Japan used to be famously unfriendly toward filmmakers, domestic and foreign alike.
Film crews often found themselves confronted by scowling cops and nit-picking
bureaucrats. Information on locations was often either scattered or unavailable. Shooting
guerrilla style, with one eye out for the police, was one option. Retreating in defeat was
another: Hollywood did not shoot a single feature film in Japan for more than a decade
after Fred Schepisi's Mr. Baseball in 1992.
Today, however, Japan has more film commissions than Heinz has varieties -- at last
count the number was 71, in nearly every prefecture and major city in Japan. Many have
launched since the turn of the millennium and still more are on the way. Among the films
that have called on commission assistance are The Last Samurai, Lost In Translation and
Cafe Lumiere, not to mention the many Japanese films made in places where few
theatres, let alone filmmakers, can be found. "We're here to make it possible what used to
be impossible," says Tetsuji Maezawa, Executive Director of the Japan Film
Commission Promotion Council (JFCPC), which oversees the work of the country's film
Based in the communities they serve, Japanese film commissions not only supply
information and assistance to filmmakers, but do the slow, hard work of nemawashi --
i.e., changing entrenched practices and attitudes, one mind at a time. "Even the Tokyo
police, who were once among the toughest on filmmakers, are gradually coming around,"
In addition to film commissions around the country, the JFCPC works with industry
organizations, including UniJapan Film and the Motion Picture Producers Association of
Japan (Eiren), to improve filmmaking conditions in Japan. "The industry used to be all
these little fiefdoms, with everyone going their own way," said Maezawa. "Now we do a
better job of coordination."
Also, the Japanese government once regarded films as entertainment, not culture -- and
left filmmakers to fend for themselves, but no longer. "For the past several years, the
government, particularly the Agency for Cultural Affairs and the Ministry of Economy,
Trade and Industry (METI), has been actively promoting contents businesses -- and films
are an important part of their plans," commented Maezawa. "We're going to see a lot
more changes, regulatory and otherwise, in the near future."
Important issues remain, however, especially for foreign filmmakers considering Japan as
a location. "The perception abroad is that costs here are sky high, especially in Tokyo,"
Maezawa says. "That's a big reason why The Last Samurai ended up shooting in New
Zealand, but if they'd gone into the mountain country of Japan, they would have found
costs to be a lot lower. The Japanese industry is not doing a good enough job of getting
the word out to the world at large -- they're only thinking domestically." And the film
commissions? "We provide location hunting services free of charge," says Maezawa.
Another related problem is the Japanese penchant for vagueness-- for saying "about"
instead of quoting figures. "People within the industry know how much it costs to hire a
lighting crew and so on, but they don't share this information with outsiders," comments
Maezawa. "The moment the Japanese industry becomes more transparent is the moment
it starts making progress internationally."
Information exchange, Maezawa believes, ":makes filmmaking possible," thus the more
the better. Also, an adherence to what he describes as "global standards'' -- i.e.,
international industry practices -- would "open up more possibilities both in Japan and
abroad, especially Asia." "In that respect the Japan industry is still shut off from the rest
of the world -- it lacks an international mindset," he says. "The only reason a lot of people
here want to win foreign festival prizes is to impress the local audience -- they're not
thinking of the impact abroad. But with younger filmmakers that's starting to change --
their thinking is more global."
Still another misconception of foreign filmmakers about Japan, says Maezawa, concerns
its diversity: "This country is 3,500 kilometers long, from Hokkaido in the north, with its
fall foliage and harsh winters to Okinawa in the south with its tropical climate. In other
words, there's a lot more to Japan than Tokyo, Kyoto and Nikko."
Also, Japan is in the center of North Asia, where so many wars, cold and hot, have been
waged in the past century. "There's a lot of drama in this region," says Maezawa.
"There's even interesting material for Hollywood, once you start thinking of all the ways
America has been involved here. The possibilities are endless."