Reporting last month on the 2010 Tokyo International Film Festival that wrapped up over the weekend, the Financial Times contemplated an ongoing debate surrounding Japan’s film industry—and its declining production levels and increasingly uncertain future:
‘From the films of the late Akira Kurosawa to the cult of “Godzilla” and the rise of anime in the 1980s, the string of award-winning directors, high-profile films and more off-beat offerings that emerged from Japan in the second half of the 20th century has tailed off dramatically.’
The piece notes the increasing prominence of Korean and Chinese cinema internationally, while Japanese exports are lagging further behind. Meanwhile, complaints abound from independent Japanese filmmakers’ about a lack of funding and support in the face of ‘a domestic industry dominated by a handful of mega-studios and distribution companies.’
But while the numbers can’t be ignored, I think it’s also important not to get too caught up in figures alone. After all, Japanese cinema has been around for over a century, and although it might be experiencing a lull in terms of output, it’s likely to remain a cultural force to be reckoned with for a long time to come.
Indeed it’s not really being prolific that has distinguished the Japanese film industry. Rather, it’s the remarkable and widespread influence it’s had upon generations of film-makers, audiences, academics and enthusiasts around the globe. Japan’s film industry has, after all, produced—to cite just a few examples—one of the world’s most acclaimed directors, Akira Kurosawa, (whose Yojimbo series sparked the spaghetti western genre) and ignited worldwide interest in its animation (thanks in large part to the groundbreaking 1998 animated film Akira).
Indeed, the influence of its animation continues to be felt in ways that many Western audiences may not even be aware of. John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios and the director of the Toy Story movies, for example, says he owes legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki a huge debt of gratitude.
‘At Pixar, when we have a problem and we can't seem to solve it, we often take a laser disc of one of Mr. Miyazaki's films and look at a scene in our screening room for a shot of inspiration’, Lasseter once said. ‘And it always works! We come away amazed and inspired. Toy Story owes a huge debt of gratitude to the films of Mr. Miyazaki.’
The director of such hits as My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away may not be a household name in the United States, but his reputation within the industry and growing legion of fans is testament to his continued influence.
Japanese cinema more broadly, meanwhile, is taught as a standalone topic in post-secondary institutions around the world and countless articles and books continue to be produced on the topic.
With such a vast assortment of cinematic offerings that have consistently reached across cultures, it seems too early to be genuinely contemplating the demise of Japanese cinema. And although its future may be more about carving out an influential niche, it’s still worth remembering that recent statistics show Japan, despite a lull, is still the world’s fourth-largest film-producing country, behind India, China and the US.