced with the audience in mind – an example is that scenes in the film are based on audience interests, such as choice of venue or props that appeal to a certain generation of viewers. Selection of such is done by producers and directors dependent on the data accumulated by film companies. This strategy is hurting Japanese film.
Indeed, some of Japan’s high rated films in 2016 touted by the film industry as examples of the success of its market strategy are Shin Godzilla, Exile, and Kimi No Nawa (Your Name). They are produced within such a market-driven box.
Let me add that Japanese animation is good and will continue to dominate the international market. Still, this genre is separate to traditional film.
Why has this happened?
It is obvious the Japanese film industry has become a place that is not conducive to nurturing good directors. The big producers have joined hands with distributors and theatres to become a single powerful platform that has captured and dominates the film industry. They are driven by commercial success. As a result, alternative companies that support non-mainstream directors are struggling — 90 percent of them face heavy debt.
Japan is becoming more of a Yes society, increasingly satisfied with bland films promoted by the media that is in turn manipulated by the powerful industry. The audience simply follow what it is told is popular.
Are you planning to change that?
What is an interesting development in the past few years and what I would consider a silver lining is the birth of a small group of aspiring Japanese film people who want change and are willing to make a sacrifice – that is they aren’t coerced into joining the big companies.
They want to make a film market that is exciting and ready to take chances. These people are young, internationally educated and economically well to do and, while they may not take to the streets in protest, are quietly making a change by approaching private business to make good films.
There is a lot of money lying around in Japan. The challenge now is to be able to convince the younger and richer businessmen to invest in film as a powerful tool to break the traditional status quo that is strangling Japan. I am working with some of these people, such as Uzumasa Company that is headed by Sanshiro Kobayashi a former actor. They come to me for advice.
Are Japanese festivals becoming a platform for showcasing films that are not in the mainstream?
Japan has major and minor festivals, but in my view they are not exciting venues for independent films. That’s because these festivals are lead by producers rather than film directors.
A good festival is when directors and producers work together, something like the relationship between a husband and wife. They represent two different roles for a single purpose by combining their different talents. Sadly this kind of leadership is not there and Japanese film festivals tend to lack the lustre of international film festivals.
What is your opinion about Korean films? Are they a threat to films produced in Japan?
A. The high popularity of Korean films in Japan has waned somewhat. But I would say that Korean actors are good and I particularly view film director, Ii Ji-han, as superb.
Korean films have an edge because they are absorbing the best of Japanese, American and European films. But Asia is still waiting for a great international actor – the last and only one of international acclaim was Bruce Lee.
I think the way forward is for collaboration between Japanese and Korean film directors. In fact, I think the best films would be collaborations – for example working with international actors and staff. Different person-to-person relationships can bring exciting results.
Finally, which of these understated Japanese film companies should we be watching out for?
Let me mention my own company, Team Okuyama, of course! Some others are Uzumasa, Kinoshita, and Bunpuku. There are others, too. These companies are needed to create film and tell stories that are not just motivated by commercial success. They must survive.