Art, Cult, and Commerce: Japanese cinema since 2000 (2019) is not just a book. Throughout his reviews and interviews, Mark Schilling reveals himself to be a skilled cartographer of the continent called Japanese cinema. Schilling’s latest book is an exciting navigation tool for those who want to explore the last two decades of Japanese cinema, for those who are seeking treasure, hidden gems of Japanese cinema, and those who are looking to hear a myriad of voices of Japan’s masters of cinema.
In order to celebrate the release of his Art, Cult, and Commerce: Japanese cinema since 2000 (2019), we decided to sit down with him and interview him about the current state of the Japanese industry, how he became a film-critic, his style of reviewing and more.
Pieter-Jan Van Haecke: With more than 30 years’ experience as a critic, you, of course, have developed a good insight into how the Japanese film industry has evolved as well as how it has remained stagnant. In your introduction, you already touch upon various aspects of the Japanese film industry like its institutional inertia, its continued focus on local audiences, the presence of more female directors, and so on. But what would you, when you analyze those 30 years, consider the most important ways in which the industry changed?
Mark Schilling: I suppose one important change — the change underlying other changes — that the industry was able to recover from the long slump that started with the advent of television and win back a majority market share from the foreign (mainly Hollywood) competition — a feat that most industry insiders would have considered impossible when I started reviewing Japanese films in 1989.
This made it possible for more people enter the industry from different fields — TV, advertising, film schools, etc. — and, if they were successful enough, enjoy careers that didn’t require eternal residence in a six-mat room. The security offered by the old studio system was gone, but so was the feeling of impending doom that once seemed to hang over the business.
Another big change was that there are more films being made and released — 689 in 2019 compared with 255 in 1989. One reason is that the switch to digital has made the whole process easier and cheaper. Someone like Ueda Shinichiro could scrape up 2.5 million yen, spend a week in the countryside shooting with a cast of unknowns and come out with a film, “One Cut of the Dead,” that could play in actual theaters — and make a real fortune.
Still another change is that there are now dozens of women directors working in a range of genres — though the big commercial films still don’t go their way. In 1989 I believe the number making fiction features, as opposed to shorts and documentaries, was approximately zero.
There are other changes, but describing them all would require an article, and not a short one.
PJVH: I fully understand that exploring all the changes would require a lengthy article. You mentioned, nevertheless, that the old studio system is gone. I feel, correct me if I’m wrong, that the current “committee system” is a modernized version of this system. Can you explain us a little bit how this committee system works and what it means for directors?
M.S.: The “production committee” (seisaku iinkai) consists of media and other companies that have joined together to produce a film. Among typical members are film distributors, TV networks, ad agencies, trading companies, publishers, newspapers, record companies, video software makers, talent agencies and cable and satellite broadcasters, though not every production committee includes all of them. The production committee system arose out of the ashes of the studio system, which fell into a sharp decline in the 1960s with the advent of TV in Japan and was all but dead by the 1980s.
One upside of the system is that, by sharing the risks and rewards with their corporate partners, major film companies like Toho, Shochiku and Toei have been able to make bigger, more ambitious films than they ever could their own, films that have been able to hold their own against the Hollywood competition, even though their budgets are far lower. One downside is that, to get everyone on board, the films have to be safe bets, which means they usually have to be based on presold properties such a novel, manga or TV show with a large fan base. Sometimes the “safety” lies in a director like Shinkai Makoto or Miyazaki Hayao who is a “brand” fans can expect to reliably deliver a certain kind of entertainment.
But such name auteurs are few and many directors of commercial films are anonymous journeymen from the TV ranks, though some well-regarded indie directors like Hiroki Ryuichi and Zeze Takahisa also make commercial films. And former indie Miike Takashi manages to impose his own style on commercial product due to his clout as a proven hitmaker. In general, though, the production committee system has resulted in conservatism and sameness. So there are many production committee films about starred-crossed young love with time travel or some other fantasy element, few that take risks or break new ground in any significant way. And given the domestic focus of the system, whose members are all Japanese companies concerned first and foremost with the Japanese market, relatively few of its films have any strong appeal to international audiences.
PJVH: The domestic focus you just mentioned persuades me to ask the following. With Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite winning the Oscar for best film, some Japanese people felt forced to question the current state of the Japanese film industry. People looked back to the long gone times when, for example, Kurosawa Akira and Ozu Yasujirō impressed international audiences with their new narratives. Should the Japanese film industry become more international minded?
M.S.: Yes, the industry here should become more internationally minded and many people, including me, have been saying it for years. One problem is that Japan has nothing like Korea’s level of government/industry support for the film business. Another is that the big Japanese media companies can recoup from the domestic market alone so they’ve tended to regard international sales as a sort of after-dinner mint — a nice extra, but not essential.
PJVH: What do you think needs to change concretely in the Japanese industry if it wants to gain more international recognition?
M.S.: Given that the current system has been in place for decades and is still cranking out hits, I don’t see radical change coming any time soon. But Netflix and, to a lesser extent, Amazon Prime, have been disruptors, giving directors like Sono Sion and Ninagawa Mika more freedom and resources than they would ever find from the production committee system. They have also brought new audiences to Japanese content and talent from around the world, with the positive overseas reception for “The Naked Director” and “Giri/Haji” being two recent examples. And the success of “Parasite” will serve an example for Japanese filmmakers to envy and emulate. How can they be content with the lightly regarded Japan Academy Awards when the real thing beckons? And there are directors here capable of answering the call, if they get the right sort of support.
PJVH: You’ve been writing reviews for around thirty years. You mention in your book that Neal Gabler and Pauline Kael played an important role in you becoming a film-critic. I was wondering if you could give us a more detailed account on how you got into reviewing movies?
M.S.: Gabler, who was a reviewer for my college newspaper, and Kael, whom I read religiously for years in “The New Yorker” (I still have all her books on my shelves), got me thinking about reviewing in an abstract “it would be cool to do that” way. But Kael and other nationally known film critics seemed to exist on a higher, exalted plane. Then I came to Japan and started reading and meeting the local reviewers, which made the job seem less intimidating.
Around 1987 I got a chance to write film reviews for “The Japan Times Weekly” and jumped at it, though the editor only wanted me to cover non-Hollywood foreign films. I could serve my apprenticeship in safe anonymity, since hardly anyone I knew read the magazine. Then Andy Adams, a reviewer for “The Japan Times,” told me over lunch one day that he was giving up his reviewing gig, effective immediately, and urged me to go the JT office to ask for it, which I did that afternoon. His editor, a Japanese woman, knew my stuff from the “Weekly” and said she would give me a tryout. I started scribbling and never stopped. This was in July of 1989.
PJVH: Related to the previous question. You did not only chose to become a movie-critic, but a movie-critic focused solely on Japanese cinema. Was it something about Japan and its culture that seduced you?
M.S.: I was a fan of Kurosawa and Ozu when I arrived in Japan in 1975, but the glory days of Japanese cinema, everyone told me, were long past. Then, after I’d been here about a decade, Itami Juzo began making films like “The Funeral” and “Tampopo” that were refreshingly different from the Golden Age classics and spoke to the current moment with wit and style. Maybe the glory days were never coming back, but I started to think that Japanese films might not be as crap as the local reviewers kept insisting — and I sought out more of them. When I started reviewing for the JT, I had to cover films from everywhere, but my real interest was in Japanese films by younger directors. I wanted to be a discoverer of the new, not a curator of the old. And so I wrote about films by Kitano, Miike, Koreeda, Kurosawa Kiyoshi and others. Looking back, it was like being in California in 1848 — gold was there for the taking, if not always easy to find.
PJVH: You’ve been writing as long as I’m alive – I was born in 1989. As a film-critic myself, I wondered, if your style has changed over these years. If so, how did your style change? If not, why do you think your style remained the same?
M.S.: When I started reviewing I was looking for role models, since I quickly realized I couldn’t write like my then idol, Pauline Kael, without sounding like a half-assed imitator. My salvation turned out to be Roger Ebert, who wrote clearly and directly with knowledge, humor and feeling. I bought his book of collected reviews and read them all, though I tried not to channel him in my own stuff. I didn’t have to: He gave me permission to use my own voice.
Ebert was criticized for handing out too many stars but he was also open to all kinds of films from everywhere, which Kael wasn’t, at least to the same degree. So I felt he was more simpatico to what I was doing — an impression strengthened when I finally met him at the Hawaii International Film Festival, where he was giving a public seminar. His subject: The genius of Jackie Chan.
I don’t know whether my style has changed over the years, but my word count certainly has. In the beginning I had as many as 1,000 words; now it’s down to 550. This has forced me to be more concise, that is, to be more like Ebert, who had a similar word count at the “Chicago Sun-Times,” less like Kael, who could go on for pages about one film in “The New Yorker.” Looking back over my old stuff when I was putting together my new book “Art, Cult and Commerce: Japanese cinema since 2000,” I realized that, in my case, less was more.
PJVH: Less is more. I take that as a great advice for myself. My reviews are often around 1400 words. Are there any other tips/advice you can give to young movie reviewers?
M.S.: My advice to myself is to escape the Japanese film bubble whenever I can and see what the wider film world is doing. Otherwise my standards of comparison narrow and I start thinking cinematic acorns are trees.
PJVH: What is most important for you in a movie? Can you describe to us what a movie should accomplish for you to give it a high score?
M.S.: I’m not ticking boxes when I see a film, but the ones that end up with more stars tend be by directors with something to say and their own way of saying it. And if I don’t walk out feeling moved or enlightened or amused or surprised or something, I’m less likely to hand out stars. Worthy subject matter alone doesn’t do it for me. But to my mind “five stars” equals “masterpiece” so I give out five maybe three times in a decade — and I later regret some of those three.
PJVH: If I were to ask you to choose one or three that defined the last 20 years of Japanese cinema, which ones would you choose and why?
M.S.: Two or three films? I would say Koreeda’s “Shoplifters” is one, since its Palme d’Or showed that Japanese filmmakers are still capable of competing with the best from anywhere (though Bong Joon-ho has since topped its success with “Parasite”). It also happens to be a great film by this country’s most consistently interesting director.
Another is “Spirited Away,” which raised Miyazaki to world-class-auteur status abroad, even among critics who watch little or no anime. Certain scenes and characters have permanently insinuated themselves into my brain — and I’m not the only one. Hitchcock has the shower scene in “Psycho”; Miyazaki has the train gliding mysteriously over the water in “Spirited Away.”
I gave both films five-star reviews that I don’t regret.
PJVH: Can you explain your choice to include, despite some exceptions, only 3,5 to 5 star-reviews in your book?
M.S.: The book has a lot of films with high star ratings because the publisher gave me a page count of just under 500, which was extremely generous, but meant I could use only about a third of the reviews I had written 2000-2019. I thought readers would be more interested in the films worth seeing, so I cut reviews of the bad and mediocre ones by the hundreds. Someday, maybe, I’ll put them online.
PJVH: There are a lot of interesting interviews in your book. The ones with Obayashi Nobuhiko, Kurasawa Kiyoshi, Donald Richie for instance are truly marvelous. You’ve met a lot of masters of Japanese cinema. I’m envious. Do you have any funny or unexpected experiences while interviewing?
M.S.: My biggest disaster as an interviewer was my encounter with Nagisa Oshima. He was promoting a release of “In the Realm of the Senses” and after a day of media reviews, was tired and cranky, not unexpected given the fragile state of his health. (This was not long after his 1996 stroke.) It was like doing a Q&A with a sumo wrestler: A word here, a grunt there. I cast about for something that might evoke at least a sentence, my shirt soaked with flop sweat, but he was obviously sick to death of the entire subject. I ended up ditching the interview — a first.
About a year later I spoke with him again after a screening of “Gohatto” for the foreign press and he was cordial and forthcoming. Naturally, he had completely forgotten the interview.
PJVH: How do you usually prepare for conducting interviews?
M.S.: To prep for an interview, I’ll check everything from the film’s website and the director’s Wikipedia page to news articles, blogs and, in some cases, the film’s source material. In other words, nothing unusual, though I find that Japanese-language sources have more thorough info.
I scribble out questions on the train ride to the interview, but during the interview itself I rarely refer to them. As much as possible I want the Q&A to flow like a conversation, though I do take notes in case the voice recorder malfunctions or dies (which has happened more than once).
PJVH: Are there any tips or advice you can give people for interviewing Japanese directors? Like aspects of formality that one need to take into account?
M.S.: Most directors, unless they are absolute beginners, are experienced at the interview process and have a mental script to fall back on. I want to get them off the script, so I’ll ask questions that come from my own observations and feelings about the film. I try to avoid the standard “How was it working with (Star A)?” stuff. And I try to give them my full attention so I can come up with better follow-ups than mechanically going down a list. Sometimes, if they slip in something unfamiliar or start mumbling, I’ll ask them to repeat — politely of course!
PJVH: It’s quite interesting you put it that way. While it is not entirely the same, psychoanalysts put a similar emphasis on that what disrupts the discourse of the analysand. It is in these ‘disruptions’ that one finds the subject of the director and not the ego of their common discourse.
Well, this has been one very enlightening interview. Not only will your answers heighten the pleasure of reading your book, these answers unveil some about your subjectivity and will subtly guide critics like myself to become even better.