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As I See It: 'Berlinale' festival offers insight for future of Japanese film industry

Fans surround director Kazuhiro Soda after a screening of his documentary "Minatomachi" (Inland Sea) at the Berlin International Film Festival on Feb. 18, 2018, in Berlin. (Mainichi)

I went to cover the Berlin International Film Festival, or the "Berlinale," which took place Feb. 15-25. The city was bubbling with activity surrounding the festival, which featured movies in several categories ranging from the core blockbuster titles in the competition section to films portraying children and young people that made up the "generation" section. Regular residents could attend screenings of the movies, and especially those in the generation section could be seen for only 4 euros (roughly 520 yen) a film. The older driver of a taxi I rode in the city told me that he enjoyed going to a few of the general section screenings every year.

    In addition, the sight of Japanese director Kazuhiro Soda being surrounded by a throng of fans after a screening of his documentary "Minatomachi" (Inland Sea), which follows the everyday lives of the residents of the small Okayama Prefecture fishing village of Ushimado, was striking. I could feel that the film festival was intimately connected with the residents of Berlin.

    In Japan as well, the Tokyo International Film Festival is held every fall, but it's hard to say that anyone other than a portion of hardcore movie fans gets involved with the festival, regardless of the efforts made by organizers and other related parties. Still, this doesn't mean that there is a problem with the movies themselves, but rather that the culture of movies in Japan is becoming that of enjoying content that's popular every once in a while. Having covered Berlinale for the last two years, I would like to examine some issues in the Japanese film industry.

    This January, the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan reported a gross box office revenue of some 228.57 billion yen in 2017. This was the second largest revenue -- since announcement of the figure began in 2000 -- behind 2016, which saw the release of big hits like "your name." and "Shin Godzilla" (Godzilla Resurgence).

    Looking at these numbers alone, you may think that the Japanese film industry isn't doing so badly at all. Still, if you look at the breakdown in what movies gathered the most revenue, you'll see a striking bias. First, at the top of the highest-grossing films from the West is "Beauty and the Beast" at roughly 12.4 billion yen, followed by "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," "Despicable Me 3" and other big hits that made up a significant amount of box office sales. Meanwhile, the Japanese movie that did the best in 2017 was "Detective Conan: Crimson Love Letter" coming in at approximately 6.9 billion yen. The second largest grossing movie was "Doraemon the Movie 2017: Nobita's Great Adventure in the Antarctic Kachi Kochi."

    Both Conan and Doraemon are animated films with large-scale stories that both children and adults can enjoy. Still, I felt uneasy that among both Western and Japanese movies, the biggest hits were either from Disney or part of a popular series.

    The concern that arises from this is that major movie production and distribution companies along with movie theaters themselves think, "If the movie is part of a series, it will definitely be a big hit," and production, distribution, and the box office all lean heavily on those movies. Indeed, that trend is already growing stronger year by year. Of course, even in the Americas and Europe, series and Disney movies are extremely popular, but like I saw with Berlinale, there is already a foundation for the enjoyment of a wide variety of movies by regular audiences in place.

    However, there is also data that gives me hope for the future. While in 2017, it looked as though movies from the West would beat out Japanese films for the first time in 10 years domestically, revenue for Japanese movies still exceeded that of Western movies by close to 22.4 billion yen.

    A representative from the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan surmised the reason for this was that "there were 30 movies that made 500 million to 1 billion yen each at the box office, and it supported the overall revenue" for Japanese films. That is to say, there is still domestic demand for a variety of movies.

    Another recent striking trend is the expansion of a culture of going to the movie theater to see films among young people, especially high school students. Many theaters, mostly cinema complexes, have also lowered the price to 1,000 yen a ticket for high schoolers. Along with films like "your name." that blew up over social media, progress is being made in the production of movies to target this young audience. The fact that the next generation is experiencing the joy of seeing a movie in a theater is a shining light for the future of the Japanese movie industry.

    At the same time, however, I have been enjoying movies for at least 35 years, since my father first took me to see "Superman II" when I was a second grade student in elementary school, and I have a strong feeling that the number of movies that can be enjoyed by middle-aged and elderly people has slowly been decreasing. Especially outside of big cities, theaters only show the big hits, and chances to see art-house movies with strong artistic and creative appeal have become rare.

    Still, the success of last summer's Japanese historical film "Sekigahara," which surpassed distributors' expectations to rake in some 2.4 billion yen, is thought to be in part because of movie-starved adults in the children's-movie-centric summer season running to the theater when a movie that interested them finally came to the screen. It's that demand that I would like the film industry to address.

    Finally, I encourage more adults to go out to the theater or a film festival to watch movies. The fiscal 2017 movie that left the biggest impression on me was the American drama "Manchester by the Sea," a story of a man slowly recovering from the loss of loved ones due to his own negligence.

    When I finished watching, I thought, "This is exactly the kind of movie that I want adults to see," and decided to write an article introducing the movie for the Mainichi Shimbun. The further in life we get, the more we lose people who are dear to us. While movies force viewers to sit with that sadness, they also give them courage as they leave the theater. There is no doubt that encountering a truly amazing movie has the power to leave audiences inspired. (Japanese original by Mitsunori Kimura, Sendai Bureau, ex-Cultural News Department)

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