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The Far East Film Festival, whose eighth edition has just concluded, makes its intentions clear right from the start: in fact it presents itself as the biggest festival of mainstream cinema from Asia.
In Udine, in the North-Eastern part of Italy, it is therefore possible to become acquainted with the films that spectators from countries ranging from Korea to Hong Kong, from China to Thailand, have seen on the big screen, especially during the year that has just finished. This means that there are not many so-called “festival films” but rather those that were actually screened in cinemas. Because of this strategy, the Udine competition also offers a unique opportunity for understanding cinema trends not only in the creative and production field, but also from a commercial point of view on markets that boast the world’s highest growth rates. Amongst the countries whose present position was best represented from a quantitative point of view at the last FEFF is Japan, present in Udine with eight titles competing. On the podium, too, Japanese cinema took the lion’s share: whilst not winning the audience’s award (which went to the Korean Welcome to Dongmakgol), four of its films occupied the top eight positions.
Tokitoshi Shiota, director of the Yubari festival, devoted to fantasy films, helps us to understand what these titles represent in terms of the offer of films in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Japan did not escape the phenomenon that marked cinema-going more or less throughout the world in 2005, i.e. the drop in audiences. There, however, the decrease compared to 2004 was limited to 6% and total admissions in 2005 (around 160.5 million) were basically in line with those of the past five years. The year that has just ended has nonetheless established an important record: the market share of domestic films has risen to above 40% (precisely 41.3%), something that had not happened since 1997.
“Japanese productions – comments Tokitoshi Shiota – have concentrated on films capable on the one hand of drawing a young audience – i.e. the “core” of the spectators – and, on the other, the over-sixties, or those who now have time and money to spend and, above all, have retained the idea that films are to be seen at the cinema rather than at home”. If the former type of production is influenced by the sort of popular culture that has gained a foothold in various sectors, starting from music and comprising strip cartoons, the latter touches on topics drawing on life experience and also history. Here a significant case is the success of Otoko-tachi no Yamato, the film produced by Toei, set against the background of the Second World War and using vast resources to narrate the adventures of the young sailors who embarked on the Yamato, the warship launched a few days after the attack on Pearl Harbour, the heart of Japan’s war strategy in the Pacific Ocean, and which was sunk in 1944 by an American bomb attack that caused almost three thousand deaths. The film Always – Sunset on Third Street – the second favourite with audiences in Udine – is instead linked to the trend of youth culture. “Not only is the source a manga that appeared for the first time in 1973 and continues to be published, but the director comes from television, where he worked on a highly popular series. Moreover, – continues Shiota – it is no coincidence that the film was produced by Toho, a company whose strong point is computer graphics: Always succeeds in painting a finely-detailed fresco of Tokyo in the ‘Fifties – showing us a lifestyle miles away from that of the modern metropolis – using technology usually adopted for science-fiction films”.
Again inspired by mangas, of the type produced “for girls”, is another of the films most widely seen by the Japanese in 2005, and equally appreciated at Udine: this is Nana, a film about female friendship, which brought around 30 million euro into Japan’s box offices. Instead Shinobi, which takes its story from a novel, seems to be closer to the language of videogames, whilst Siren, a success at the beginning of 2006, is a horror story which makes explicit reference to a game by Sony Computer Entertainment. A successful tv crime series (Bayside Shakedown) is behind “national-popular” productions for the cinema which have resulted in films like The Negotiator and The Suspect, making a grand contribution to the increase in the market share of Japanese films. And although, apart from Howl’s Moving Castle – an enormous success at home and with excellent results on the international market – not many have been seen outside Japan, Shiota is fairly optimistic about the future of Japanese cinema: “since 2000 our productions for theatrical release have increased in terms of numbers and quality. To boost cinema-going new ideas are needed: in this regard I think there’s a very positive trend in Japan. And though it’s true that Japanese films with Japanese actors do not easily travel abroad, I still think there’s going to be an increase in sales of the rights for remakes”.
Even if no-one dares admit it openly, everyone in the industry toys with the idea that Japanese cinema, which seems to have managed to set itself up as interpreter of the content and forms of popular youth culture, may succeed in the same achievement as music, where so-called jpop has succeeded in undermining foreign supremacy.

Elisabetta Brunella