Japanese Film in Crisis: Abuse on the Rise amid Sexism, Poor Work ConditionsSociety Culture Work
Issues of gender inequality and sexual harassment have been shaking up Hollywood for the past four years. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, women directors have come into their own. The Academy Award for Best Director went to Chloe Zhao (Nomadland) in 2021 and to Jane Campion (Power of the Dog) in 2022. In Japan, however, the “celluloid ceiling” has proved even harder to crack.
Out of the 796 live-action Japanese films grossing at least ¥1 billion between 2000 and 2020, women directors accounted for a mere 25, or 3%, according to a 2021 survey by the nonprofit Japanese Film Project. The JFP also found that women directed just 12% of all films (and 23% of documentaries) produced in Japan in 2020.
The roots of this gender gap run deep, says Kinoshita. “The movie star Tanaka Kinuyo directed six feature films after World War II. And yet, no one knows her as a director.”
Sexist Icons of Japanese Film
In Kinoshita’s view, Japanese cinema has been awash in sexism and misogyny since its inception. She stresses the need to subject the cinematic expression of the past to criticism grounded in a contemporary, post–MeToo sensibility. “It’s especially important to take a gender-conscious, critical look at historically important works, because they continue to influence cinematic expression today.”
According to Kinoshita, Japanese films from the late 1940s (the Occupation years) through the mid-1950s feature a disturbing number of scenes showing women being raped while inebriated or unconscious. In her judgment, these scenes are more a reflection of male “sex fantasies” than realistic depictions of rape. One example is the 1948 film Women of the Night by Mizoguchi Kenji, a filmmaker Kinoshita has studied at length and greatly admires. The film—one of a number by Mizoguchi on the theme of “fallen women”—includes a scene in which a man rapes an innocent young woman after pouring beer down her throat. In the story, the woman falls for her attacker but is ruthlessly abandoned.
The rape scene itself was certainly controversial; the Kyoto police department prohibited local theaters from showing the film to minors on the grounds that it could be a corrupting influence. But no one seemed especially bothered by the portrayal of the victim. “Realistically speaking, no rape victim is going to react that way, and now it is debatable whether the portrayal of such sex fantasies—especially when as poorly done as this one is—has a place in mainstream cinema. But we must be able to have that conversation.”
Kurosawa Akira’s Rashōmon (1950), is another film that Kinoshita singles out for its blatant sexism, even while recognizing its artistic merit.
“Rashōmon embodies Kurosawa’s conflicted attitude toward women’s sexuality, a mixture of longing, suspicion, and contempt. Women are portrayed as creatures who seduce men with their deceptive beauty and give their bodies freely to anyone who approaches them.”
Kinoshita feels that Kurosawa has been given something of a free pass in terms of his depiction of women. “I’m sure there were a lot of women who were uncomfortable with the woman’s portrayal in Rashōmon even back when it was first released, but they hesitated to say so. Just because they didn’t openly criticize it doesn’t mean that they were unaware of the problem. It’s only now that women feel free to broach these topics.”
For Kinoshita, however, sexism does not negate the artistic value of a filmmaker’s work. “Sometimes those very prejudices are part of what makes a film interesting,” she says. “It’s a complex issue.” She is opposed to limits on freedom of expression, particularly censorship of movies. “People should be free to air such works,” she insists. “But we should also be free to criticize them honestly.”
The cinematic depiction of women may have evolved somewhat since then, but off-screen, women in film continue to face the same obstacles and abuses. In fact, in some respects, conditions have even worsened since the decline of the studio system in the 1970s.
In recent months, concerns about the filmmaking work environment have intensified in the wake of multiple accusations of sexual harassment and assault against directors Sakaki Hideo, Sono Sion, and others. Industry insiders describe the atmosphere on set—where men rule the roost, and the producer’s power is absolute—as a recipe for sexual harassment.
In late May, the JFP held an online symposium to air problems related to gender equality and labor conditions in the industry and explore options for systemic reform. Kinoshita was a member of the expert panel, along with director Shiraishi Kazuya and labor economist Kanbayashi Ryō.
The JFP presented the results of a gender survey of various professional associations connected to the Japanese motion picture industry. According to their tally, women members account for less than 5% of the Directors Guild of Japan and about 8% of the Japanese Society of Cinematographers. A conspicuous exception is the Japanese Society of Script Supervisors, whose members are virtually all women. (Script supervisors work closely under the film director, serving as liaison between the director and the editor, ensuring continuity between scenes, and generally coordinating production.) By surveying the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan (MPPAJ), the JFP found that a mere 8% of the executive positions at Japan’s four major film distributors (Tōhō, Tōei, Shōchiku, and Kadokawa) are occupied by women. In short, there is little more than token female representation among the decision makers of Japan’s motion picture industry.
Certainly sexism is rampant in the industry, and women are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment. But part of the problem lies in labor issues that transcend gender.
“The work environment in film production has deteriorated dramatically,” says Kinoshita. She cites the collapse of the vertically integrated studio system from the 1970s on as a major contributing factor. In the past, a movie crew consisted mainly of people recruited, trained, and promoted by the studio as permanent employees. Now, the creative team is made up primarily of freelancers—many of whom work without a written contract.
Reporting on the preliminary results of a questionnaire survey of film production workers (500 returned and tabulated questionnaires), the JFP noted that it was common for production staff to work grueling hours without the benefit of a written contract guaranteeing their base pay, overtime pay, time off, and so forth.
“Most crew members would prefer a written contract, but they’re afraid of being branded as troublemakers,” explains Kinoshita. “The young ones in particular are in a very weak position, and they worry that if they complain, they’ll be effectively blacklisted and unable to find another job.”
Under the guidance of the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, the MPPAJ and other industry groups are planning to create an entity to draw up labor guidelines for producers, including the use of written contracts, clear specification of working hours and holidays, and the establishment of an ombudsman or hotline service where employees can report problems without fear of retaliation. The body, tentatively dubbed the Council for Improvement of Video Production, will review projects and award its seal of approval to movies produced in compliance with the guidelines.
But many question whether the industry can reform from within. Discussions among movie executives currently favor the establishment of an ombudsman-type unit within each project’s “production committee.” (Production committees are governing bodies that give multiple investors, such as entertainment companies and advertising agencies, a voice in the creative process.) But a full 40% of the production workers responding to the aforementioned JFP questionnaire were of the opinion that an internal mechanism of this sort would be meaningless, as victims would be afraid to confide in anyone in the employ of the production committee. “The film industry is such a small, insular world that any such complaint will eventually find its way to the producer,” says Shiraishi.
Also speaking at the May symposium, labor economist Kanbayashi Ryō called for more sweeping labor reforms, including the formation of an industry union and the drafting of a standard basic contract to ensure the protection of workers’ minimum rights.
A Stain on the Industry
The Council for Improvement of Video Production is scheduled to begin work next spring, and its impact on abusive conditions is uncertain. Many believe that more urgent action is needed to improve working conditions and address the harassment and sexual violence said to run rampant in Japan’s motion picture industry.
One area particularly in need of reform is the shooting of intimate scenes. In the West, there are trained professionals known as “intimacy coordinators” (ICs) whose job is to ensure that the filming of such scenes proceeds in accordance with a previously agreed “choreography” and that the participants give their consent at each stage. Since the #MeToo movement raised awareness of on-set problems, demand for trained ICs has soared in the West.
In Japan, such specialists are hard to find. “It’s a job that demands first-hand knowledge of the production process as well as advanced communication skills,” notes Kinoshita. In Japanese film production, the script supervisor is often responsible for ensuring that the shooting of sex scenes proceeds smoothly and that the rights of all parties are respected throughout the process. “The job of script supervisor is traditionally assigned to a woman,” says Kinoshita. “She’s part of the director’s inner team and is often in a position to speak up about directorial matters. But nowadays, some projects dispense with the script supervisor altogether to save money. I think a top priority should be increasing the number of women directly involved in the production process.”
The status quo is not simply bad for women; it also threatens to undermine the quality and prestige of Japanese filmmaking. In the #MeToo era, rumors of harassment and sexual assault can have a direct impact on box office receipts. “A lot of people don’t want to watch movies that they know are produced in an exploitative environment, where employees are not just chronically overworked but also subject to sexually abusive behavior on a daily basis,” Kinoshita points out.
“If we don’t move quickly to deal with the problems of sexual harassment and abuse and the poor working conditions overall, the industry is going to suffer. Already there’s a labor shortage because of all the people who are giving up on production work. At this rate, all the talent may be gone before long.”
Pioneer Women of Japanese Film
Promoting meaningful participation by women in the motion picture industry is a top priority for Kinoshita. She is hopeful that her new research project, Women Pioneers of Japanese Film, will contribute by inspiring a new generation of creators.
Women Pioneers focuses on the era from the birth of talkies in the 1920s to the 1970s, the heyday of the studio system in Japan. Throughout that time, women directors were virtually unheard of in Japanese cinema.
“Under the studio system,” explains Kinoshita, “there was an elite management track. To earn the title of director, you first had to become an assistant director, and only male university graduates were hired as assistant directors. So that path was effectively closed off to women.”
Undeterred, they found other channels for their creativity—as screenplay writers, script supervisors, and film editors, as well as art, lighting, makeup, and costume directors.
“I feel the world has forgotten the creative contribution these women made to the history of Japanese film,” says Kinoshita.
“The women creators of that era rarely said anything about their work,” she notes. “I think they realized that, in a man’s world, women are asking for trouble if they speak out of turn. But I wanted to know how they built creative careers for themselves in a male-dominated world. I’m hoping that by highlighting the rich individuality and diverse contributions of these pioneering women, we can empower today’s younger generation.”
(Originally written in Japanese by Itakura Kimie of Nippon.com. Banner photo: © Pixta.)