Spotlight on Japan

Big-budget US features and high-end series have kept local crews busy throughout the pandemic due to innovative remote working methods.

By Michael Rosser 8 Jun 2022

Spotlight on Japan
Credit: Japanese castle, Pixabay

After two years of Covid-induced border closures, Japan finally reopened its doors to international productions in April. Big-budget US features and high-end series have kept local crews busy throughout the pandemic due to innovative remote working methods. But Japan will now be looking to attract filmmakers back into the country with its iconic locations, highly regarded crew base and an ongoing pilot programme that offers an incentive for TV and film productions with a minimum spend of $6.3m (¥800m).

“Now that the government has changed the border rules, we can start to attract more features and series,” says Ruriko Sekine, secretary general and film commissioner at the Japanese Film Commission (JFC). The Tokyo-based JFC 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 gives advice on locations and permits on behalf of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

The first major production set to begin shooting in the country following the reopening is Apple TV+ series Sunny from A24. Set 30 years in the future, the dark comedy stars Rashida Jones as an American living in Kyoto who is given a domestic robot after her husband and son disappear in a mysterious plane crash.

The production is working with Georgina Pope, producer and founder of Tokyo-based production service provider Twenty First City, and one of Japan’s bilingual go-to production gurus.

“You don’t come to Japan unless you’ve got a Japan story,” says Pope. “It’s not an easy place to shoot or the cheapest place to shoot — although no more expensive than London, Los Angeles or New York — but the world has this unending fascination with Japan. It’s a real love affair.”

This passion endured throughout the pandemic, leading international productions to adopt remote approaches to filming while the country remained closed. One such example was Sony’s Bullet Train, directed by David Leitch and starring Brad Pitt. Background plates were shot in the country to provide the backdrop to the action, which takes place on one of Japan’s iconic bullet trains.

Another was Apple TV+ sci-fi series Invasion, which had planned to send key crew to the country before the Covid-19 outbreak brought things to a halt. Instead, an all-Japanese crew of around 150 shot for 10 days in various locations around Tokyo while the director, showrunner, director of photography and script supervisor were among those to oversee the project remotely via an elaborate video conferencing set-up. Invasion’s executive producer Amy J Kaufman oversaw elements from New York but recalled vital lessons learned while location scouting and prepping for the shoot pre-pandemic.

“Tokyo is a city where you can’t just make things happen overnight,” says Kaufman. “You need to plan well in advance. You must also show a lot of respect and consideration as you enter every neighbourhood, and with the permissions that you need to request, much of it needing to be done in person.”

This need for preparation is strongly reiterated by Pope. “The first thing I advise anyone looking to shoot in Japan is to add a least a month to everything,” she states. “We need more prep time here than anywhere else and that’s largely tied in with locations. You must be prepared to sip tea with landowners or building managers and really explain what you’re trying to do and how many people there will be. It’s important to relay the impact of the crew on neighbourhood parking and other local facilities, for example.”

For Invasion, various locations around Tokyo included the back alleys of downtown Kanda, glossy conference centres and the mountain temple Fukuzoji in Gunma prefecture about three hours from the capital.

Authenticity was important to the producers for the Japanese strand of the story, which depicts an alien invasion from the perspective of several people around the world. “We filmed an interior disco in Tokyo because it can be challenging to get a large group of Japanese extras in New York or London,” says Kaufman.

She adds that Japanese crew live up to their hard-working, highly skilled reputation. “They are so careful, precise, mindful and focused,” says Kaufman. “However, there are not a lot of English-speaking crew in Japan, so you need advanced time to pull that together.”

There are around 200 bilingual crew working in Japan — a number that is growing — and while Pope says it is possible for Tokyo to host three major productions at one time, she stresses the importance of booking those who can speak English as soon as possible.

“Japanese crews are well trained, hard working and efficient, and there’s a tendency here that when you do something you’ve got to do it really well,” says Pope. “Unfortunately, there’s not a huge number of English-speaking crew in Japan and it’s always very competitive to crew up on a big international show, which is another reason for a good long lead time.”

That competition looks set to become fiercer than ever in the coming years as a wave of international productions is set to shoot in the country. “They’re primarily from the US and a lot of streaming projects,” says Pope. “But there are some movies and a couple of European projects too. There’s a lot coming.”

Infrastructure and crew

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 stretches north to south across four main islands, allowing for a wealth of scenes and seasonality, from northern snowy Hokkaido to tropical Okinawa. A dense network of high-speed rail and reasonably priced air travel makes getting around easy. 

Those shooting outside major cities should expect cramped but clean accommodation rather than luxury hotels.

Low crime rates, reliable transportation and excellent cuisine are also benefits. 

Click here to see selected production service companies in Japan.

Click here to see the filming guide for Japan.

Read the full report in our latest edition of World of Locations

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