Sex, Power and Financial Hierarchy Come Into Focus as Filmmakers Challenge Japanese Industry to Change or Die

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Japan’s film industry is Asia’s second-largest in terms of box office – revenues totaled $1.14 billion from 115 million admissions at the depths of the pandemic in 2021 – but as insiders have known for decades, it is hardly the healthiest by world or even regional standards.

For many in the industry, particularly those in the indie sector, hours are horrendous, contracts are non-existent and sexual and power harassment are facts of professional life.

And even directors whose work screens at major festivals abroad often struggle to raise money for their next project or earn a middle-class living from filmmaking alone.

In June this year, Cannes Palme d’Or winner Kore-eda Hirokazu and other six other directors belonging to a group called Eiga Kantoku Yushi no Kai (translation: Voluntary Association of Film Directors) launched action4cinema/Coalition for the Establishment of a Japan CNC (A4C), a non-profit dedicated to addressing ingrained industry problems.

A4C members aim to establish a Japanese version of France’s Center National du Cinema et de l’Image Anime (CNC).

“Our main goal is to change the money flow structure of the Japanese film industry and create a sustainable system that supports not only the commercial films but also the arthouse movies that have long been the major charm of Japanese cinema,” says veteran director and A4C founding member Funahashi Atsushi.

In 2019, the local film industry received a total of JPY3.5 billion ($24.5 million) from the Japanese government, while in France, the CNC allocated some $287 million for the support of film production.

The push for a Japanese CNC began in late 2020 when COVID had shut theaters and routed Japan’s arthouse sector. “We needed to build a safety system for the Japanese film industry,” says Funahashi. “What if another pandemic or disaster hits again?”

Spurred by this sense of existential urgency, the group began monthly meetings about creating a safety net with the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan (Eiren), the industry body led by the country’s four biggest film conglomerates: Toho, Toei, Shochiku and Kadokawa.

They examined how CNC and similar bodies in Korea and the U.K. work to sustain the local industry through training, subsidies and other initiatives. “We thought the central body should govern the money flow and gather some sort of tax from theaters, TV, videos and web VOD to maintain infrastructure and invest for the future,” Funahashi explains.

The founding quartet (Kore-Eda, Funahashi, Suwa Nobuhiro and Fukada Koji) was joined by directors Nishikawa Miwa, Sode Yukiko and Uchiyama Takuya and entertainment lawyer Shinomiya Takashi to form the body which later became A4C.

Another key A4C goal is to rid the industry of the sexual harassment that had long been pervasive, but mostly hidden until a series of recent exposes in the Japanese media brought to light sexually abusive behavior by veteran directors Sono Sion and Sakaki Hideo, among others. Sono and Sakaki have not been charged with any crimes, but the industry has largely turned against them.

In April, actor Suiren Midori went public in an interview with the weekly newspaper Tosho Shimbun. She claimed that, seven years earlier, Sakaki had sexually abused her in a private rehearsal session. Sakaki issued a general apology, but did not admit to specific acts.

That month Suiren joined with others with similar experiences and their supporters to form the “Association to End Sexual Abuse in the Film and Moving Image Industry.” The group has since added members, while informally allying itself with A4C.

Too many in the business still regard sexual abuse as “someone else’s problem, says Suiren. “Many people are silently waiting for this issue to go away.”

The main reason for this long-standing industry omerta, Suiren believes, is “the pyramid-type relationships that have become established, with directors and producers at the top.” Most power-brokers are men. Despite a slow increase, women accounted for just 12% of directors of all feature films released in 2020, according to a study by activist group Japan Film Project.

But the industry now acknowledges that ignoring the issue is no longer an option. On April 27, Eiren released a statement saying, “We believe that any violence, including sexual violence, and all kinds of harassment are never to be tolerated, and we are firmly opposed to these acts.”

A breakthrough in the issue of power abuse was the lawsuit former employees of theater operator and distributor Uplink brought against then president Asai Takashi in June 2020 for bullying. The suit was later settled, but A4C has made the eradication of power abuse a high priority.

Its efforts are starting to bear fruit: On September 1, A4C reported that Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs had incorporated anti-harassment measures into its 2023 budget request to Parliament. It wants individual productions to receive Agency funding of JPY200,00 ($1,400) for anti-harassment training and related measures.

An observer and participant on Japanese movie sets for more than two decades as a journalist, still photographer, actor and director, American-born Norman England has seen and experienced harassment first-hand, from name-calling to slaps and kicks. “Bullying is baked into the culture,” he says, referring to the traditional senpai-kohai (senior-junior) relationship, in which the former has absolute authority over the latter: “You get bullied and, when you have a chance, you bully someone else lower.”

The solution, England believes, is not voluntary guidelines, but contracts that spell out everything from off-limits behavior, to working hours and pay. “Some don’t think that would work in Japan,” he says. “I think it would because it would be a legal document.”

According to research by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, more than 60% of Japanese film industry freelancers currently work without signed contracts “That is absolutely wrong,” says Funahashi.

Without these and other reforms, the Japanese film industry may continue its long, slow decline as a magnet for young creative talent. “For them, Japanese cinema is no longer where they dream to work, unlike in the 1930s to 1950s, the golden era of Japanese studios,” says Funahashi. “We have to make fundamental changes so that film sets once again become places where people love to devote their energy and passion.”