‘Drive My Car’ Oscar Is a Slow-Burn Return for Japan’s Cinema

Japanese moviegoers spent about 162 billion yen ($1.3 billion) in theaters last year, with nearly 80 percent of those tickets sold for movies made in Japan. Yet many of the domestically produced films have little chance of finding an international audience, film scholars say, in part because they are not of very high quality.

“A lot of film and television production in Japan is hampered by very mediocre acting,” said Kerim Yasar, an assistant professor of East Asian languages and cultures at the University of Southern California. Many movies cast so-called idols who appear on television variety shows, have little theatrical training, and are more akin to social media “influencers” than serious actors.

In Japan, reception to Mr. Hamaguchi’s win was tepid. Hirokazu Matsuno, chief cabinet secretary to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, offered congratulations in a daily briefing for reporters. But Kenji Komine, a film and television correspondent for the Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest newspapers, described the award for “Drive My Car” as a “very embarrassing situation” because the film had not been backed by mainstream studios and received so little funding.

In a brief email exchange, Shigehiko Hasumi, a former president of the University of Tokyo and a mentor of Mr. Hamaguchi’s, said he had “no interest in the Academy Awards,” and wrote that “Drive My Car” is “hardly an excellent work” without further explanation.

Still, Ms. Tsuda, the television producer, said the Oscar success of “Drive My Car” might yet prompt more Japanese filmmakers to consider an international audience.

“Especially now, with the existence of streaming, Netflix, Amazon and such, Japanese movies and TV shows are streamed all around the world and accessible,” Ms. Tsuda said. “So I think people need to be aware of a foreign audience and what perceptions they may have.”

For his part, Mr. Hamaguchi said he was not thinking much about a broader audience when he made the film. “I myself am a film viewer, so therefore I have my own standards,” he said in the backstage interview after the Oscars. “So I am thinking about my own personal standards and whether the filmmaking that I am doing is meeting those standards.”

Hikari Hida, Hisako Ueno and Makiko Inoue contributed reporting from Tokyo.

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