Crewing up with local talent and translators and respecting the territory’s long-established filmmaking traditions can help international producers ensure a smooth and efficient shoot in Japan.
The country’s ambitions were bolstered when the government introduced a production incentive programme for international film and high-end TV productions. Japan had previously been perceived as expensive and reluctant to accommodate potentially disruptive requests for filming.
Two types of productions are touching down in Japan — Hollywood films such as The Wolverine and Avengers: Endgame that shoot for a few weeks in the country as part of a global schedule — and independent films and high-end TV series that are set in Japan or need the country’s combination of ancient and modern.
Recent productions in the latter category include feature film Earthquake Bird, a co-production between Scott Free Productions and Japan’s Twenty First City (TFC), which Netflix has acquired for worldwide distribution, and cop drama TV series Giri/Haji, a co-production between Netflix and the BBC. Japan also attracts a steady flow of shoots from other Asian countries, such as John Woo’s Chinese-language Manhunt, produced by Hong Kong’s Media Asia.
Directed by Wash Westmoreland, Earthquake Bird was entirely filmed in Japan, mostly in Tokyo and Sado Island. Alicia Vikander stars as a young expat who is suspected of murder after her friend goes missing in the wake of a love triangle. TFC, the Tokyo-based co-producer of the film, is also one of Japan’s leading production services companies and worked on Giri/Haji, which filmed in Tokyo and London.
“Japan lends itself to nimble, international productions with a light footprint,” says Georgina Pope, producer and founder of TFC, and a Japan veteran. “About three or four years ago, some high-end US TV series started coming to Japan — HBO’s Girls and Amazon’s Mozart In The Jungle — and people started to realise that we’re here and it’s not that difficult to make it work. At the same time, Japan has been trying to increase its profile by establishing film commissions and providing local support to attract filmmakers.”
Pope also worked on Paramount’s G.I. Joe spinoff Snake Eyes, which has been the first large-scale production to benefit from the new incentive.
Pope looked after around 100 crew members including heads of department from North America. The project took part in a traditional blessing ceremony at the Hie-Jinja shrine ahead of filming in Tokyo and wrapped just before the coronavirus outbreak stalled government-endorsed plans to entice more productions. Apple TV, Netflix, Amazon and a slew of indie film projects were eyeing production in Japan before the shutdown. Pope predicts it is going to “go nuts” when the pandemic restrictions are eased.
“There are a lot of projects with really serious people behind them queuing up to come,” she says. “I can see a bottleneck, which will be a headache but good for the industry.” However there remains a chronic shortage of English-language crew despite Pope “tackling returning Japanese students, who have been studying at colleges in English-language countries, at their knees at the airport”.
Japan remains an expensive place to shoot and has its limitations: it is hard to do big action setpieces as there is a ban on importing weapons and it is not possible to close roads for car chases in Japan’s metropolis. But with meticulous planning and playing to the strengths of the local industry, filmmakers can access a country that looks like no other — from its neon-soaked cityscapes to ancient temples and snow-capped mountains.
Wash Westmoreland’s Earthquake Bird starring Alicia Vikander, a co-production between Scott Free Productions and TFC for Netflix, filmed its entire eight weeks in Japan in 2018. Four weeks were at Toho Studios with the remainder at locations including Sado Island and Nagoya (for train station scenes that simply could not be filmed in Tokyo).
“We prepped for 12 weeks,” Westmoreland says. His 80-strong crew’s heads of department were all Japanese except for cinematography, which was led by South Korea’s Chung Chung-hoon. All worked with translators. “There is less angst and stress on a Japanese film set,” Westmoreland suggests. “The working method that is culturally supported is very focused and calm but extremely diligent.”
When planning, it is worth noting Tokyo is prohibitively hot in July and August. A lot of productions take a hiatus in August because it is simply too humid.
Tokyo-based Japan Film Commission provides access to a network of more than 120 regional and municipal film commissions spanning the country, from Sapporo Film Commission in the mountainous north to Okinawa Film Office in the islands of the south. Tokyo Location Box provides advice on locations and permits on behalf of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
Due to its long-established and thriving local film and TV industries, Japan has a wealth of talent, but still has a shortage of English-speaking crews. “Japan has extraordinary talent, especially in terms of production designers and wardrobe, so if your film is set in Japan, you should bring in as few people as possible, which is the most cost-effective way to go,” says Twenty First City’s Georgina Pope. Japan’s main soundstages are in or around Tokyo and Kyoto, and are mostly operated by local studios such as Toho, Toei and Shochiku. They are not large by international standards and are usually busy with local productions.
Japan is an archipelago of thousands of islands, stretching for 3,000 kilometres, although the four largest islands — Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu — make up 97% of its land mass. In addition to around 180 airports, Japan has a vast and efficient road and rail network, including high-speed ‘shinkansen’ bullet trains. From Tokyo, the bullet train takes about two and a half hours to reach Japan’s third-largest city Osaka and five hours to reach Fukuoka in the south.
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