Japanese Documentaries Take Tokyo

By Fujioka Asako

ants-ikeya-kaoru-1.jpgThe Ants, 2006

Television's complacency and a growing public interest in different realities is fuelling the rise of documentaries in Japan

Requested to be on the jury for the year-end awards given out by Invitation (a monthly Japanese cinema and culture magazine) this week, I was happily surprised to find 35 films on the nomination list for the category ‘Japanese Documentary’ – that is, Japanese feature documentaries released in Japanese movie theaters in 2006. Considering that 278 Japanese features were theatrically released this year, 12% is not a bad sized chunk of the pie.

Naturally, none of the documentaries grossed anything close to the one billion yen mark that at least 20 Japanese entertainment blockbusters reached this year, or the 2003 box office record set by the Miyazaki animation film Spirited Away (13 billion yen). But then, none of the documentaries have to shoulder the huge production or marketing costs of their fiction counterparts (Incidentally, the Warner Bros. nature documentary March of the Penguins grossed one billion yen in Japan, but that is another story)

In any case, it seems that along with the rise of Japanese cinema (market share at 49 percent this year, thanks to The Da Vinci Code’s unexpected flop), Japanese documentary is also gaining momentum and its cinema audience is growing. 2006 in particular saw a series of success stories in the documentary box office: Yokohama Mary, Dear Pyongyang, and The Ants – all acclaimed at international film festivals around the world.

Japanese documentaries usually open at a single art house cinema in Tokyo, sometimes without a chance to travel to other parts of Japan until their DVD sales begin. Some documentaries show only once a day, as a ‘morning show’ release (around 11am), or ‘late show’ release (around 9pm). As art house cinemas seat on average around 100 per screening, even a full house running for four weeks could theoretically sell only 11,200 tickets.

Pole Pole Higashi Nakano is a three-year-old independent art-house movie theater with a program lineup offering 70-80% documentaries. Located in a quiet neighborhood two stations west of the major shopping and entertainment hub Shinjuku, it is a modest enterprise screening six shows a day with an average of 25 tickets sold per show. They have a very large screen and their projection equipment allows for video as well as 35mm and 16mm film.

Pole Pole’s ‘sleeper’ hit of the year was the documentary Echoes from the Miike Mine, (directed by Kumagai Hiroko) about the 150 year history of the Miike coalmine that had fueled the growth of modern Japanese industry. A low-key and rather conventional historical documentary, it surprised everyone when the once-a-day morning show ran for nine weeks to growing audiences. Almost each screening was sold out during the one-week full-day rerun in July, and a three-week run in November was also packed. 10,000 people saw this documentary, with word-of-mouth playing a large part in its success.

ants-ikeya-kaoru-2.jpgThe Ants, 2006

“If you compare low-budget fiction films to documentaries made with the same money, it’s obvious the documentaries are more interesting – marketwise as well as cinema-wise,” says Yoshikawa Masafumi, manager at Pole Pole. “At our theater, there is a core documentary following who would go see any documentary. But many documentaries reach a special interest audience as well – people who are involved in certain topics like the Palestine conflict or welfare for the disabled. These are devoted audiences.”

Yoshikawa calculates the minimum cost of promotion and marketing costs of a theatrical release at Pole Pole as 1.5 million yen. Most of this money would disappear after writing, designing and printing flyers and posters, and organizing press screenings. Winner at the 2005 Nantes and Yamagata film festivals The Cheese and the Worms (directed by Kato Haruyo) could only be released (in the late show slot) after two fans of the film and its director decided to pool half a million each for promotion costs.

“Often the costs cannot be recovered by the film’s box office return. But many filmmakers still want a theatrical release – not for financial reasons, but for the documentary to ‘become a film,’” says Yoshikawa. Unlike television, the filmmaker can meet an audience in the flesh for a cinema release. It is the emotional payoff that is so rewarding, especially for documentary. And unlike film festivals or one-off screenings, the theatre is open to a general audience for an indefinite length of time, which enhances the film’s accessibility and of course shelf life on the DVD circuit.

Successful documentaries this year outreached to an audience beyond the standard documentary buff. The box office hits of Dear Pyongyang and The Ants, both award-winning films, were aptly backed by audience interest in timely political events and media hype.

The Ants is director Ikeya Kaoru’s second theatrical documentary, following Daughter from Yan’an (2002) and years of solid work in television. Featuring an 80-year-old World War II veteran who confronts the monstrosity of his war crimes and at the same time protests against the Japanese government for keeping him and his fellow soldiers in China for many years after Japan’s surrender, the film addresses Japanese soldiers’ roles as both military aggressor and political victim. This summer, Prime Minister Koizumi’s annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine were challenged not only by neighboring countries but also Japanese corporate executives and politicians who fear detrimental damage to diplomacy and trade, and were widely discussed in the media.

The film, which deals head-on with the issue, was released in Theater Image Forum, a chic independent cinema in Shibuya, where it ran in a 108-seat theater for ten weeks, right up to the end-of-war Memorial Day August 15. Without a strong distribution company, Ikeya’s success was fostered by a passionate student network group that spread word of the film in chatrooms and internet communities across the web, overturning all belief that Japanese teenagers are only interested in new mobile phone models, Louis Vuitton bags and football stars.

yang-yong.jpgDirector Yang Yong-hi

The film set a new record for daily box office at Image Forum, and has since been released in over 20 cities around the country. Supporters have organized non-profit screenings in cities without cinemas, in a wave of citizen activism reminiscent of the 1970s. Ikeya confirms my wild guess that at least 50,000 people have seen the film in Japan at this point.

North Korea was of course the other most discussed topic of the year. Since a few years ago when the Japanese government suddenly opened its eyes to the long-ongoing kidnapping of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents from beaches of the Japan Sea, the issue became a playing card in tricky diplomatic negotiation. The media sensationalized ‘evil North Korea’ and repeatedly showed images of abducted 13-year-old Yokota Megumi, icon of the tragedy. This year, North Korea did not improve its image, by launching missiles towards Japan and conducting nuclear tests. Ethnic Koreans in Japan who have family and ties with North Korea suffered, becoming targets of hate crimes.

In the documentary Dear Pyongyang, the Japan-born ethnic Korean filmmaker Yang Yong-hi intimately explores and questions her own father’s fierce loyalty towards the North Korean cause. Her father’s war experiences had molded him into a Marxist dedicated to the vision of a unified Communist Korea. The director uses home video footage from her frequent trips to Pyongyang to visit her three brothers and their families to piece together a universal father-daughter story of love, rebellion, and diaspora.

Despite the prevalence of North Korea in this year’s news, experienced distribution company Cine Quanon’s promotion strategy was not to highlight the political and historical backdrop and not to mention that the film is a documentary. Indeed the story is dramatic, funny, sad, and features a fascinating central character. But as producer Inaba Toshiya says, “When you hear ‘documentary’ you think ‘textbook’ or ‘history lesson’ or ‘social justice’ – which is just not what we wanted the film to seem.” The media coverage was overwhelming, including four TV appearances. The official website counted 20,000 hits during the broadcasts introducing the film. “But apparently these people don’t leave their living rooms,” says Inaba, “Surveys tell us that our box office audience learned about our film from newspapers and cinema magazines.”

The film opened in August at Cine La Sept in Shibuya and ran for 14 weeks, with an additional five weeks in the morning slot at Pole Pole Higashi Nakano. Major cities followed. Five tapes and one film print are currently still circulating the country, logging 14 screens for 2006. The film has also opened in Seoul and will run six times a day for at least one month. Yang Yong-hi published a book of the same title based on her personal story, which is in its second print run.

The timing of Dear Pyongyang’s release served one of the important missions of feature documentary. When mainstream media begins to uniformly present a simplified image of anyone, be it the glorified image of Bill Gates or devil incarnate North Koreans, it’s time for a more complex picture of reality. Through everyday images and family stories of people in North Korea, Dear Pyongyang brought the Yang family close to us and helped to dispel some of the fear that the mass media evokes towards the unknown world beyond the 38th Parallel. In a similar example, Mori Tatsuya’s 1998 feature documentary A, about the nerdy but gentle spokesman of the Aum religious cult (responsible for the Tokyo underground gas attack in 1995), is being re-appraised today, as we realize the importance of its alternative and nonjudgmental viewpoint in the midst of the media’s Aum-bashing frenzy. An intelligent and creative film can provide us with the space we need for imagination to better understand the world.

audience.jpgAudience at a screening of Dear Pyongyang, 2005

The growing documentary audience in the cinemas could in fact be a sign that more people are recognising the limitation of TV’s presentation of reality. Neither Dear Pyongyang nor The Ants would be broadcast on Japanese television today. The political issues that the two documentaries deal with are too sensitive for any broadcaster to touch, even though their insights are far from an incitement to radicalism. Documentaries about Iraq have shown a picture of the war and people’s lives that TV reportage cannot. The dangers of radiation from nuclear power facilities, World War II and war responsibility are other touchy subjects for television. While TV networks like TBS and Fuji are becoming big players in Japanese mainstream fiction cinema in recent years, television has not been too kind to creative documentary.

The bottom line is, a successful Japanese documentary in the cinema goes beyond a current affairs programme. Directed by newcomer Nakamura Takayuki, Yokohama Mary unravels the story behind the extraordinary life of a prostitute who roamed the streets of Yokohama until she was 83. Face powdered butoh-white and dressed in elegant frills and laces, she represented something carried over from the cacophony and chaos of the post-era – she was actually a regular face at the Yokohama nightclub used in Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 film High and Low, full of sailors, junkies, and undercover cops.

Produced by fiction film producers and marketed as a movie rather than a documentary, the film opened in the late show slot of Theatre Shinjuku, a 218-seat theater known for premiering top-class Japanese art-house fare. Seeing its popularity, the theater increased the number of shows per day, and the film opened in other cinemas in Tokyo. The film is still showing in Tokyo as well as other major cities including of course Yokohama. One-off screenings by invitation are also booked throughout the calendar.

The fascination of this documentary lies in its thoughtful investigation into an unwritten history. But beyond subject matter, its creative structure, photogenic content, as well as the use of music and imagery, like any well-crafted film, has proven to draw an audience.

With these success stories of documentaries in Japanese cinemas, I foresee a further blossoming of documentary audiences to come. Meanwhile, international docs on global environment Darwin’s Nightmare and An Inconvenient Truth are just about to be released in Japan in a big way. Let’s see how they fare…

Fujioka Asako has been co-ordinator of Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival since 1993, with a focus on Asian documentary and the international promotion of new Japanese films through collaboration with Unijapan (http://www.unijapan.org). She is an interpreter and translator for international film affairs, bridging film cultures and audiences.

From the Floating World

I am always moved and delighted by places that have ponds – not only in the winter (when I love walked up to find that the water has frozen over) but at every time of the year. The ponds I like best are not those in which everything is carefully laid out; I much prefer one that has been left to itself so that it is wild and covered with weeds. At night in the green spaces of water one can see nothing but the pale glow of the moonlight. At any time and in any place I find the moonlight very moving. – The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon