Japan is one of the most advanced media economies in the world, so has no problem servicing high-end film, TV and commercials. With its industrious crews, specialist production talent, cutting-edge equipment, world-class studios and post-production facilities, it’s capable of coping with anything.
The main thing that lets it down in terms of winning international business is its comparatively high costs, particularly as the country doesn’t have any production tax incentives to offset this. Its remoteness from the US and Europe is also a drawback. For productions that do come to Japan, however, there is a superb range of locations to choose from, ranging from futuristic architecture to geographic marvels like Mount Fuji.
Overall, Japan is film-friendly, with permitting straightforward and local authorities keen to support productions. The country also has an army of volunteers willing to work as production extras.
Because of Japan’s high costs and lack of incentives, it is often easier for international producers to recreate Japan in other places. For example, the team behind 2013’s 47 Ronin created18th Century Japan at Shepperton Studios in the UK, while Tom Cruise’s 2003 epic The Last Samurai was mainly shot in New Zealand.
However productions that have visited Japan include The Wolverine, which did its studio work in Australia and locations work in Japan. A key reason for this was that the film was based on comic book plotlines set in the country. Lost In Translation filmed in the esoteric world of expat Tokyo while Inception visited Shizuoka and Tokyo during production.
In 2013, British director Peter Webber was at the helm of Emperor, starring Matthew Fox, which became the first feature film to be allowed to shoot in the sacred grounds of the imperial palace.
One film franchise that likes to visit Japan is Fast and Furious, which shot in Japan on Tokyo Drift (2006) and FF7 (2015). Others to have filmed here include Kill Bill: Vol 1, Babel, Jumper, The Day After Tomorrow & GI Joe: The Rise Of Cobra. Ridley Scott’s classic cop thriller Black Rain shot some iconic scenes in Osaka.
It is also important not to be too Western-centric when looking at Japan’s track record. The country has hosted productions from territories such as South Korea, China and Hong Kong.
Numerous brands have shot international TVCs in Japan, and there is a dynamic domestic ad production scene. The same is true for TV and animation, both significant domestic businesses.
Filming permits for most locations take about a week to process. The best starting point is the JFC, which can guide you through the process in partnership with local film commissions. Roads can be closed but a special permit will be needed from the police and transport authorities. Allow more time if you want to shut roads in Tokyo (difficult but not impossible).
More generally, local film commissions will advise on what kind of permits are required for other public facilities/locations. Filming on private property will require owner permission. For more, click here. On the subject of visas and work permits, make sure you check requirements with your local embassy ahead of travel.
Like Hollywood and Bollywood, Japan has a well-established film and TV production system. Most of them don’t try too hard to chase international business (eg websites are often in Japanese only). But among the best-known and most internationally available is Toho Studios, which has a total area of 78,000 m2. Toho says it “welcomes every international production. We have 10 stages available for sync sound recording, exterior and interior tanks, two post-production buildings with Japan's highest-quality dubbing stage, production offices, dressing rooms, meeting rooms, etc.”
Other leading studios include Shochiku-owned Shochiku Studio Co and Yokohama Super Factory, owned by advertising conglomerate Dentsu. There is also Toei, which has studios in Tokyo and Kyoto. It says the Tokyo site produces about 40 movies, 150 TV programmes, and 150 TV commercials annually.
There is no shortage of state of the art post-production businesses, with Tokyo the main centre of excellence. Toho and Toei, mentioned above under studios, both have world-class facilities on site.
There are also independent companies like Imagica (which recently entered a JV with the Malaysian government to launch a facility at Pinewood in Malaysia). Imagica has been in business for nearly 80 years and claims to control around 20% of Japan’s post market. Leading companies that have been investing in cutting edge 4K kit from Quantel include Omnibus Japan, Azabu Plaza, Tokyo Laboratory and sound recording/post-production business Onkio Haus. Advertising giant Dentsu owns high-end facility Digital Egg.
Japan is best known for Tokyo’s futuristic cityscape, which offers cutting edge architecture, colourful nightlife, spectacular sports stadia and much more. But there is also a wealth of historic sites and superb landscapes across the country. The most iconic locations are Mount Fuji, Japan’s Buddhist and Shinto temples and the ancient city of Kyoto. In addition, there are forests, rivers, snow-capped mountains, a varied coastline, islands, golf courses, ski resorts, and farming backdrops. Because Japan has a four-season climate, it is possible to achieve different looks across the year (it is famed for its colourful autumns and cherry blossoms in the spring). A comprehensive database can be viewed via the JFC website. The JFC also holds a locations fair, for regional film commissions to meet production companies in Tokyo. One local expert worth talking to is locations co-ordinator Masato Yamada.
As explained above, Japan has a four season climate, so producers need to check conditions prior to selecting the country as a location. Getting around is no problem, because Japan has a very sophisticated transport system, including good roads, bullet trains and domestic/international flights.
Japan has one of the world’s leading production industries so sourcing camera, grip and lighting gear and crew is never likely to be a problem. Art department and set construction is also of a very high standard, but expensive compared to many markets. As with many other countries, it helps to find a local fixer or services provider to make the shoot go smoothly.
Companies that can fulfill this role include Twenty First City, which will sort out locations, crew, kit and permits. There is also Michaelgion, a Tokyo-based firm that offers similar services. Both of these companies also offer bilingual crews. It’s worth talking to local film commissions about extras, because they often have a volunteer database they can share. Also check out the range of services on offer at Iino Productions.