Japan Foundation, National Film Center, Government

The KineJapan list recently finished a very lively discussion on government film policy, focusing especially on the role of the Japan Foundation and the National Film Center in promoting not only Japanese movies, but also research on those movies. There is a general feeling that government film policy is not supporting researchers. While it was a long and involved discussion, I thought I would introduce some of the things I talked about. 

The Japan Foundation, as many know, has been quite instrumental in introducing Japanese film abroad, helping lend out prints from their collection and even publicly showing films in some of their offices. But the JF is not always so open about what they have in their collection, and they are not really set up to help individual researchers who want to watch films. But they are quire helpful if you want to show rent films for public screenings.

Yale has done a series of films through the JF practically every semester since I have come here. We have had a good relation with the NY office, who have been quite cooperative. Since they don't consider the films in their collection "theirs," they will not tell you outright what they have, but if you give them a list, they will tell you if they have it or not. Since I have a long relationship with the JF, I know a lot of what they have already, but the NYC people have helped me when I have searched for other things.

The main problem these days is the copyright holders. Some are wonderful. We showed Boryoku no machi last year and the copyright holder was so thrilled he let us show it for free. Some, like Toei, are recently coming under the mistaken impression that since the "contents industry" is big these days that can ask $900 to screen a 35mm print of a film completely unknown abroad in an educational setting with no attendance fees. More reasonable places charge $300 to $500 for 35mm screenings in our case, since most will cut off a bit of the rental fee if we tell them we don't charge admission.

I have suggested to the JF that they should put in a word or two with the copyright holders, since if they keep insisting on such rates, people will stop showing the films and that will put a damper on the growth of an audience for Japanese films or DVDs. But many in the Japanese film industry these days seem to be either ignorant or short-sighted, only looking at revenue in the short term and not thinking of long-term ways of building up their business. It can be quite frustrating dealing with such people who don't care enough about their business or the movies to pursue a long term vision. 

Such comments really got people going, as many lamented their dealings with Japanese companies that only seem out to get a quick profit and not take the time or care needed to slowly develop interest in different Japanese films through promoting screenings or research. The question then was why public institutions like the JF, the National Film Center, or the Agency for Cultural Affairs don't step in and direct the industry to treat film culture more wisely.  That would be hard for the JF would do, since it is associated with the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and is supposed to promote good will for Japan abroad, not necessarily the Japanese film business. The NFC, which I'll talk about later, is primarily directed towards preserving Japanese film and publicly showing it, not promoting research and study.

The impression that some had that the Japanese government has not been promoting film is not correct. As I have discussed on Midnight Eye and elsewhere, the Japanese government as a whole has been actively involved in film promotion in the last few years. The Agency for Cultural Affairs, especially when Terawaki Ken was there (and Saeki-san is still there, by the way; Aoki Tamotsu, the current chokan, is also not unsympathetic to film), was engaged in a number of projects. The Film Center has been the clearing house for several of these, which include promoting subtitling and preservation. The Japan Film Commission Promotion Council is located inside the Film Center. I had written a lot a few years ago on KineJapan about the committees set up to promote film culture.

There are thus some things going on, but my complaint is that film policy is now largely swayed not by cultural but by economic policy, and the hand of METI is apparent. When culture and economics thus clash, it is usually economics that wins out. In this age, that economy is the "contents industry" and, according to a current interpretation of that industry, much is geared towards creating contents and preserving property rights over them. Cultural rights over film are mostly irrelevant in this economy, except maybe when pop culture is used to promote the nation (and that is where Aso Taro often comes in). As I wrote in Midnight Eye, this economy can be linked to the impending death of film criticism in Japan and the lack of interest in film studies. The economy demands consumers - who at most may write one sentence good or bad comments on the internet - not active readers.

Personally, I think this economic policy is short-sighted because, unlike fashion and cell phones, where obsolescence is planned, "contents" are really valuable to the degree they have a long shelf life. Companies don't buy back catalogs unless they expect that people will continue to want to view them. But Japanese companies these days mostly don't realize that sometimes it is in their interest to promote cultural policy and to slowly but steadily spread their goods in order to develop an audience that will pay for not only new contents, but old ones as well. Such long-term planning is important in the contents industry, but they don't get it. And METI and others don't seem to be pointing them in the right direction. Especially the overpromotion of intellectual and digital property rights has the great potential of killing not only film culture, but even the contents industry itself.

I definitely realize the problems with arguing in this way on behalf of a contents industry, but I still think there can be strategic linkages between companies and festivals and academia and audiences that are not all about the latter three paying the former. There can be mutual benefits here that are not reflected in the "new economy." I just wish someone - not just in government, but in power - had some vision and clout in this regard.

We should not paint the Japanese film industry in one color. There are many smaller companies that are cooperative. And even amongst the majors, there are differences. One thing that I had to be reminded of when I did a lot of interviews in the industry last year was that these companies are made up of individuals, some of whom are great film fans who do their best for the movies. The head of the services division at the Toho Studios, for instance, is a classmate of Kurosawa Kiyoshi and thus a Rikkyo/Hasumi film product; another fellow in the Toei marketing division is a deshi of Sakamoto Junji who worked on many of his films. Even the president of Toho is a nice guy (he always writes me back personally by e-mail). It is important to combine an institutional critique with an awareness of difference and even occasional individual "resistance" within these institutions.

The discussion then moved towards the National Film Center, as many complained about the lack of help there for researchers. Its practice of charging researchers to view films, and not making available prints for viewing on flatbeds, is not helpful and unusual for a major national archive. 

I do think we should hold back a little on bashing the NFC. For a research guide Markus and I are working on, I went to the NFC this summer to specifically talk to them about their rules for usage. One thing that is clear is that they are very conscious of their bad reputation and want to change it. As one curator said, "This will be a 'Film Center that you can use' not a 'Film Center that you can't use.'" And things have gotten better. It is easier to request screenings. I did for my class this summer and it cost about $100 to show 2 hours worth of pristine archive prints of rare films for my students in a theater. Note that this is a reduced rate for academic institutions. (The NFC is thus one place that does promote research financially by reducing or, sometimes in the case of stills, eliminating fees for academic researchers.) Certainly it is not like the Library of Congress, where you can see films for free by yourself on a Steenbeck, but it is getting better. They do have films to watch on video and viewing booths by the way (although for some bad reason they still charge you the same as a film screening). One thing I like about the new Film Center is the Kodomo eigakan, which is a set of screenings they do during school vacations for kids. Great films, often with benshi and live music, for next to nothing. I take my son and his friends whenever I can. It is precisely these kind of events that are necessary to build up interest and appreciation of not new things like Ponyo, but of the whole history of cinema. There is still room for improvement, particularly the need to change the NFC charter to make it a research institution, not just a film preservation one, but the NFC is trying.

But the fact is that both the government and major public institutions, from academia to the press, remain ignorant about film studies and do little to promote it. That ignorance was reflected in an Asashi editorial that came out just during our debate. It was utterly boring! It could have been written 20 years ago. And it probably was. It says nothing new. And actually it is somewhat off the mark calling for film education, because if there is one thing that the government has been promoting, it is the building up of film production programs at university. Those have greatly increased in the last decade. The problem, which the Asahi is too ignorant to point out, is that this is never tied to film education in general: the education of the general populace - or even of college students - about film history and culture. Again, the same old vision focused only on creating contents, not on how they are read, preserved, used and discussed.

So this vision is not applied to the NFC from above. People should realize that the NFC has been the subject of high-level discussions about its role and future. In fact, there was a government committee set up a few years ago just to investigate what to do about it, focusing in particular on whether to make it independent of MOMAT. You can look at the final report of that committee here:


If you read it, you can see that they are fully aware that the NFC does not compare well with other institutions abroad. But, and I need to stress this time and time again, they have little vision of film research. To the committee members, the NFC exists priarily to preserve films (in part because of the contents industry) and to show them. If you look at the minutes of the meetings, there were some members who called for improvements in the ability of researchers to see films there, but all that got left out of the final report. In the report, research is mentioned only in relation to using the library, or seeing public screenings, and that's it. There is no vision of the larger role of research in film culture or of the NFC's place in that. I think much of that stems from continued ignorance in official culture about film studies and/or prejudice over the place of film in intellectual life. Just look at the members of this committee:


Mostly industry people, with the only academic being Yokokawa Shinken, a Nichidai professor (70 years old) who is not exactly in the forefront of film studies. Much of what was to be discussed was determined when the members was decided, and one can see in that selection where government priorities are placed.

And even these priorities are not a priority, since a significant part of even what this committee recommended has not been acted upon.

It is not very encouraging...

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