Photo/IllutrationA cityscape of Shanghai from “Flavors of Youth,” a Japan-China coproduction anime film (Provided by CoMix Wave Films Inc.)

  • Photo/Illustraion

There was a time when Japanese movies became huge hits in China, bringing Ken Takakura, one of Japan's greatest cinema stars, widespread popularity in the country.

Although those days may be long gone, Japan and China are bolstering efforts to encourage exchanges between their film industries and co-produce movies against the backdrop of improved bilateral relations.

The two neighbors signed a film co-production agreement earlier this year, prompting Japanese and Chinese filmmakers to turn eager eyes toward each other's respective markets and films.

The animated feature film "Flavors of Youth," directed by Japanese and Chinese directors, was released in both countries in August. The co-production between CoMix Wave Films Inc., a production house known for making the blockbuster anime "Your Name." and a Chinese company is an anthology of three short stories set in different cities in China.

One story follows a young man who finds an old cassette tape he had been exchanging back and forth with a girl he grew up with, recalling bittersweet memories of his first love.

The film portrays in a nuanced way the fond memories of people affected by each other against the backdrop of rapidly developing urban settings, accentuated with such images as a child eating hot rice noodles, his grandmother smiling, and old Shanghai cityscapes.

"I wanted to incorporate culturally different perspectives (of the two countries) to make it a distinctive work," said general director Li Haoling.

Japanese voice actor Takeo Otsuka, who played a main character for the story set in Shanghai, said he took on the lead role thinking, "There are no borders when it comes to feelings."

With the Japanese and Chinese governments having signed a Film Co-Production Agreement in May this year, the number of films co-produced by the neighbors is set to increase.

Japanese government officials had started holding talks with their Chinese counterparts in response to calls from the film industry, whose members sought to enter the Chinese market, but felt they faced high hurdles.

Films co-produced under the agreement will be regarded as "domestic" works in both countries and such co-produced films are not subject to China's limit on the number of foreign films shown in the country per year.

The agreement is expected to facilitate such processes as gaining permission from authorities, giving considerable advantages to Japanese filmmakers.

About 80 members of the film industry attended an explanatory meeting held in Tokyo in October by the Japan Association for International Promotion of the Moving Image (UNIJAPAN), a public interest incorporated foundation in charge of certifying co-productions based on the agreement, and other related parties. As the hosts were flooded with applications from at least 100 people on the first day of applications, the hosts decided to offer additional meetings.

Those meetings attracted attention partly because of the rapid growth in China’s film industry. The Chinese box office took in about 20 billion yuan (320 billion yen, or $2.9 billion) in the January-March quarter this year, overtaking North America to become the world’s biggest market for the first time on a quarterly basis.

A 48-year-old Japanese female film producer who joined the explanatory meeting said: “I feel that there is increased demand in China not only for splashy Hollywood-style movies, but also for Japanese works that portray people's inner workings in a subtle manner.”

The co-production agreement is not the only factor supporting the trend. Officials from the two countries are bolstering efforts to introduce the charms of their films and expand their base. The Shanghai Film Distribution and Exhibition Association hosted a film festival in Tokyo in May to showcase Chinese films, while the Japan Foundation hosted the Japanese Film Festival in Chongqing, Guangzhou and elsewhere in autumn.

The Japanese film market has hit a ceiling in recent years, hovering at more than 200 billion yen.

"Japan's film business has been something like ... we'll go if there is an offer (from China), but now that India and other players are making visits to China, we can't break into the market unless we are more proactive," said Yasushi Shiina, vice chief director of UNIJAPAN.

Still, there have been times when Japanese companies have found themselves in dire straits in the Chinese market owing to deteriorating bilateral relations over a rift concerning the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and other political issues.

"In China, approval and authorization regulations continue to change, and many things remain ambiguous," said a 49-year-old actor and producer who joined the October meeting. "I hope they (the two governments) won't allow the agreement to be in name only."

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Major film collaborations between Japan and China

“Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles”

Released in Japan in 2006

Director: Zhang Yimou, Yasuo Furuhata

Cast: Ken Takakura

“Red Cliff”

2008

Director: John Woo

Cast: Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro

“Five Minutes to Tomorrow”

2014

Director: Isao Yukisada

Cast: Haruma Miura, Liu Shishi

“Manhunt”

2018

Director: John Woo

Cast: Masaharu Fukuyama, Zhang Hanyu

“Legend of the Demon Cat”

2018

Director: Chen Kaige

Cast: Shota Sometani, Huang Xuan