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Japanese Cinema and TV1

The so-called Golden Age of Japanese cinema from mid-fifties to early sixties was cut short by the arrival of the television. At the time of the first TV broadcast in February 1953 there were only 866 TV sets (2). Three years later, as marking the beginning of the Japanese economic recovery, the number of TV license holders topped the 100,000 mark. By 1959 that figure had increased to a staggering 2 million (3). Ironically, the following year the Japanese film industry reached the zenith of its economic success by producing 547 films and numbering a total of 7,457 cinema screens around the whole country. However, only ten years later, and as the popularity of home viewing continued to rise, the number of screens had been reduced by more than half, to 3,246, and the production of film works cut to 423. During this period the film industry tried to offer the audience something that TV couldn't, mainly in the shape of films containing sex and violence. While in 1962 only four pinku eiga (erotic films) were produced, by 1969 more than 50% of the domestic film production belonged to the pink film genre. The appearance of the video in the 1980s dealt another major blow to a decaying film industry. Thus, 1993 marked one of the lowest points in its history. Screens around the country "had plunged to 1,734, or just 20% of their former peak" (4), and only 238 films were made.

However, the current state of the Japanese film industry presents a more positive outlook, and its recovery can be partially attributed to the influx of money from the industry's once former enemy, the TV companies. It goes without saying that funding of film productions by TV companies is not just a Japanese phenomenon as national (TVE) and regional (TVG, TV3 and ETB) public and private (TeleCinco and Antena 3) Spanish TV companies, to give an example, are deeply involved in the production of many films made in the country. However, it exist a not so subtle difference between their practices, which will see later. Last year, 418 films were produced and the number of screens amounted to a total of 3,359, 80% of them, nevertheless, owned by "cinecom" or cinema complexes such as Warner Mycal Cinemas (493 screens) or Toho Cinemas (415 screens) (5). In the last few years three of the major private TV companies in Japan (TBS, Nippon TV and Fuji TV) have been producing around ten films each annually, many of these becoming big box office earners. Last year, seven of their produced films finished in the box office top ten for domestic features.

(Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1983)

Regarding film production by TV companies, Fuji TV can be considered the pioneer. Even though, its first adventure in the film world took place in 1969, it wasn't until 1983, following the release of NANKYOKU MONOGATARI (Antarctica) and its enormous success at the box office, becoming the highest grossing Japanese film up to that point, that the company started to pursue film production seriously. The story of two sled dogs Taro and Jiro and their survival after being left behind by their owners in the freezing plains of Antarctica was remade by Hollywood in 2006 with the title of EIGHT BELOW. In Japan, moving stories featuring animals are about as close as one can get to a secured source of income and Fuji TV repeated its success with KONEKO MONOGATARI (Milo & Otis, 1986), the story of Milo, the cat, and Otis, the dog. Separated after growing up together on the same farm, who begin a long journey to find each other again. The business potential of film production was picked up on by other major TV companies at the time of ANTARCTICA's release was reinforced by the subsequent cat and dog tale. Years later Fuji TV consolidated their position at the top by releasing ODORU DAISOSASEN (1998) and its sequel (2003). Based on its television series starring Yuji Oda, ODORU DAISOSASEN 2 broke ANTARCTICA's previous record and became the highest grossing live action film in Japanese history; a record that still stands. This achievement not only placed Fuji TV as the most successful TV company producer of films, with the above mentioned films being the four highest grossing non-anime films in Japan, but made the company a role model, in the way that films were produced and advertised in the country. Furthermore, it also helped to set up another trend: the film adaptation of TV dramas. An exception to this rule has been the love stories SEKAI NO CHUSHIN DE AI WO SAKEBU and IMA AI NI YUKIMASU , sixth and eighth at the 2004 box office, adapted for the big screen from novels and later converted into TV dramas, or the comedy WATERBOYS.

This trend reached new heights last year as three film remakes of TV dramas finished in the box office top 5 for national productions, HANA YORI DANGO FINAL (Boys Before Flowers Final, TBS, position 2), YOGISHA EKKUSU NO KENSHIN (Suspect X, TBS, position 3) and AIBO GEKIJOBAN (Aibo the Movie, TV Asahi, position 5). The year before, HERO, Fuji TV's highest rating drama series ever, starring SMAP'S member Takuya Kimura as a former juvenile delinquent turned into an unconventional public prosecutor, became Japan's most successful film of 2007. This year a similar outcome is expected to occur. The major TV companies are making full use of their resources and broadcasting time to promote their films on their channels. Thus, after an intense marketing campaign, a TBS film adaptation of its hit baseball series ROOKIES, about a high school teacher who turns a group of under-achievers into a successful baseball team, opened on May 30 and was seen by almost 1 million people in its first weekend. GOKUSEN THE MOVIE (Nihon TV), the story of a female teacher, granddaughter of a Yakuza boss, at an all-male private high school, also had a strong start when released in July 11, even though it might fall short of ROOKIES performance which is set to break the 10 billion yen mark, a feat only achieved by three live-action Japanese films so far.

Fearing the possibility of being knocked off the top of the pile, Fuji TV announced in March this year that is planning a third installment of ODORU DAISOSASEN, set to begging shootin next year. Meanwhile the company has marked its 50th anniversary with the opening of AMALFI (July 18), starring the channel's highest profile actor Yuji Oda as a diplomat based in the Italian city of Almafi investigating the kidnap of a Japanese girl and falling in love with the girl's mother. Even the public TV channel NHK hasn't been able to resist the tend and has remade its award-winning finance drama HAGETAKA (Vulture), the fictional story of a US investment fund's ruthless attempts to buy up Japanese companies, into a feature film HAGETAKA: ROAD TO REBIRTH (July 31).

(Yojiro Takita, 2008)

This current practice of TV shows moving to the big screen is for some an undesirable development. Critics point out that film adaptations are not more than big-budget TV productions showing little creativity and artistry. TV companies are just finding new ways of cashing in on their successful dramas regardless of production values and artistic merits. Box office returns would seem to suggest that audiences are less concerned. Furthermore, TV stations don't just finance theatrical remakes of their dramas. For instance, last year TBS invested in OKURIBITO (Departures) and Fuji TV partially financed THE MAGIC HOUR, by one of Japanese cinema's darlings Koki Mitani. But is the enormous power that TV companies hold over the film industry beneficial? Some don't think so, especially smaller production companies who find it not just hard to compete with TV companies' big marketing machines, but are left with fewer screens to exhibit their independent productions. As an example, Toho cinemas' close business relationship with Fuji TV and Nihon TV leave little room for independent films to be shown at the former film studio's cinema complexes. On the other hand, one could argue that this symbiotic relationship between television and cinema has helped to bring the Japanese public back to the big screen in large numbers. But for how long and to see what? As Yoshizaku Suzuki points out the monopolization of Japanese cinema by a few TV and distributor companies saturating TV airtime, subsided by TV licence payers, cannot be a good thing and raises serious questions about its competition fairness. Major TV companies have been broadcasting single episode dramas to highlight the released of their own produced films. These dramas featuring sometimes the same cast of the film version served as mere extended trailer of the movie (6). This journalist provides a damning report of these practices in an article that for its value is reproduced in its entirety in the notes section (7).


  1. This is a revised and unedited version of an article originally published with the title Television and its emergence onto the Big Screen in the Sapporo Source, July 2009
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  3. January 1953, the Sharp model TV3-14T became Japan's first commercially produced television. It was priced at 175,000 yen. (At the time, salaries for government workers with a high school education started at 5,400 yen per month Sharp History
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  5. Anderson, Joseph L. y Richie, Donald, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry, página 254, Princeton University Press; Rev Sub edition (February 1983).
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  7. Japanese Film Industry, JETRO Japan Economic Monthly, May 2003
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  9. Cinema Complex
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  11. Suzuki, Yoshikazu Films should be about quality / TV stations' involvement double-edged sword for movie industry, Yomiuri Shimbun, February 28, 2009
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  13. Films should be about quality / TV stations' involvement double-edged sword for movie industry
    Yoshikazu Suzuki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer

    The growing role TV stations are taking in financing and producing movies, along with TV programs, is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the linkage between programs and movies made under the support of TV stations has produced a number of hit motion pictures and contributed to the nation's filmmaking industry. On the other, box-office takings and moviegoers have been polarized, which threatens the diversity of our movie-making culture. Take, for example, "Akai Ito" (Red Thread), which started as a romantic novel published on a cell phone Web site. At the end of last year, it was reincarnated as a serial drama on Fuji TV and released as a movie aimed at middle and high school students when the winter holidays began. "The film crew and the staff were exactly the same," said Chihiro Kameyama, chief of the station's motion picture unit. "The footage was edited separately, which was a new, more efficient way of doing it." The movie was a huge success raking in more than 1.1 billion yen at the box office.

    The third-highest grossing Japanese movie in 2008 was "Yogisha X no Kenshin" (The Devotion of Suspect X), a cinematic adaptation of the popular serial drama "Galileo." On the day the movie opened, Fuji TV broadcast a drama depicting the early life of the main character in the movie. The ratings were excellent. And on the day the police thriller "Daremo Mamotte Kurenai" (Nobody to Watch Over Me) arrived on the silver screen, the same station aired a show "Daremo Mamorenai" (Nobody Can Watch Over Me) featuring the same cast. The end of the two-hour drama featured the opening scene of the movie. Some cynics might suggest the TV program had been little more than an extended trailer for the movie. But Fuji is not the only station making TV programs to coincide with movies it has produced or helped produce. In December, NTV showed "episode ZERO" of "252 Seizonsha Ari" (252 Survivors) the night before the release of the movie, and last month, a special edition of the first installment of the "20th Century Boys" was aired the evening before the second installment of the trilogy hit the big screen. "The TV version of '20th Century Boys' has now been completed," executive producer Seiji Okuda said. "I'm sure people who've seen the film, and even those who haven't, would enjoy it."

    TV stations' strategy to produce hit movies was established by Fuji TV in its "Odoru Dai-sosasen" series. A movie version of the police drama became a big hit in 1998, the year after the first series aired on TV. Its sequel, released in 2003, saw excellent box office returns of 17.35 billion yen. One reason TV stations have actively engaged in producing movies is a management policy of increasing revenue from sources other than advertisements because sponsor TV ad budgets are not expected to further increase. Last year, the top 10 hit Japanese movies in terms of box office revenue, which accounted for about 60 percent of the 194.8 billion yen in total domestic theatrical release sales, were dominated by works produced by TV stations. TV stations have undoubtedly contributed to the nation's movie industry. However, the 28 titles that earned 1 billion yen or more at the box office accounted for nearly three-quarters of the total sales of the 418 Japanese movies released last year. The movie market did not grow from the previous year, so the small slice of the remaining box office sales was shared by the hundreds of other movies. It is also a concern that none of the high-quality movies chosen as the best 10 by Kinema Junpo movie magazine, including "Okuribito" (Departures), which won an Oscar this week as Best Foreign Language Film and many other prizes at home and abroad, did not make the list of top 10 box office earners.

    Prof. Kenzo Horikoshi at the Graduate School of Film and New Media of the Tokyo University of the Arts pointed out that moviegoers are polarized. "Young people see movies that are mass-advertised in many cases. The films that get excellent reviews are patronized by middle-aged and elderly people," he said. He voiced concern about the current trend, saying: "Movie projects led by TV stations give priority to casting, with the talent or characteristics of directors tending to be given short shrift. If the TV dramas' production styles are the only ones that gain popularity, the unique and diversified culture of cinema could wane." An official of a TV station had an even more pessimistic view. "Now that tie-ups with TV programs have become this popular, moviegoers may get fed up," the official said. Horikoshi added: "However well-organized the TV programs may be, they are produced only to advertise the movies. Can TV stations say it's fair competition when they are using public airwaves?"

    In France, the government asks TV stations only to invest in movies to support the movie industry, while regulating movie production under the initiative of TV stations. It's desirable that there are excellent movies that remain in people's memories for many years, as well as record-setting hit films. TV stations may need to contribute to raising the quality level of Japanese movies-not only to produce hits that get the theater tills ringing-like TBS, which helped finance the production of "Okuribito."

    (Feb. 28, 2009)

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©Joaquín da Silva
Date of Publication: 24/1/2010