Japan is a fascinating country facing a unique problem. Birth rates have been spiraling and the average age of the population is 45 years – the second highest after Monaco. Until the recent Abe administration, Japan had been relaxing its traditionally strict immigration policy, allowing more and more foreigners to come to the country for business and for pleasure in an attempt to face this population crisis. Some of these foreigners are filmmakers ready and eager to make their mark on Japanese cinema. Even if you’ve lived in Japan all your life, however, making a film there as a foreigner, or ‘gaikokujin’, can be difficult. Two-time Raindance alumni and director of Japanese films Ian Thomas Ash weighs in:
I am often asked by colleagues in the West what it is like to be a gaikokujin, or foreign filmmaker, in Japan and how it differs from making films in the West. I find it difficult to answer that question because I do not have much experience making films abroad; my last three feature documentaries were made in Japan, filmed in Japanese, and financed with Japanese yen. And when my films are screened outside Japan, they are subtitled in English and screened as ‘foreign’ films.
A distinction should be made, I believe, between foreigners who live in Japan and just happen to make films, and those who come to Japan in order to make films. I also believe one of the biggest differences between these two groups is the language in which they work: when interviewing a subject for a documentary or working with actors, it makes an enormous difference whether one is speaking with people directly in their native language or communicating through a translator.
Watching Japanese films like ‘Firefly Dreams’ (2001) or ‘Things Left Behind’ (2012), the portrayal of Japan is so compelling that the fact that these films were directed by foreigners, John Williams and Linda Hoaglund respectively, both of whom work in Japanese, is overshadowed. In contrast, watching a film like ‘Lost in Translation’ (2003) by director Sophia Coppola, who came to Japan in order to make that film, I find the performances of the Japanese actors staid and even their use of the language is somehow affected. This results in a one-dimensional portrayal of Japan that perpetuates stereotypes, serving to alienate Japanese viewers.
It should also be emphasized that simply having a foreign director does not make an otherwise Japanese film un-Japanese; after all, the industry defines a film’s country of origin as the one in which a majority of the budget was raised. But there are those who would argue that Japanese films by foreign filmmakers do not qualify as Japanese productions and would perhaps like to see these gaikokujin-directed Japanese films relegated to their own separate category, something like ‘Weasterns’.
A separating out from the rest of the group is something for which any foreign filmmaker wanting to work in Japan should be prepared. Expressing an opinion in opposition of the majority can quickly earn the ire of the ‘net-uyoku’, right-wing nationalists who anonymously attack targets in postings on Japan’s infamous 2 Channel and other websites. What is written about me online is sometimes overtly racist, with words like the pejorative gaijin, a shortened form of gaikokujin, meaning foreigner, and phrases like ‘that American’, the equivalent of which would be using the word Jap to refer to a Japanese person, used to describe me. But as they say, “there is no such thing as bad publicity” and I must admit to being grateful for my detractors; people want to see what all the fuss is about and so this racism tends to drive up ticket sales in cities where my film is screening.
When I screen my films abroad, foreign (non-Japanese) audiences largely seem to accept the fact that I live and work in Japan, placing the focus of post-screening discussions on the topic of my films. Yet in Japan, when I am speaking about my work, for instance for a newspaper article, more often than not journalists can not move beyond the fact that I live and make films in Japan. Much of the time that could be spent focusing on the film is instead wasted by interrogating me about why I live here. And earlier this year, at the press screening of ‘A2-B-C,’ a film I made about children living in contaminated areas of Fukushima after the nuclear meltdown, a Japanese reporter stood up and actually asked me what I eat for breakfast (!).
Even my Japanese distributor and I have disagreed about the way ‘A2-B-C’ is advertised. In the press materials it is described as being “A film about Fukushima through the eyes of an American director,” which I object to because I find it reductive. As a filmmaker I hope the focus will be on the children I have documented and not on the fact that I happen to be gaikokujin. Can you imagine if the press release had described the film ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005), by director Ang Lee, as “gay white cowboys through the eyes of a straight Taiwanese-born naturalized-American director?”
So what is it like being a gaikokujin filmmaker in Japan? I don’t really know, because being foreign, like being a man or being white, is simply who I am. I can, however, tell you a lot about being a Weastern filmmaker, and if there is time after that I’ll also tell you what I had for breakfast.
Born in New York, documentary filmmaker Ian Thomas Ash has lived in Japan for 12 years and was the first non-Japanese person to be awarded the “Nippon Visions Award” for “Best New Japanese Director” at the 2013 Nippon Connection Film Festival (Germany), resulting in the award’s name being changed to “Best New Japan-based Director”. Ian’s last film, ‘A2-B-C’ (2013), documenting children living in Fukushima following the nuclear meltdown, screened in competition at Raindance 2013. His newest documentary, ‘-1287’ (2014), is screening at Raindance 2014. More information about his films can be found on his website: www.DocumentingIan.com