(This is a revised version of a posting from 2009 that had become seriously outdated. If there are any other errors we haven’t spotted, please leave a comment.)
Japan offers the film student an alternative ‘studio history’ to that of Hollywood. There are striking parallels and some major differences in the development of ‘studio majors’ from the 1920s onwards. Three of the oldest Japanese studios Shochiku, Nikkatsu and Toho have been around since at least the 1930s and are still active today. Toei arrived a little later, as did Daiei, which was eventually incorporated in the assets of a relatively new player, Kadokawa, a publishing house founded in 1945. In 2015 the four members of the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan (MPPAJ) are Toho, Toei, Shochiku and Kadokawa. These are in effect the four ‘majors’ of the current Japanese film industry.
Like the Hollywood studios, some of the Japanese majors have at different times attempted to run fully integrated film operations with producing studios, distribution companies and exhibition chains. One slight difference has been that live action venues, especially kabuki theatres have remained in their portfolios – but another similarity is an interest in theme parks and studio tours etc.
The first Japanese studio system reached its peak in the 1930s having had to recover from the earthquake in 1923 which destroyed much of central Tokyo and in which film prints and facilities were lost. But from the late 1930s until the early 1950s, the Japanese film industry was effectively controlled/restricted first by the Japanese military authorities who forced through a ‘realignment’ of studios via mergers and then by the Allied Occupation Forces from 1945-52 who vetted script ideas and discouraged production of jedaigeki (‘period’ films which might promote traditional/non-democratic values). During the 1930s the Japanese film industry had become the world’s biggest and it regained this position in the 1960s, only to lose it again with the impact of video in the late 1970s.
The Japanese studio system saw stars and writer/director units contracted to the major studios much as in Hollywood. There seems to have been a more visible form of apprenticeship system with new directors having a mentor or ‘old master’ who helped them get established. Aspects of this can be found discussed in books about Kurosawa and the other major directors. Kurosawa is also interesting in terms of his move towards a form of independent production under the umbrella of Toho in the 1950s. The Japanese majors tended to own or lease studio facilities in both Tokyo and Kyoto. Tokyo was the base for gendaigeki (‘contemporary’ films) and the old capital of Kyoto became the centre for jedaigeki. Kyoto still has studio facilities used for film and television production of period dramas. During the studio period, double bills would often include one film from the company’s Tokyo studio and one from their Kyoto studio.
During the 1950s, the major studios came to be associated with specific genres and approaches to retaining audiences. Animation became important in Japan after 1945 and some studios developed specific animation divisions or acquired independent animation companies.
Brief background on the best-known studio brands
Some studio websites are only available in Japanese. If there are studio brands that I have missed out or if any of this material is incorrect, please leave a comment!
Daiei was originally formed as a subsidiary of Shochiku in the mid-1930s but came into its own as part of the Japanese wartime ‘consolidation’ of the industry into three companies. After the war, in which Daiei had been a compliant provider of propaganda pictures, the studio faced several problems – no theatre chain or ‘acceptable’ back catalogue and a general restriction on jedaigeki imposed by the Occupation authorities which hit Daiei’s Kyoto studio hard. Two of Daiei’s innovations in the 1950s, however, proved successful. The gamble on sending a film to the Venice Film Festival paid off with Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1951) and Mizoguchi’s The Life of O’Haru (1952). This was sustained by the export success of Gates of Hell in 1954 with its colour photography. Daiei then became the first Japanese studio to consistently use colour. The studio declined during the 1960s and shut its doors in 1971 before the assets were finally bought by Kadokawa in 2002. (See Greg Shoemaker’s ‘History of Daiei‘.)
Kadokawa Pictures has a more complex history than the other three current ‘majors’. Variety‘s Japan-based correspondent Mark Schilling recently reported recently on 70 years of Kadokawa which was founded as a publishing house in 1945. Kadokawa Shoten is now a major publishing house responsible for manga, magazines and popular literature. Schilling suggests that ‘Kadokawa Group’ expanded the firm’s interest into television, video games and both live action and anime filmed entertainment from 1976 onwards. Identifying Kadokawa films is not straightforward as the company owns Asmik Ace and other film-related businesses and in 2002 took over the assets of the Daiei studio which was a major producer from 1942 (see above). Kadokawa thus acquired a large library of titles, some of which have been re-branded as Kadokawa films. Kadokawa owns a small cinema chain and also acts as a distributor of foreign films in Japan as well as for its own products. Kadokawa made an impact in Europe and eventually North America in the late 1990s through films such as Ringu and Dark Water, both based on books published by Kadokawa Shoten and produced by Asmik Ace.
Nikkatsu is Japan’s oldest major film studio. The name Nikkatsu is an abbreviation of Nippon Katsudō Shashin, literally “Japan Cinematograph Company” and it was founded in 1912 when several production companies and theatre chains consolidated under a trust. Nikkatsu lost out in the 1940s when wartime controls forced a damaging merger. The studio did not make films again until 1954 after which there was a concentration on modern action films such as the yakuza films of Suzuki Seijun as well as the more varied output of Ichikawa Kon and Imamura Shohei. The company has made, and continues to make films in numerous genres. However, for most of the 1970s and 1980s, they strictly produced what they termed roman porn films in order to make ends meet. Unlike “pinku eiga“, Nikkatsu’s films were produced with relatively high budgets and production values, as well as featuring mainstream actresses, many of whom also starred in network television and nationally released film dramas. Today Nikkatsu is a smaller and more focused organisation with an international perspective. It operates a small studio facility, a production services company and co-production operation with Nippon TV and a Thai production company Kantana, plus distribution operations (including satellite in Japan).
PCL Photo Chemical Laboratory was an early film production company that was bought in 1936 by Kobayashi Ichizo to form the production base for what would become the Toho group.
Toho (from Wikipedia) Toho was founded by the Hankyu Railway in 1932 as the Tokyo-Takarazuka Theater Company. It managed much of the kabuki in Tokyo and, among other properties, the Tokyo Takarazuka Theater and the Imperial Garden Theater in Tokyo; Toho and Shochiku enjoyed a duopoly over theatres in Tokyo for many years. Toho had a long (and often difficult) relationship with Kurosawa Akira over many years from the 1940s-60s. As well as the popular Kurosawa films, Toho is also a known brand in Europe and the US because of its science fiction and ‘monster’ pictures from the mid 1950s onwards and its distribution of Miyazaki Hayao’s work for Studio Ghibli.
The ‘TohoScope’ logo (for the anamorphic system used by the company from the early 1960s) is a fondly remembered image for many film fans.
Toho-Towa is a distribution company, founded in 1928 with a focus on importing the best of international cinema. It is now a subsidiary company of Toho.
Tōei (from Wikipedia) is a Japanese film and television production and distribution corporation. Based in Tokyo, Tōei owns and operates thirty-four (34) cinema houses across Japan, a modest vertically-integrated studio system by the standards of the 1930s Hollywood. The name Tōei is derived from “Tōkyō Eiga Haikyū” (Tōkyō Film Distribution Company, the company’s former name). Tōkyō-Yokohama Films, incorporated 1938, had previously erected its facilities immediately east of the Tōkyū Tōkyō-Yokohama Line; they managed the Tōkyū Shibuya Yokohama studio system prior to V-J Day. From 1945 through the Tōei merger, Tōkyō-Yokohama Films leased from the Daiei Motion Picture Company a second studio in Kyoto. Through the merger, they gained the combined talents and experience of actors Chiezō Kataoka, Utaemon Ichikawa, Rionosuke Tsukigata, Ryutaro Otomo, Kinnosuke Nakamura, Chiyonosuke Azuma, Shirunosuke Toshin, Hashizo Okawa and Satomi Oka. On October 1, 1950, the Tōkyō Film Distribution Company was incorporated; in 1951 the company purchased Ōizumi Films.
Toei Animation is a leading animation company and part of the Toei Company.
Shintoho began as a Toho subsidiary in the late 1940s and then sought to develop an independence that in the 1950s saw it successful with war pictures and action adventures for ‘ultra-conservative’ audiences. Its independence ended in 1961 when the studio went bankrupt and the assets reverted to Toho.
Shochiku Formed in 1895 by Takejirō Otani and his brother as a Kabuki production company, Shochiku grew fast, expanding its business to many other Japanese theatrical entertainments, like Noh and Bunraku. The company began making films in 1921 and was the first film studio to abandon the use of female impersonators and sought to model itself and its films after Hollywood standards, bringing such things as the star system and the sound stage to Japan. Today, Shochiku is considered to be the oldest continuously-operating film studio in Japan. Shochiku is associated with the ‘lower middle-class’ dramas of Ozu Yasujiro and other films for a family audience in the 1950s.
Bradford welcomed Thomas Arslan for the UK première of his latest film In the Shadows (Im Schatten) and after the screening he was interviewed by festival programmer Neil Young. There wasn’t a big audience, but it was appreciative and for the small group of us who had seen all, or most, of the preceding four films, Im Schatten was a real treat. Like Arslan’s other fiction films, Im Schatten is quite short (85 mins) with a pared-down storyline and a spare shooting style. However, it gallops along by comparison with the earlier character studies and works convincingly as a classical European crime film. Neil Young suggested Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le samouraï (1967) as a model, but later Arslan himself referred to the same director’s Le cercle rouge (1970) and that does make more sense in terms of the plot. He also told us that he was a crime fiction fan (I knew this guy had good taste) and that one of his influences was Don Siegel’s work.
The Alain Delon character (i.e. from Le cercle rouge) in Arslan’s original script is ‘Trojan’ played by the Berlin actor Misel Maticevic – unknown in the UK but a veteran of German TV. He is very well cast and able to portray the extremely precise actions of this cool criminal. Trojan arrives back in Berlin looking for a new job. He visits a couple of local mobsters, stealing from one (and trashing the thugs sent to get the money back from him) and turning down job offers that involve working with undisciplined men. Eventually he learns of a possible heist via a bent lawyer played by Karoline Eichhorn, familiar from Arslan’s Ferien. Unfortunately, Trojan’s meetings with Dora are being monitored by a rogue police inspector. Thus the professional criminal gets himself into a situation where he is being effectively chased by the local mobster’s thugs and a dogged policeman and then there is Dora – is she reliable?
I enjoyed the film very much, partly I’m sure because of my engagement with the previous four films shown in the retrospective. All of the films are in a sense, calm, cool and ‘clean’ – even when characters are falling out. Im Schatten was shot on a budget of €550,000 (I asked Thomas Arslan) and as he explained, that did restrict the shooting time available, the parts of Berlin that he could close off and the spaces on location he could organise. On that kind of budget you can’t stage a high street shoot-out in the style of Michael Mann in Heat. Instead, the action scenes are generally confined to rooms and corridors. Moments like the shot through the glass above have to be caught just when the opportunity arises. All of this worked well, except perhaps for the heist itself which became perhaps a little too unlikely. If I’m honest, I perhaps ‘admired’ the first half of the film more than I got fully wrapped up in it, but by the second half I was fully committed and I was sad when the film ended – I could have taken more and wanted to know what happened next (the ending is ‘open’).
In conversation Thomas Arslan proved to be an engaging but self-effacing filmmaker. He appears to be committed to his work, simply trying to achieve the best results possible. He spoke about the shooting of Im Schatten. Cinematographer Reinhold Vorschneider used the digital Red One camera which seemed to work well with the overall production design representing the clean, open lines of Berlin – a city we were reminded that is much smaller than London. It emerged that Vorschneider had also shot another German crime film, Der Räuber (based on a true story) at roughly the same time as Im Schatten – an interesting double bill, perhaps? I don’t think that Thomas Arslan had worked with Vorschneider before but he did have his regular editor Bettina Blickwede on board and I’m guessing that continuity is a feature of his work.
The audience was clearly with the film and interested in their guest. The questions were interesting, but on one key issue, Arslan seemed fairly reluctant to say too much. It was clear that several people in the audience (me included) were interested in his position as a director from a culturally-mixed background who had made films about German-Turkish characters (One Fine Day is the last of a trilogy about Turkish-Germans in Berlin) as well as the documentary on going back to visit Turkey, Aus der Ferne. He made the understandable point in reference to the Turkish documentary that he couldn’t say how Turkey had changed (he went to school in Ankara before moving back to Germany where he was born), only how he had changed and how he now saw things differently. He did say that he didn’t have any particular interest in Turkish Cinema and that as a child in Turkey he only remembered seeing American movies. To be fair, the Turkish Cinema of the 1970s had largely collapsed by the time he was watching films and it has revived only since he left. However, despite what he said he featured Nuri Bilge Ceylan in his documentary so he must be noticing what is going on! The crucial question for me is whether there is a distinctive difference between what might be called a ‘Turkish diaspora filmmaking culture’ and that of the Asian/African/Caribbean diaspora in France and the UK.
In response to one of the questions Arslan confirmed that one of his aims was to explore characters ‘in space’ – how they operate in terms of the narrative space allowed them by the mise en scène. And this is certainly evident in his films – and in this film is bolstered by Maticevic’s performance. He responded to a question about the ‘Berlin School’ by saying that on the one hand it didn’t really mean anything but on the other hand it was helpful in getting his films some promotion. This latter issue was something several of us raised. We all clearly enjoyed watching the films on a big screen (courtesy of prints from the Berlin Film Museum) but apart from Im Schatten, most of his films appeared only on German TV even if some of them made it onto DVDs. We pressed him as to whether he could get more funding by getting TV channels and distributors from France, Italy, UK etc. on board. He seemed quite diffident about this, worrying that more production partners possibly meant more interference. That is clearly a worry but it would be sad if films as well made as these were denied a cinema audience. Perhaps we might have egged him on to look for better distribution. I hope so.
We should thank the festival and Neil Young in particular for bringing Thomas Arslan over.
Neil Young’s ‘Jigsaw Lounge’ has an extended interview with Thomas Arslan about Im Schatten here.
A detailed Thomas Arslan bio is on the German Film portal which also has a section on Turkish-German film (which helps to explain Arslan’s position).
There is an interview with Arslan about Im Schatten on Cineuropa’s YouTube site:
and a trailer (in German without subs):
One of the major strengths of the Cambridge Film Festival is the education programme which is carefully threaded through the whole festival by Trish Sheil, the Education Officer for the Cambridgeshire Film Consortium. The Archive event that I reported in my third Cambridge post is a regular event that was given a special festival flavour, but the ‘Meet the Industry’ morning was organised specifically for the festival.
The event was jointly with Anglia Ruskin University and as far as I could tell most of the big student audience (filling the 220 seat largest screen) were from Anglia Ruskin. The students were offered four Q & A sessions with industry professionals with Trish or one of the Anglia Ruskin lecturers in the chair for each guest. Catherine Wheatley is a writer/reviewer for Sight and Sound with a day job teaching at the University of East London. She gave an interesting account of how she managed to get a her first chance to write for what is the most prestigious film magazine in the UK. Clearly persistence and self-belief are essential and the willingness to give up a day of holiday to write in the off-chance that a piece might be accepted. She gave a realistic appraisal of what writing about film might be like for a living (though she has the day job). She also mentioned that she had done a course for prospective writers at the BFI and admitted that she wasn’t the most successful student on the course – but she did get published.
Next up were an interesting couple, Ant Neely and Sloane U’Ren who have recently completed an independent film in and around Cambridge. Neely studied zoology but decided to become a professional musician. He has since had his music used in various film and television productions including Six Feet Under and Boston Legal. But in a way his most useful, if least glamorous, achievement was writing four minutes of music for each episode of a Dutch TV animation series which taught him a great deal about deadlines and ‘being professional’ (and which no doubt paid for the time spent on his more experimental music released on CD – and his filmmaking activities). U’Ren has been an Art Director, Set Director and Production Designer on several well-known Hollywood productions including Harry Potter and Batman Begins. This engaging couple gave students a useful insight into production work on major projects as well as their own more modest enterprise.
Peter MacFarlane was a more mysterious figure for the students. He runs his own ‘literary and talent agency’, MacFarlane Chard Associates, which also operates in Ireland where it is now that country’s second largest agency. I think it was an excellent idea to put an agent in front of these aspiring filmmakers (and in one case, actor). The questions revealed that few in the audience were sure exactly what agents do (though quite a few of us were not surprised to discover that 12.5% is the usual commission). The role of agents within all creative industries is crucially important and it isn’t often studied formally within film studies. I’m not so familiar with production degrees, but clearly it should be included in industry studies.
In between the Q&As a selection of short films were projected on the big screen. This was the only aspect of the event that didn’t work for me. It was probably different for most of the students who would recognise what the production briefs had been, but as the films were presented without any contextualising I was a little lost. The talent and creative invention was there but I didn’t feel I could evaluate the work. I think I probably enjoyed some of the animation pieces most.
The final speaker was Rosemary Richards from BBC VideoNation Network. She presented her project using slides and clips and I found the history of the ‘Video Nation’ concept very interesting. It was good to be reminded of the BBC Community Programme Unit in the 1970s and ’80s which gave birth to Video Diaries in 1990 and then Video Nation in 1993. The concept is now flourishing in the age of social networking and even cheaper digital video recorders. Rosemary set out her case for film students to join the project and submit material. I’m not sure that a ‘community’ project sounds sexy to film students these days, especially since there are various conditions attached to the entry process. On the other hand, the BBC offers a fantastic platform for short video films, online, broadcast and also on the ‘Big Screens’ found in public spaces in various large cities across the UK. Add to that the useful experience of working under restraints and within specific briefs and it looks like an interesting opportunity.
I very much enjoyed my trip to Cambridge. The Arts Picturehouse is a welcoming venue and the programme was varied and interesting. There was a lot more that I didn’t see, including a family-orientated programme in the mornings and various special events. Each day a festival bulletin was issued with feedback from festivalgoers and interviews with visiting guests. I’d like to thank Tony Jones and his team from the Cambridge Film Trust, Clare Wilford, the Press Officer who helped me access the screenings and everyone who worked on the festival. This is clearly a labour of love and I hope it can continue for another 30 years. This is a difficult time for the UK film industry and specialised film exhibition is particularly vulnerable. Around the time of the festival, the Regional Screen Agency, Screen East, was suddenly wound up because of its own problems (all the RSAs will now be re-organised as the UK Film Council is phased out). This has left the Cambridge Film Festival wondering if its grant from Screen East will appear. I do hope so as the festival deserves public funding support.
Cineworld, one of the three largest multiplex cinema chains in the UK and Ireland has announced a deal with Arts Alliance Media (AAM) to digitise all its remaining analogue only screens over the next three years. The deal was reported on Screendaily today and represents a major step in the digital switchover of UK cinema screens. The deal covers around 540 screens (250 of Cineworld’s screens are already digital) and the $44 million cost will be paid via a ‘virtual print fee’ or VPF for each new film screened digitally. Cineworld control around 20% of all screens in the UK and Ireland.