Masako Kudo • Distributor, Child Film
“In Japan, family-orientated animation films from foreign countries are quite complicated to distribute”
- The Japanese distributor talked through Child Film’s efforts to bring European arthouse animated films to the country and how the local audience has changed over the last two years
During this year’s Cartoon Movie (8-10 March) we had the opportunity to chat with Masako Kudo, founder of Japanese distribution outfit Child Film, who attended the event remotely. We asked a few questions about the company’s mission to acquire arthouse animation and the peculiarities of the Japanese market in terms of audience and distribution.
Cineuropa: First of all, could you please describe Child Film’s main activities and editorial policy?
Masako Kudo: I used to work at a company called Tokyo Theatres. Back then, the firm owned several cinemas in Tokyo and other cities across Japan. I was buying content for its distribution arm. Then I became independent 11 years ago because I wanted to start showing children a greater variety of films. As you know, in Japan, there’s so much animation. But I wanted to show something different from what they were used to watch. I started to distribute animated films in 2014. The first film I distributed was Moomins and the Comet Chase [+see also:
film profile]. When I was still working for Tokyo Theatres, I saw The Secret of Kells [+see also:
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film profile], a film that was very different from the typical European or US animated productions. I wasn’t sure about its potential because it was very much about Celtic history and it was set in the Middle Ages. I was uncertain about its appeal to the Japanese audience. I decided to keep my eyes on one of the directors [Tomm Moore], though. Then Cartoon Salon released Song of the Sea [+see also:
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film profile], I watched it and I decided to bring it to the Japanese market. It was very well received, we distributed here it in 2016. [...] The good thing was that it could be also screened at arthouse cinemas, not just at family-orientated venues. The audience was aged 20 and above. After the theatrical release, we got great demands for non-theatrical screenings at libraries and other public venues, and children started to attend them. So I managed to intercept both audiences. In Japan, family-orientated animation films from foreign countries are quite complicated to distribute. Disney and Illumination films are successful but other films struggle. There are so many TV series available in Japan and children go to see films at the theatres based on TV series such as Doraemon or Pokemon. They are already familiar with characters and stories and buy their merchandises. In order to introduce new films to children, we need to spend a lot of money on marketing, and TV advertising is critical. The art animation market is not that big and it is too risky for distributors.
When did you start attending Cartoon Movie?
I didn’t know anything about Cartoon Movie in the beginning. But the producer of Cartoon Saloon, Gerry Shirren, recommended I attend the forum. I wanted to attend, but I couldn’t make it since it takes place just after the Berlin Film Festival, and leaving Berlin and come back for Cartoon Movie is very complicated. We’re a very small company, just two of us work here. So it’s not so easy to arrange [travel]. I attended for the first time in 2019. Then the pandemic started, and last year I also attended it remotely.
How did the Japanese market react to the healthcare crisis?
In 2020, all cinemas nationwide were shut down. Then, some Japanese directors stepped in to protect theatres. They started crowdfunding. They collected around $3 million. In the beginning, this support helped a lot. Now the cinemas are open, but sometimes only with 50% capacity. Obviously, not all audiences came back, especially older people. After two years, the crisis is slowly strangling some theatres. A well respected arthouse cinema, Iwanami Hall, which had an over 50-year history, will close down in September owing to the pandemic. All arthouse fans are shocked by this news. But at the moment, overall, most of the theatres are surviving, somehow.
What about the distribution sector?
For the time being, no distribution company went out of business, but I’m not sure it will continue to be so for another six or twelve months. We don’t know how this will evolve. Our company is really small. We don’t have an office, we work from home. We only distribute one or two films per year. We’re not making a fortune, but it’s enough to carry on. So I believe that the small outfits working in the arthouse scene can survive, bigger companies will be doing fine but the mid-sized ones – the ones that have, let’s say, 20 employees – are perhaps at a higher risk. In Japan, the arthouse cinema audience is quite old. In the 1980s and 1990s younger people started to see arthouse films, but now the audience is getting older and older. That young audience is not coming back. Now we have to find ways to change things. We need to find something to target younger generations. Music documentaries are doing well, for example, as they’re attracting younger audiences.
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