Japan’s profile as a shooting location in East Asia has been coloured by the perceived high costs and lack of financial incentives, as well as its reputation as a country where it can be difficult to close off and control locations in the major cities. However, costs in Japan have remained flat over the past decade, while some other Asian territories, in particular mainland China, have experienced inflation.
It may not be the cheapest territory to shoot in Asia, but Japan is a clean, efficient, first-world country with solid infrastructure and is no more expensive than London, Los Angeles or New York. Furthermore, the Japanese government is working to improve the country’s image as a shooting location, announcing a pilot programme for a production incentive in May.
However, space limitations are real — houses are small, streets are narrow — and it can be difficult to close off roads, which means Japan is not geared up to host huge Hollywood productions in their entirety. But the country has a distinctive look, ranging from neon-soaked cityscapes to ancient temples and snow-capped mountains, and is slowly gaining the confidence of international producers.
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.”
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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