Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on April 2011

Eparama Tuibenau

In 2010, Japan witnessed its neighbor China fly past it to become the world’s number two economy. The major implications for Japan’s status are obvious, but what about the knock-on effect on its independent arts—and independent film scene? Should Japan’s indie filmmakers pack their bags and head to Beijing?

Japan has built a cachet with its unique brand of quirky, unpredictable and difficult-to-emulate indie flicks that celebrate everything from the subtleties of family relationships to ecstatic nihilism. Unlike its crass TV programs, Japan’s independent cinema is respected worldwide. Accordingly, there is a well-established scene in the capital that has attracted numerous aspiring filmmakers, Japanese and gaijin alike. Though Beijing has still to earn this reputation, building a thriving indie environment requires decades of lead-time, and China’s fundamentals now offer a lot to be excited about.

From my own experience working on my feature documentary China: The Rebirth of an Empire in China, India, Japan, the US and a number of other places, I can say unequivocally that it is much easier working outside of Japan. Whether it was crew, permits, releases, locations, interviews, volunteers or fundraising, everything was easier—or at least cheaper—elsewhere. As J. X. Carrera, who recently directed a music video for J-pop sensation AKB48, put it to me, “Lower costs and less need to worry about ‘the rules’ are an absolute advantage to small filmmakers in China.” For film, money is often what it’s really all about. Common wisdom might cite the screenplay or treatment as the factor in a movie’s greatness, but without money a movie will never get made—period. And if you can’t raise it, the second best thing is to cut costs—hard to do in Japan’s hyper-monetized society where even “gifts” expose you to future financial obligation.

Another thing that China has, with its “git-r-done” attitude, is ease of promotion and distribution. “In most countries there are too many movies and not enough distribution channels,” Beijing International Movie Festival (BIMF) organizer Peter Salladé told me. “In China there are too many distribution channels and not enough content.” Salladé started BIMF in 2007 as an independent grassroots festival. Now in its fifth year, the fest has grown in size and scope and has official backing from the Beijing government. Contrast this with the experience of entertainment writer Matt Kaufman and director Darryl Knickrehm, who started the Kansai International Film Festival in Osaka in the same year. Although their festival received government backing immediately and had a large turnout, it only lasted a year. “I’m not sure if our Japanese sponsors were happy with it,” reflects Kaufman. “They were surprised at the turnout, but we didn’t do things the way they were used to doing things, especially in terms of promotion. At the time, social media and YouTube were new in Japan. I don’t think they fully understood that one person could do the work of ten in getting the word out.”

While China—and Beijing in particular—hold a bad rep for political censorship, things in Japan are not all fine and dandy. There are many topics that are off-limits this side of the pond. I spoke with Kazuhiro Soda, who directed the risk-taking documentaries Campaign and Mental. “There are so many topics that people censor themselves on,” he says. “One of the biggest taboos is the Emperor system.” Any discussion involving Japanese atrocities during WWII is also a big no-no and can easily invite death threats and flaming rhetoric from the black trucks of the uyoku. As a result, large organizations are reluctant to back a film that breaks such taboos. Soda, who used to work for NHK before taking the plunge and going independent, says that because of fear of making waves, “[NHK] cannot talk about real problems or real dangers, or anything edgy.”
While Chinese indie film’s quality and innovation—as measured by the expectations of international film festivals and audiences—may not yet be on Japan’s level, it is certainly “taking big strides,” according to Sam Voutas. A Beijing-based writer/director, his feature Red Light Revolution is about a working-class man who starts a sex shop. “Chinese indie cinema is really starting to experiment in new directions, whether documentary or fiction,” he adds.

So what does Japan have going for it? In addition to location, most agree that—if you can actually get a film made and distributed—it is much easier to make a profit here. There is just a little too much piracy going on in China. But that speaks more of Japan as a place to sell indie films, not necessarily to make them. So while each filmmaker must judge their individual situation, those struggling to find their niche in Japan would do well to heed the classic advice: “Go West, young man.”