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Overview and productions

Japan has fared well throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, with low infection and mortality rates, and after a slow start its vaccination programme has now seen more than half the population receive the jab. As of September 2021, however, travel from abroad is still highly restricted, making large-scale international productions a no-go for now. 

But there is hope in the near future. Japan is bringing back a pilot programme that had offered an incentive for TV and film productions with a minimum spend of $8.6m (1bn). The programme was used to help fund projects including Chinese hit Detective Chinatown 3 and Paramount’s G.I. Joe spinoff Snake Eyes. Applications are set to open again in 2021, with an exact date yet to be announced. Its return is not surprising, after a cabinet office report assembled in 2020 concluded the initial pilot programme generated huge knock-on economic benefits in regions that hosted international shoots. 

Japan is gradually throwing off its reputation as an expensive and difficult place to shoot, thanks partly to the work of the Japanese Film Commission (JFC), while around 300 individual prefectures, cities, towns and regions boast their own film commissions. 

First people to contact

Japan Film Commission jfc@japanfc.org; Twenty First City production@twentyfirstcity.com 

Georgina Pope and Masa Kokubo, Twenty First City @ production@twentyfirstcity.com

Locations and permits

Japan’s iconic locations are its biggest draw. The worldwide popularity of the territory’s anime, manga and video games has fuelled an appetite for international remakes of such properties. “Many filmmakers want to shoot in Japan to retain the atmosphere of the original stories,” says Ruriko Sekine, JFC secretary general and film commissioner. 

That quest for authenticity led the producers of HBO Max’s true-crime series Tokyo Vice to set up shop in Tokyo. Reproducing the city on a soundstage or another Asian metropolis was never in consideration, according to the series’ US executive producer Alan Poul. “We were determined not to fake it,” he says. “Tokyo is a character in the story.”

Despite travel restrictions and Covid‑19 considerations during the shoot, production on Tokyo Vice has successfully wrapped thanks to its nearly all-Japanese crew. The pilot, helmed by Michael Mann and shot in 2020, brought in crew members from Hollywood but the plan was always to lean on Japanese talent as the series moved forward. “Covid just forced us to move that plan ahead faster than expected,” says Poul.

That mainly Japanese shooting crew is “as highly skilled as anybody I’ve ever worked with”, says Poul. He puts the crew’s “remarkably high level of skill in all aspects of filmmaking” down to Japan’s long tradition of filmmaking.

Working with a local crew can also offer more flexibility, notes Sekine. While Holly­wood crews work up to 10-hour days, that is not the case for Japanese crews. As a result, on projects such as Snake Eyes, the Japanese crew were often on location for prep before their Hollywood counterparts. Poul notes this lack of spelled-out rules does not mean crews are being taken advantage of: Japanese directors will often make sure to schedule short days after long ones to give their teams a rest.

Sekine estimates there are about 200 bilingual crew members in Japan. However, it is worth noting the Chinese hit Detective Chinatown 3 and Snake Eyes shot simultaneously in 2020 and there was some strain as both productions tried to take those precious bilinguals.

Respect local traditions

Poul, who worked as an associate producer on Ridley Scott’s Black Rain in 1988 (Scott notoriously said he would never shoot in Japan again), says working in the country has improved greatly since those days. He underlines that those looking to shoot in Japan will get along better by respecting the unique filmmaking quirks and building relationships with locals rather than trying to do things the Holly­wood way. 

“Don’t come in with the assumption that if you draw enough money around people, things will go your way,” says Poul. “In Japan, there are aspects of interpersonal communication and networks of loyalty and obligation that are more important than cash.”

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.


Infrastructure and crews

Japan has a wealth of film and TV talent with a modest but growing bilingual talent base. Soundstages in Tokyo and Kyoto are humble compared to those in other countries; most international productions focus on location shooting while in Japan.

Size matters

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.

Japan has a wealth of film and TV talent with a modest but growing bilingual talent base. Soundstages in Tokyo and Kyoto are humble compared to those in other countries; most international productions focus on location shooting while in Japan.


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