Reflections in a Midnight Eye

29 June 2015

by , ,

The word has been out for some time now, but yes, Midnight Eye is retiring. We’re not disappearing, mind you. The site will remain as and where it is for the time being, but after fifteen years of creating the main source of info on Japanese cinema in the English language we are calling it a day.

There are many factors to our decision to close up shop. First and foremost, Midnight Eye has always been a labour of love. We made it to share our passion for Japanese films, not for any other reason, money and free DVDs included. We paid for it out of our own pockets. We offered the highest quality we were capable of offering. We like to think that the quality has remained constant during the site’s lifespan and that we’re quitting while we’re ahead.

In these fifteen years, we have been fortunate enough to publish a lot of fine writing by talented contributors – established names as well as newcomers – but the core that ran and maintained the site has always remained the same group of three: Jasper Sharp and Tom Mes for the content and Martin Mes for design and programming. We first got together in the spring of 2000 to discuss building an online resource of info about all the great films that had been coming out of Japan for years – info we were not finding elsewhere – and after a year of writing, designing and programming, Midnight Eye launched in the spring of 2001. Since then we have gone on to publish books, make (direct, write, appear in) movies, move to other countries (that fateful spring of 2000 we happened to all be living in The Netherlands), build careers and start families. Priorities shifted and the time, energy and enthusiasm required for running Midnight Eye at the top of its game eventually dwindled.

Much has changed on the Japanese film scene during those years as well. The dawn of the new millennium was a really exciting time for Japanese cinema, with people like Takashi Miike coming up, J-horror breaking through internationally, directors like Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Shinji Aoyama, Hirokazu Koreeda and Naomi Kawase establishing themselves as new auteurs on the festival scene. Thanks to a decade of feverish filmmaking activity for the video market, the medium budget range (roughly US$ 400,000 – 1 million per film) was alive and well, with both genre films and arthouse indies (the line between the two was blurry to begin with) making their money on the mini-theater circuit and on video. It was a very diverse and vibrant scene, and our excitement for it led to the decision to create Midnight Eye.

The situation today is much less dynamic. Filmmaking in Japan has largely polarised, with very high budgets (by Japanese standards, i.e. US$ 10 million or a multiple of it) on the one extreme and no-budget indie (or amateur) filmmaking on the other. Films in the former category seek to emulate the Hollywood blockbuster formula and are produced by "film committees": consortia of production partners, the majority being television stations, advertising agencies and talent agencies rather than traditional film production companies. Each partner has a stake and a say in the filmmaking and the result more often than not literally comes across as something made by committee rather than artistic vision. It is a type of filmmaking that takes no chances: all the stories are based on hit properties (TV series, manga, novels) and the lead actors are pop musicians or TV talento, while the important share of media companies in the production committees is resulting in self-censorship and/or conservative political stances in line with the policies of Shinzo Abe’s government.

By contrast, there is still quite a bit of guts and artistic vision on the no-budget end, but that side suffers from a lack of outlook - for the vast majority of young indie filmmakers there is nowhere to grow after they make their first self-financed feature, even if they had their film shown at festivals abroad and picked up a few awards along the way. Self-financing a movie is an exhausting process that you are not terribly likely to repeat (unless you are Shinya Tsukamoto and it’s in your DNA). They can't go professional either, because there is simply no room for them in the industry: since the collapse of the video and DVD market medium-budget productions have to all intents and purposes vanished, while the production committees of the high-budget films prefer to hire someone of whom they can be sure, which means either a TV director familiar to the network that has a stake in the production or an experienced hand like Takashi Miike or Yukihiko Tsutsumi who already has a track record making hits.

Things go in waves (or in circles), so surely these recent developments in Japanese film (and hopefully those in politics too) will eventually be replaced by other trends. That an increasing number of directors are looking to make films overseas is both a sad consequence of the current situation and an opportunity to redefine our views of what constitutes a "Japanese film". But the current situation and the films it engenders do not exactly fill us at Midnight Eye with the enthusiasm we need to keep this website running when so many other important things require attention.

In any case, fifteen years is a good marker. In Internet years, it’s a lifetime.

Thank you to every person who wrote, photographed, interpreted, or liaised for, who was inspired by, who praised, who damned and, above all, who read Midnight Eye.
Thanks to you it was a lifetime well spent.

Jasper, Martin, Tom