Financial Times recently published an article by Julian Williams about the film series “Whose Film Is It Anyway,” which is being held by the Japan Foundation throughout the UK till March 28th. The article does a rare, fantastic job of discussing issues about Japanese film and how they’re represented abroad. I’d like to feature some particularly noteworthy points and even respond to some of them here.
“There are three main strands of Japanese film shown in the west: animation, sex and horror. None of these owes much to traditional Japanese film, but what are niche titles in their own country are often taken as examples of national cinema when they move abroad.”
When I was in college in the U.S., I was an officer in my school’s Japan Club, as I’m sure many of you Japanophiles also were. The club members were always debating the issue of how to show the “real Japan” to Americans — not the fighting schoolgirls, the tentacle porn, and sushi. *shudder*
Japanese Americans felt shame and even anger that Sushi Typhoon was a representation of Japan abroad. Americans who had visited Japan before would try to assert their “Japanophile cred” by stating their love of traditional culture, not anime.
The issue of only a select portion of Japanese films and, more generally, culture making it abroad is a prevalent one.
“‘I think what film distributors select for release in Britain is mostly based on how we like to view Japan, rather than any reality about the country itself,’ says Jasper Sharp, author of The Historical Dictionary of Japanese Cinema, and contributor to Whose Film Is It Anyway?, the Japan Foundation’s touring programme of recent Japanese film.”
Sharp makes a good point. To further elaborate on his point: deciding what film makes it abroad is largely a business decision.
If you try to sell Japanese films in the West, you’re confronted with the reality that Nobody Knows, a “traditional” Japanese film, made only $1.6M in box office sales. “Traditional” Japanese films are expensive to obtain rights for (oftentimes due to unrealistic expectations from Japanese rightsholders) and have unpredictable returns. A film like Robo Geisha is significantly cheaper and there’s plenty of data showing the expected returns.
Of course, there are always people who make decisions out of reasons other than business. Japan Flix certainly tries to do so, whenever possible. We aren’t a huge corporation with investors and shareholders breathing down our neck. We are a bunch of guys who are selling movies because we love doing so. We can afford to sell a movie that may not do so well financially, just because we really want to share it to audiences outside of Japan. But that’s probably why we’re such a small outfit still.
But with that “justification” out of the way, I must say this:
While it’s true that otaku subculture, which is predominantly (but not solely) the target of this hate, is only a portion of Japanese culture, it’s a very important part of Japanese identity. Not only should it not be a subject of shame, but Japanophiles should embrace and be proud of it.
Japan is often accused of being a country of mimics. I strongly disagree. Japan is one of the most unique and creative countries in the world. What other country has created art like manga and anime that’s so strange, fascinating, and capable of instilling so much cult adulation and disgust? Not just manga and anime. Japan’s pop music, green technologies, public transportation system, haiku, sushi & tempura, gothic lolita fashion, geishas & ninjas & samurai, and video games all make Japan special.
So, instead of labeling one strand of Japanese film traditional and the others unrepresentative, lets be proud that any Japanese film is appreciated abroad! It doesn’t matter what kind of film — from splatter porn to Departures — it always makes me happy to have someone tell me how much they love Japanese film.
“Of course, we can’t, and shouldn’t, separate a film from its country of origin. But film is a human medium and its roots (pathos, empathy, joy, anger, fear) are universal elements.”
I thought it would be nice to end on this point: Good Japanese films are good not only because of their different settings, different customs, different styles of expression, but also because they tell the stories of characters and plots you can sympathize with.
Let us know your thoughts about Japanese film, Japanese culture, and how Japan is represented abroad in the comments below. We’re also looking forward to reading your replies on twitter, facebook, and Google+.
A big thanks to Julian Williams at the Financial Times for a fantastic read.