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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 11:22 07/22/2008
July 22, 2008

Future Prospects for Japanese Film Industry: A View from Hollywood

Chisako YOKOYAMA (Principal, International School of Motion Pictures, Los Angeles, U.S.A.)

This article is based on an interview with Ms. Yokoyama in Los Angeles, California, on July 16, 2008.

It has been almost two years since I started this film school in Los Angeles to train students, mostly from Japan, in movie making of the Hollywood style. Although the students have different backgrounds and different levels of preparation, they all seem to enjoy learning how to make movies at this school, because the Hollywood style of filmmaking is new to them and indeed quite interesting by itself.

The Hollywood style means that filmmaking is a kind of "project," where a producer as the project leader manages the entire process of filmmaking, including financial management, according to well-established programs, where even movie scripts should follow certain patterns to ensure the quality of final products. It is the producer who hires not only actors and staff members, but also a director for the movie at hand. This is necessary to make a kind of movies that are marketable and accepted by audiences at large in a highly competitive business environment, where movie theaters are not controlled by producers or studios as in Japan, but are independently managed and able to choose which films to show by their own criteria. To meet their criteria, producers make every effort to produce good movies.

One other point about the Hollywood style is a high degree of division of labor and specialization in filmmaking. For example, there may be a dozen specialists in making the CG part of a Hollywood movie with each specialist in charge of a certain aspect of the CG to be coordinated by a CG coordinator, whereas all of those CG aspects are taken care of by only one or two CG staff members in the case of Japanese filmmaking. Since almost every part of Hollywood-style film making is programmed, according to rules and manuals, various fields of specialization can easily be defined and, as a result, various specialists can effectively be trained and utilized, where they are adequately paid because of their special contributions to the project as well as "union protection" in their specialized field.

In view of these practices in Hollywood, one can easily point out some problems with Japanese-style filmmaking. First of all, the entire process of filmmaking in Japan seems almost opposite to that in Hollywood, as Japanese investors often get together to choose popular actors and singers (to sing the movie's theme song) first in order to ensure a financial success in the market, and then pick a director to make a movie as he likes without any checking or feedback, where a script is somehow written along the way. Therefore, there is no assurance that good movies will be produced, even though enough money can be raised to produce them. This is only made possible in Japan, where the major movie companies have their own theater outlets to show their own movies to attract large audiences. Obviously, this is no way to make good movies by international standards.

Another problem with Japan's film industry is its unsatisfactory and often intolerable working conditions in filmmaking. In particular, low wages and long working hours are widespread in the industry, which is dominated by large movie companies, benefiting from their dominant position in the market, while paying minimum amounts of wages to filmmaking staff members in exchange for their job security and stability not as specialists but as company employees. Furthermore, they are not protected by their own unions, because they only belong to their company's union, just as company employees in any other industry in Japan. It is a kind of irony that probably the worst working conditions can be found in "anime" film production, which is regarded as the best kind of Japanese movies from the outside. Clearly, this is no way to attract good people, especially talented young people, to the film industry, which will suffer in the long run.

It seems, however, that many people in Japan's film industry have realized the seriousness of these problems, and have been trying to do something about them, although large organizations and money flow in the industry are hard to change. In this regard, it is encouraging to see the Japanese government taking the initiative in reforming the film industry, for example, by fostering "producers" who can manage filmmaking projects in a more efficient and transparent fashion. Hopefully, some graduates from this film school will be qualified to be such producers in the future.

Another development which is worth noting is filmmaking activities not in Tokyo but in local cities in an attempt to revitalize their regional economies. For example, Kagoshima in the southern Kyushu region is currently trying to establish their own "movie industry," including filmmaking on their own. This is an interesting experiment, as local cities and regions could have a better chance to succeed in filmmaking in their own way than in Tokyo, where the existing movie companies are dominating the industry and the market. Hopefully, their attempt in the Kagoshima region will be successful to provide an alternative model of filmmaking, which might trigger a necessary change in Japan's movie industry as a whole. And again, this film school in Los Angeles will hopefully be able to contribute to such a desirable move in Japan in the near future.

International School of Motion Pictures:

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