Movie Meddlers
Pandering is all well and good—just do it right
Sep 9, 2010 | Issue: 859 | 5 Comments | 4,563 views
Movie Meddlers
Don Brown is a subtitler and translator who writes about Japanese film at

Unless you’re a suit-wearing mutant with a handycam for a head and an uncontrollable desire to breakdance in cinemas, the anti-piracy advert that plays before films in Japanese movie theaters probably doesn’t strike a chord. Presumably, there are still a few stubbornly traditionalist bootleggers out there who would attempt to sell you a blurry spasm-cam mpeg of Avatar shot on their PHS. But in an age where it’s possible to download high-definition rips of Adam Sandler’s entire oeuvre in a few minutes, and prominent DVD rental chains sell stacks of blank discs next to the counter with a figurative nudge and a wink, it feels a bit redundant to say “No More Eiga Dorobo” to a captive audience who’ve just taken an ¥1,800 gamble on your latest celluloid conglomeration.

Forcing all filmgoers to sit through warnings about illegal activity in which only a sub-atomic portion of the population indulges has far more to do with satisfying the Japan and International Motion Picture Copyright Association than the public. And in much the same way, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when domestic producers of multiplex fodder continue to push high-concept star vehicles designed first and foremost to fulfill the needs of the business interests involved—while seeming to ignore audience demand.

One recent example is last year’s Kochikame, a TV series starring the gratingly cartoonish Smap pitchman Katori Shingo, of the powerful Johnny’s Jimusho pretty-boy factory. TBS had intended to establish the show, which is based on a popular kids’ manga, as an ongoing fixture. But despite incessant promotion and a prime family-friendly slot at 8pm on Saturdays, viewers were quick to sniff out the desperation. The show’s flimsy conception and over-reliance on celebrity cameos saw it end its uncelebrated run with a dismal average viewership rating of 9.3 percent.

So the recent announcement that this notorious failure would be receiving the big-screen treatment was greeted with a resounding “Heee?!” by entertainment insiders. One headline in entertainment tabloid Cyzo summed it up nicely: “Does TBS intend to take a lover’s leap with Johnny’s?”

The same thing happened back in 2007 with another Johnny’s idol, Koichi Domoto, and a Friday night series called Sushi Ouji. In this case, a theatrical sequel was actually shot before the TV show that was to precede it, so when the drama suffered from poor ratings, the parties involved had little choice but to shunt the film into cinemas, where it opened in 6th place and slipped shamefacedly out of the top ten the following week. It’s also possible that the film’s sponsors pushed advance tickets on to as many of their staff as possible to drive up the opening weekend total—a practice which is apparently not uncommon.

One might wonder why any business would persevere with such a loss-making proposition, let alone be reckless enough to repeat it. But the truth is that control-freak talent agencies reign supreme in the name-recognition-driven world of TV programming. They aren’t shy about throwing their weight around to protect their money earners’ delicate showbiz careers. If by chance one station decides to make a stand, the agency can always take its little pride and joy off to a competitor. The same applies for the entertainers themselves: for all but a few of the most famous names, disagreeing with an agency’s directives is usually a one-way ticket to obscurity.

Illustration by Shane Busato

With the decline of Japan’s major studios, television companies have stepped in to fill the vacuum. The result is the introduction not only of the low production values, pedestrian direction and tonal inconsistency characteristic of homegrown television dramas, but also the obsequious deference to talent agencies. How else can you explain the casting of Katori as Zatoichi? Or Eiji Wentz as Gegege no Kitaro? Or Koike Teppei as a homeless junior high student? You could argue that each actor brought certain qualities to his role and delivered certain audiences to the films, but you’d be going out on a limb if you said that they were logical choices.

Showbiz politics should be treated the same way as special effects: if they’re too blatant, it becomes hard for audiences to take a film seriously. Take the TBS production, Rookies: Sotsugyo. True, it was an utterly worthless TV adaptation that epitomized the worst aspects of mainstream Japanese cinema. But its monomaniacal dedication to delivering exactly what the fan base wanted made it the top grossing film of 2009, and even propped up the network’s ailing finances. Sucking up to talent agencies might be a necessary evil for commercial filmmakers, but pandering to audiences is far more lucrative.



Email This Post


Print This Post
Rate this
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (6 votes, average: 4.00 out of 5)
Loading ... Loading ...

  • Charltzy

    I learnt a lot from this article, thank you!

    I often wondered about these things, how actors are chosen for parts for example, I just put it down to my lack of understanding of the subtleties of Japanese, but you confirmed my worst fears!

    Another thing I’ve guessed at is the poor choice of music in most Japanese films , possibly due to artists being related to the studios favouring ones from music labels they are associated with, or want to promote for some backhanded reason…

    Watch any Japanese movie (or even just a trailer) and out of nowhere some J-pop song will come blasting in, completely out of context and tone, very jarring. (for me at least)
    Compare and contrast with a western movie where most songs are chosen for the themes or melodies that complement the movie.
    If Mr Brown could confirm or deny my suspicions would be greatly appreciated!

    This, for example:
    (I know that’s Lenny Kravitz, but still – such weird editing and music choice)

    Also LOL’d at the “suit-wearing mutant with a handycam for a head” comment!

  • James Hadfield

    I’ve noticed that, and think it’s more a problem with the trailers than with the films itself. I wonder if it’s actually written into the contract when licensing a theme song that it must be included in the trailer, as it seems to be unthinkable not to stick it in there, however jarring. (There’s a lot else to be said about the editing of Japanese trailers, of course. They’ve become such a fine art in Hollywood that the trailers are often more enjoyable than the films themselves, but I find the Japanese equivalents downright shoddy in comparison. The previews for “Kokuhaku” were a recent, and very unusual, exception to that.)

  • gilesdesign

    “low production values”
    I totally agree. What bugs me the most is the lighting… They have about 5 light reflections bouncing off someones forehead in those gleeming indoor shots. It seems the lighting designers job is to show off the talents face (like it was a gold watch in a glass cabinet) there is no regard for realism.
    As for the “talent”, what talent?…The acting is mostly terrible. Well you cant blame them they are expected to be actors, models, singers, comedians and everything all rolled into one.
    So all we end up with is mediocrity in every field.

  • ryuganji

    Thanks for all the comments.

    Charltzy – not all Japanese films have crap taste in music, just some of the big-budget commercial ones that are marketing- driven. The “Death Note” films are one particularly egregious example: no matter what your opinion of the Red Hot Chili Peppers is, “Dani California” had absolutely nothing to do with the story and everything to do with cross-promotion (their appearance on Music Station sitting next to Kinki Kids says a lot about their career trajectory too).

    For many years theme songs were a central element of movie promotion, going back to the heyday of the big studios when the stars crooned their own signature tunes. Although they’re not such an effective means for increasing awareness of a film these days, it’s still standard practice to feature them heavily in promotional campaigns.

    One large reason for the frequent use of jarring, irrelevant music is the production committee system by which commercial films are made here. It’s virtually impossible, both financially and physically, for a studio or production company to make a film alone these days, so most are backed by several companies from different business spheres, such as television, publishing, advertising, and music. With so many vested interests trying to get their money’s worth out of a single film, it’s no wonder that this can sometimes result in a less than coherent product.

  • Charltzy

    @ryuganji @James Hadfield
    Thanks for the confirmation/information – much appreciated!