After 20 years of continual decline, the Japanese film industry has begun a comeback that could change its entire method of film production. A new generation of filmmakers has arisen, and they are attempting to produce films outside of the established studio system, aiming instead at new audiences and at the larger, more lucrative international film markets.
It is only within the last two years that the success of these directors can be measured - domestic attendance figures are up for the first time in more than 30 years, and several films are drawing international acclaim.
Three films, Nagasi Oshima's ''Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence'' (starring David Bowie), Jumya Sato's and Ji Shun Wan's ''The Go Master'' (awarded the grand prize at the Montreal Film Festival last year), and Shioei Imamura's ''The Ballad of Narayama'' (grand prize, Cannes Film Festival 1983) are recent examples of Japan's new-found ability to attract a larger, international following for its films.
Whether these films will be financially successful as well remains to be seen , but the international focus of all these films - either in content or in financing or both - gives hope for Japan's flailing film industry.
Produced entirely in Japan, ''The Ballad of Narayama'' is a careful portrayal of rural Japanese village life a century ago. The film displays a remarkable cultural sensitivity that can be easily appreciated worldwide.
''The Go Master'' is the first major Chinese-Japanese co-production effort. It examines the Chinese reaction at the time of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931. The story is told through a relationship between two Chinese and Japanese who play go (a Japanese board game akin to chess). The two men were friends before the war and the story follows what happened to their friendship.
''The Go Master'' has already been seen by more than 200 million Chinese, each paying the equivalent of 25 cents each. Both ''The Go Master'' and ''The Ballad of Narayama'' have been seen in film festivals and film clubs in North America, though neither has been released commercially.
The three major studios, Toho, Toei, and Sochiko - the patrons of many filmmakers and once responsible for nearly all Japanese productions - now produce annually less than one-quarter of the number of films they released in the mid-1950s. Reduced box-office grosses due to competition from television networks, a consistently small and young moviegoing audience, and a conservative , unchanging outlook on the part of the studios are the primary reasons for this diminution.
One of those who have patiently awaited the upswing in Japanese filmmaking - indeed had predicted it - is Kazuto Ohira, director of Toho International in New York. Mr. Ohira arrived in the United States over 20 years ago and set out singlehandedly to promote what he called ''culturally important Japanese films.''
In an interview, Ohira recalled that his early efforts were misunderstood by American distributors, who deemed early works by such masters as Kurosawa, Ozu, and Mizoguchi to be too slow and incomprehensible to an American audience.
Mr. Ohira feels optimistic about what is occurring in his industry and feels that the timing is excellent for more international co-productions. He admits that the present-day studio system is ineffectual and run by accountants with little creative film sense, and that their adherence to the genre samurai entertainment film has done little to improve the quality of their films.
''As a result,'' he says, ''the younger directors have been forced to operate more on their own, independent of the studio system, and this has created more freedom in the selection of material.''
This, coupled with the fact that their education has taken place in postwar Japan - influenced more by the democratic processes of the West - has produced several new directors commanding a more sophisticated scope. Mr. Ohira contends that this influence has come from the American entertainment film, which has been extremely popular since the war.
As the total gross revenues from the domestic market are now smaller than foreign revenues, Mr. Ohira believes it is time for the studio system to take a lesson from these younger filmmakers and promote their efforts.
Actively supporting many of these young Japanese directors is David Owens, film program coordinator for the Japan Society in New York.
Mr. Owens reinforces Ohira's faith in the future of the Japanese film industry and believes that many of the younger directors are capable of producing films that will be accessible to an international audience. Mr. Owens hosts Japanese film retrospectives and works in conjunction with the major studios and independents to promote and feature new directors.
Many believe that these young directors and producers who are testing the international marketplace represent the sole course of survival for the industry. International co-productions can provide the needed capital to succeed , and even many productions filmed entirely in Japan may require foreign assistance.
This is a transition period for the Japanese film industry as a whole - both internally as the major studios redefine their priorities and externally for the younger directors who are looking outward to the Asian, American, and European markets.
The often-needed financial and sometimes artistic support is becoming more and more available. Perhaps what we are seeing is the beginning of a cultural, as opposed to technological, impact of the Japanese sensiblity upon the West.