First published in 1986, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel An Artist of the Floating World tells the story of Masuji Ono, an ageing painter who looks back on his life and career and how attitudes towards him and his paintings have changed.
In this DQTV interview, Japanese actor Ken Watanabe, best known for roles in Hollywood movies The Last Samurai, Batman Begins and Inception, recalls how he was approached to play the lead character.
He also discusses his impressions of the novel and why he was drawn to the project, despite it being untypical of Japanese drama.
Watanabe also highlights how is similar to his character and how the TV film prompted him to reflect on his own life and career.
Japanese director Kazutaka Watanabe introduces NHK’s film An Artist of the Floating World, based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and starring Ken Watanabe as an ageing painter revisiting his past.
Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel An Artist of the Floating World is considered one of the best novels ever written, telling the story of an ageing Japanese painter who looks back on his life and how his role in the Second World War has changed attitudes towards him and his paintings.
It has now been turned into a one-off drama, produced by Japan’s NHK and distributed by NHK Enterprises. Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai, Batman Begins, Inception) stars in the lead role of Masuji Ono.
Here, director and executive producer Kazutaka Watanabe talks about taking on the adaptation, casting Watanabe, working with Ishiguro and shooting in ultra-high-definition 8K for the numerous dreamlike sequences in the story that explore Ono’s memories.
Why did the project appeal to you?
I thought it would be a very interesting story to take on, but I also recognised that it was a view of the world that would be quite difficult to portray in a drama. It was a challenge to find the delicate balance between the world and art of Kazuo Ishiguro and a drama that had entertainment value. After it aired, I was prepared to be criticised for making it difficult to understand, but that wasn’t an opinion I heard very much.
The novel is one of only two that Mr Ishiguro has set in Japan. After he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017, I approached him and told him I wanted to adapt An Artist of the Floating World for television in Japan. Mr Ishiguro is known for nuanced depictions of human emotional complexity; the way he sees and describes the world is inimitable. I stayed as faithful as possible to the novel’s vision.
My work was a constant search for ways to overcome artistic challenges and simultaneously create entertainment value.
How was Kazuo Ishiguro involved?
Mr Ishiguro was very generous, saying, “Do whatever you want with this.” Paintings are a key element of the story and we asked three different painters to produce them. When Mr Ishiguro saw them, he told us it was like the artists were “looking into his mind.” I didn’t give any specific instructions to the painters, so I was very impressed to see that, as artists themselves, they were reading into the novel on a whole other level.
How did you cast Ken Watanabe in the main role?
As I read the novel, Ken Watanabe was the only person I pictured in my mind. Mr Ishiguro also supported the suggestion, saying that he would love for him to play the part, and we were able to meet with him in London. The protagonist, Masuji Ono, keeps his inner turmoil under wraps and presents a calm facade to the world.
I asked Mr Watanabe to play the lead because I believed only he could express this kind of emotional complexity. I understand Mr Ishiguro felt the same way. I never gave Mr Watanabe any detailed directions but I felt like he was enjoying the role even as he struggled with it. A first-person narration by an unreliable narrator is a characteristic of Ishiguro’s works and Mr Watanabe did a splendid job portraying this difficult form of expression.
What was your visual approach behind the camera?
The experience was practically stress-free. We shot in 8K, which was not much different from shooting in 2K, but when I saw the images in 8K for the first time in the editing room, I did realise one thing – when we shoot indoors, the outdoors gets washed out in 2K, but that doesn’t happen in 8K. Everything is exposed, so there’s no faking it. I thought the dark tones were expressed beautifully.
The smell of burning and images of brightly burning flames are symbols in the novel. I worked hard to effectively represent this visually using flames and ashes. Thanks to 8K, the images are so realistic that they stimulate other senses. Viewers can almost sense the heat of the flames and the smell of burning paper. Other visual aspects, such as the vivid colours of Japan’s autumn foliage and the shadows in a traditional Japanese house, are also brought out in a unique way by 8K. I feel that 8K has opened up a whole new world of exciting possibilities.
Mr Ishiguro has a unique and distinctive view of the world. I wanted to stay as faithful as possible to that vision. Although the story is set in Japan, the theme is universally relatable and speaks to each and every person. I hope it will be received by a diverse audience.
Set immediately after the Second World War, Tokyo Trial follows the 11 judges from allied nations who were called to Tokyo to preside over landmark legal proceedings that would determine the fates of 28 Pacific military and political leaders charged as war criminals.
The four-part miniseries, set over two-and-a-half years, follows the judges’ struggle to reach verdicts for each of the accused while finding a balance between political, professional and personal conflicts.
Here, executive producer David Cormican reveals how the series – which mixes authentic footage with scripted scenes based on extensive research – was developed for Japanese broadcaster NHK, with Netflix picking up international rights.
He also describes the challenge of recreating post-war Japan on set in Lithuania and finding costumes for a cast of thousands.
Tokyo Trial is produced by NHK, Don Carmody Productions and FATT Productions in association with Netflix, and is distributed by Entertainment One.
Japanese series Moribito is heading into its third and final season. Producer Kiyoshi Umibe pulls back the curtain on this stunning drama to reveal how visual effects and a stellar cast combine to bring the epic fantasy to life.
If Japanese drama is best known for recreating historical and often fantastical worlds, Moribito might be the most dazzling example yet.
The visually striking show is based on a hugely popular fantasy novel series and uses every frame of its 4K production to tell the story of heroine Balsa (played by Haruka Ayase), a skilled bodyguard and master spear-wielder who embarks on a perilous journey to protect a prince from assassination on orders of his father, the king.
Combining stunning visual effects and action sequences, Moribito brings to the screen dense forests, spectacular palaces, spirits and demons as the story plays out in an imaginary land resembling ancient Asia, where the worlds of humans and spirits combine in mysterious ways.
Season one of the series was titled Guardian of the Spirit (debuting in March 2016) and was followed by a second season called The Anguish of the Destroyers (January 2017). Due next year, third and final season Balsa’s Fate tees up a final clash between the two worlds and Balsa’s own battle with her demons.
Kiyoshi Umibe, executive producer of the show, tells DQ about making the series for Japanese broadcaster NHK and distributor NHK Enterprises.
How have you used the source material through the series? Is it a faithful adaptation or have you added original storylines?
The original Moribito is big. There are 10 volumes of the main story plus two volumes of supplementary short stories. Season one corresponds to volume one and is more or less faithful to the original. That said, we changed the personality of the mikado [king]. In the original, he never shows his emotions, but in the drama we portray him as openly showing his hate towards disgrace and his concern about the power of Chagum [the prince]. We made this change for two reasons: to create the right tempo in the drama and to make the story easy to understand for viewers outside Japan.
For the overall project, including seasons two and three, we dramatised the story considerably. This is because we had decided at the outset, for reasons of budget and schedule, to make 22 episodes across three seasons, so we needed to significantly abridge the story. We were thus able to create an exciting drama series without losing anything that’s great about the original.
Why do you think the series has proven so popular with Japanese viewers?
The original story is superbly entertaining and all the characters – not just the main characters, Balsa and Chagum – are very appealing. Another reason is that the story and the setting have an Asian background that makes them easy to visualise. Japanese people also have a reverence for living creatures and have a cultural background in which rocks, rivers and other parts of the natural environment have been objects of religious faith. The idea of people coexisting with spirits is easy for them to accept.
Another factor is that Japan has many period dramas that have travelled internationally, such as Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and TV drama series Kozure Okami, known in English as Lone Wolf & Cub, in which bodyguards are the protagonists. The idea of a person standing alone against power and violence resonates with people in Japan and overseas.
How would you describe the writing process for the series?
The process began with deciding what would go in each season. We knew in the beginning that this would be aired over a three-year period. We decided that season one would have four episodes and that seasons two and three would each have nine episodes. We decided which parts of the original to cover in each episode of each season.
Screenwriter Sumio Omori and the books’ author, Nahoko Uehashi, both took part in this process. One reason for involving Uehashi was that, towards the latter half of the original, the crown prince Chagum becomes central to the story, with Balsa taking a step back into a supporting role. We needed ideas from the original author in order to keep Balsa prominent right up to the end. Uehashi’s suggestion was to combine Yami No Moribito [Guardian of the Darkness], in which Balsa returns to the country where she was born and faces her past, and the Kambal portion of Ten To Chi No Moribito [Guardian of Heaven and Earth], in which Chagum seeks an alliance with the neighboruing country in order to protect his own country against invasion.
Making changes to Yami No Moribito, which is one of the most popular parts of the book series, took some courage. I don’t think we could have done it without the author’s advice. The resulting structure showed us how to start season three and, by extension, what to include in season two.
Once the structure of the series was settled, we had Omori write the first draft. We all exchanged opinions on that and made revisions.
Omori has written for the kind of NHK family-oriented drama serials that have 150 episodes and air almost daily for six months, as well as high-profile period costume dramas that have 50 episodes aired weekly throughout the year – so I had absolute faith in his ability to structure and write the story.
It was Omori’s idea to insert stories about Balsa’s upbringing and her past into a present-day story. This approach has the shortcoming of making the timeline hard to follow, but it has the merit of making the protagonist’s emotions and motivations easy to grasp. It was ambitious. I’m confident we succeeded.
How would you describe the visual style of the show?
Given that the series is shot in 4K, we paid particular attention to the colours of costumes. The common people wear earth tones such as dark green or light brown, while royals wear different colours depending on their position. The costumes themselves differ from one kingdom to another.
Did you have to find ways to make each of the story’s kingdoms unique?
Uehashi is an ethnologist and the kingdoms in the novels reflect knowledge she gained through fieldwork. We took inspiration for the countries and regions from the detailed depictions in the novels and made changes to ensure they were not the same as any countries that actually exist. We envisioned each kingdom as encompassing a vast area with many ethnic groups. Specifically, we envisioned Shin-Yogo as being something like East Asia, Kambal as being like the mountainous nations in and around the Himalayas, Sangal as being similar to the maritime nations in Southeast Asia, Rota as being like the prairie countries of Central Asia and Talsh as resembling the Roman or Ottoman empires.
Shin-Yogo is a mixture of the natural environment of Japan and the cultures of the Korean Peninsula and China.
What does Haruka Ayase bring to the series and how has it challenged her as an actor?
Haruka is one of Japan’s most popular actresses and has played many comical parts. For our series, she turned into a cool bodyguard and performed in hard action scenes. This transformation surprised viewers. She is physically very capable, performing most of her action scenes without using a stunt double. I think the intensity brought out a real toughness in her. Also, shooting three seasons over three years brought out a depth in the portrayal of five years in the lives of Balsa and Chagum.
What are the challenges of making a fantasy drama? Are these unique to the genre?
When it comes to fantasy, Japanese viewers are familiar with European and American productions – especially Hollywood movies – and are comfortable watching productions where Europeans or Americans play characters from the spirit world. However, they’re not used to watching Japanese actors play characters with non-Japanese names in Japanese-language stories about the spirit world. Partly for this reason, we made sure to give the series an Asian taste, as opposed to a narrowly Japanese identity, but at the same time we had to make sure it was something different from existing Asian countries. This meant we had the hard task of creating a new culture, including modes of behaviour, from scratch, and it was difficult. Notably, the Japanese have a habit of bowing when they greet people – getting the extras to stop bowing took some time.
What has been the biggest challenge filming this series?
One of the goals of this production was to take a new look at Asia from the perspective of fantasy. The biggest challenge was to create an Asia, and create a new culture, that nobody had ever seen before. We needed advanced VFX to give the series the same sense of scale as the original. Making a fantasy drama in 4K was ambitious in the first place, but HDR became the trend in 4K while we were shooting. So we had to decide on a big change of technical direction. Getting to grips with a new technology on the fly was hard, but 4K HDR made the series more attractive in terms of colouring. We’re very pleased with the results.
Where is the series filmed and how do you use real locations in the show?
We shot about 30% on location and about 70% on set. We shot many scenes in a studio, while some town scenes were shot on an open-air set. Most town scenes were filmed on a set we built in a studio. For forest scenes, we wanted virgin forest, so we shot in various places across Japan.
Why is this the concluding part of the Moribito series? Could you continue for longer? <SPOILER ALERT> We are being faithful to the original by showing Balsa, who has lived her life as a fighter, until she lays down her spear. In other words, the story of Balsa the bodyguard is complete. There are parts of the book series that we left out of the drama but, now that Balsa is free of her duty as a bodyguard, any dramatisation of them would be a spin-off.
How would you describe the state of Japanese drama? What new stories are being told?
For a while nearly all Japanese dramas were adapted dramas based on written stories, but now we’re seeing more and more original creations. Also, some appealing dramas are being made with contemporary themes. In Japan, manga (along with novels) is a deeply rooted form of culture. Manga stories with surprising settings are being created almost daily. Uehashi is among these manga writers. She is working on themes such as gene manipulation and viruses, and I think there is still great potential for stories and dramas.
There are lots of strong female characters leading series around the world. Is this the same in Japan, with Moribito as one example?
In Japan, too, there are many dramas with female protagonists. Dramas in which strong women are the protagonists are very popular. This may be because women are a big proportion of TV viewers who watch dramas. Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is watched by men and women of all ages.
What trends are there in Japanese drama now?
Detective stories and suspense series remain popular. Also popular are family-oriented dramas that NHK makes about the successes of modern women.
What are you working on next?
A big project such as Moribito is the kind of challenge that only comes along once in 10 years, so we were excited to be able to work on this project. We are also thrilled that this series has been nominated for an International Emmy for Best Drama Series. Now that the show is coming to its finale, the staff, including me, will return to our routines in our respective fields of expertise. I will be making a drama aimed at children, others on artistic dramas, family-oriented dramas, historical dramas and so on.
The great and good of the television industry are once again packing their bags for another week in the south of France. DQ previews some of the drama series set to break out at Mipcom 2017.
Mipcom is often viewed as an opportunity for US studios to showcase their scripted series to international buyers. But this year the US will be jostling for attention with dramas from the likes of Spain, Russia, Brazil, Japan, Scandinavia and the UK.
The Spanish contingent is especially strong thanks to a major investment in drama by Telefonica’s Movistar+. Titles on show will be Gigantes, distributed by APC; La Peste, distributed by Sky Vision; and La Zona and Velvet Collection, both from Beta Film. The latter is a spin-off from Antena 3’s popular Velvet, previously sold around the world by Beta.
Beta is also in Cannes with Morocco – Love in Times of War, as well as Farinia – Snow on the Atlantic, both produced by Bambu for Antena 3. The former is set in war-torn Spanish Morocco in the 1920s, where a group of nurses look after troops, while Farinia centres on a fisherman who becomes a wealthy smuggler by providing South American cartels a gateway to Europe.
Mipcom’s huge Russian contingent is linked, in part, to the fact 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Titles that tackle this subject include Demon of Revolution, Road to Calvary and Trotsky – the latter two of which will be screened at the market. Trotsky, produced by Sreda Production for Channel One Russia, is an eight-part series that tells the story of the flamboyant and controversial Leon Trotsky, an architect of the Russian Revolution and Red Army who was assassinated in exile.
Other high-profile Russian projects include TV3’s Gogol, a series of film-length dramas that reimagine the famous mystery writer as an amateur detective. Already a Russian box-office hit, the films will be screened to TV buyers at Mipcom.
Japanese drama has found a new international outlet recently following Nippon TV’s format deal for Mother in Turkey (a successful adaptation that has resulted in more interest in Japanese content among international buyers). The company is now back with a drama format called My Son. NHK, meanwhile, is screening Kurara: The Dazzling Life of Hokusai’s Daughter, a 4K production about Japan’s most famous artist.
Brazil’s Globo, meanwhile, is moving beyond the telenovelas for which it is so famous. After international recognition for dramas like Above Justice and Jailers, it will be in Cannes with Under Pressure, a coproduction with Conspiração that recorded an average daily reach of 40.2 million viewers when it aired in Brazil.
From mainland Europe, there’s a range of high-profile titles at Mipcom including Bad Banks, distributed by Federation Entertainment, which looks at corruption within the global banking world. From the Nordic region there is StudioCanal’s The Lawyer, which includes Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge) as one of its creators, and season two of FremantleMedia International’s Modus. The latter is particularly interesting for starring Kim Cattrall, signalling a shift towards a more hybrid Anglo-Swedish project.
While non-English-language drama will have a high profile at the market, there are compelling projects from the UK, Canada and Australia. UK’s offerings include Sky Vision’s epic period piece Britannia and All3Media International’s book adaptation The Miniaturist – both with screenings. There’s also BBC Worldwide’s McMafia (pictured top), sold to Amazon on the eve of the market, and ITV Studios Global Entertainment’s The City & The City, produced by Mammoth Screen and written by Tony Grisoni.
From Canada, there is Kew Media-distributed Frankie Drake Mysteries, from the same stable as the Murdoch Mysteries, while Banijay Rights is offering season two of Australian hit Wolf Creek. There’s also a screening for Pulse, a medical drama from ABC Commercial and Screen Australia.
Of course, it would be wrong to neglect the US entirely,since leading studios will be in town with some strong content. A+E Networks, for example, will bring actor Catherine Zeta-Jones to promote Cocaine Godmother, a TV movie about 1970s Miami drug dealer Griselda Blanco, aka The Black Widow.
Sony Pictures Entertainment, meanwhile, is screening Counterpart, in which JK Simmons (Whiplash, La La Land) plays Howard Silk, a lowly employee in a Berlin-based UN spy agency. When Silk discovers that his organisation safeguards the secret of a crossing into a parallel dimension, he is thrust into a world of intrigue and danger where the only man he can trust is his near-identical counterpart from this parallel world.
If you’re in Cannes, don’t forget to pick up the fall 2017 issue of Drama Quarterly, which features Icelandic thriller Stella Blómkvist, McMafia, Benedict Cumberbatch’s The Child in Time, Australian period drama Picnic at Hanging Rock and much more.
Two women are on the run in Japanese drama Runaway Women. DQ hears about this emotional thriller from its director and its executive producer.
Japanese drama Runaway Women follows the story of a woman called Rieko who has served eight years in prison after being falsely convicted of murder.
Following her release, Rieko searches for a former friend who betrayed her but is forced to flee when she becomes involved with a young woman, Mio, who actually is a killer. A strange bond then develops between the two, leading to both of them being pursued by Detective Sakuma.
Produced by broadcaster NHK, the six-part series aired in January and February this year and is distributed by NHK Enterprises.
Here director Hiroshi Kurosaki and executive producer Yuki Uchida take DQ inside this “road movie” that explores how two women come together when the world is seemingly against them.
DQ: What attracted you to the project? Yuki Uchida: It started with a question: why do people commit crime? But as well as trying to create a story about crime, we delved into the essential elements of the human soul such as solitude, hatred, redemption and love.
Hiroshi Kurosaki: We decided to create the ultimate love story in today’s Japan. By love, we mean not just romance but also feeling for another person in a broader sense. We thought it would mirror modern society. I sat down with screenwriter Toshio Kamata and producers Kazuki Nakayama and Yuki to write an original story. In the end we came up with a tale not about love between a man and a woman but about a strong bond between two women.
What are the major themes of the series? HK: It is about how human beings hold a destructive impulse in their hearts. In Japan there are many cases of murder and violence without any motive. It can be hard to trust people’s hearts – we wanted to depict a bond that could overcome such doubts.
YU: Everyone harbours burning anger and dark emotions. But at the same time, they yearn to be loved and also to give love.
What was the origin of the story and what was the writing process like? YU: It began with murder and crime itself. But as we were developing the plot, we saw a lot of news coverage of murders committed by the mentally ill and acts of terrorism. So we ended up trying to focus more on people’s inner aspects.
HK: We spent nearly two years forming the plot, during which terrorist attacks occurred around the globe. Footage flooding the internet reshaped the concept of violence in visual media. We rewrote the story from depicting extreme violence to zeroing in on solitude and hunger.
How did the writers and director work together to create the style and tone of the show?
HK: We all shared a respect for the women in the story, and throughout filming we tried to beautifully depict how they strived to move forward with their lives.
YU: The script showed unconventional characters doing and saying things that defied prediction. By moving away from pre-established harmony and not making things too easy to understand, we were able to maintain a distinctive world.
Who are the leading cast members and what qualities do they bring to the characters? YU: The leads are Miki Mizuno [Rieko], Riisa Naka [Mio] and Kenichi Endo [Detective Sakuma]. Mizuno and Naka had tough jobs, playing someone who has just been released from prison after a wrongful conviction and a psychotic killer respectively. They were in 100% shape both physically and emotionally for the long filming schedule. Endo depicted a man who has a complex, swaying mind despite standing on the side of justice as a detective. All three actively made suggestions to shape their characters.
HK: They threw away their usual star appearances and delved into the characters. Again and again, they fulfilled our wish for them to capture the emotions that seep out from deep inside. They are great actors – and both Mizuno and Naka lost weight for their roles. All three have altered the perceptions viewers will have had of them from their previous performances.
Where was Runaway Women filmed and how did the locations influence the drama? HK: It was filmed in Kyushu, [an island in] southern Japan. We wanted to place the women on the run not in a cold and dark place but in the south, flooded with light. We felt it was meaningful to have them walk with their heads held high in bright sunlight. We were always aware of the light when filming.
YU: In many cases we shot on location in Nagasaki [which is located on Kyushu]. It is a unique place with indented coastlines and hills that come up to the sea as well as urban zones that cling to the hillside, former naval ports, a US navy base and fishing villages. We believe we captured the feeling of women running in places that seem detached from the real world.
What were the biggest challenges during the production? YU: It was a road movie and it was a big challenge to shoot in so many different places within a limited time span.
HK: We focused on the moments when the leading characters walked and ran. So we did a lot of long takes using handheld cameras to follow the actors everywhere. In some scenes, an actor and cameraman would keep on running for hundreds of metres. The crew would do warm-up exercises like athletes before each scene began!
How does Runaway Women compare to other NHK dramas and Japanese drama in general? HK: We captured the beautiful and colourful landscapes of Japan, allowing viewers to see what the country is like today. In recent years, Japanese channels have been under pressure because [of a fear that] viewers will not tune in unless programmes are easy to understand. Sometimes I feel this has gone too far – human emotions are complex and cannot be understood easily. We dared to tread in different terrain, depicting emotions carefully and turning out a new form of entertainment.
YU: It is different because many scenes were shot on location, in places other than Tokyo. Also, it is not a drama where the leading characters are good people – but they will strike viewers as real people.
Declining ad revenues mean Japanese broadcasters are increasingly looking to the international market to make money. And one of the areas they are keen to build on is drama exports.
One example of this is NHK’s fantasy adventure Moribito, created with the international market in mind, while Nippon TV’s recent sale of format Mother to Turkey – a first for Japanese drama – is another. Also significant is Fuji TV’s entry into the China market via a scripted content partnership with Shanghai Media Group (SMG).
Under the terms of the latter partnership, SMG is adapting a total of five Fuji dramas for the Chinese market. The second of these, Operation Love, began filming in Guangzhou this month with a view to airing on online platform Tencent from Spring 2017.
A light-hearted love story, Operation Love first aired in Japan in 2007 and has also been remade in South Korea as Operation Proposal. It follows an earlier remake of Dating: What’s it Like to be in Love?, which will air on SMG’s channels in 2017.
Another interesting drama story this week is the news that HBO Europe has commissioned a six-part Warsaw-set drama about a cocaine dealer planning a holiday in Argentina. Antony Root, exec VP of original programming and production at HBO Europe, said of the show: “We believe Blinded by the Lights, a story set in Warsaw’s demi-monde and showing off the city in a wholly new way, will not only appeal to Polish audiences but also to our subscribers all around the HBO Europe region. We are confident it will equally excite audiences internationally.”
The show is part of a growing slate of original HBO Europe series that kicked off a few years ago with Burning Bush and was followed by Pustina. In addition to Blinded by the Lights, HBO Europe also announced a second series of Wataha (The Pack). This show tells the story of a border guard unit based in the remote Bieszczady Mountains on Poland’s border with Ukraine. “The Pack/Wataha proved its appeal to viewers having achieved huge ratings in Poland for its first season,” Root said. “It also played extremely successfully in the other HBO Europe territories and has sold in foreign markets. We are very excited by this new chapter and the way the writers explore the challenges now faced on Europe’s longest border.”
Also this week, Modern Times Group-owned distributor DRG announced it had renewed its first-look deal with indie producer Three River Fiction for a further two years. Three River has 15 to 20 projects in active development, including several adaptations. Its largest acquisition to date is a 15-book estate of Golden Age crime fiction, written in the 1930s by John Bude. Colin Bateman (Murphy’s Law, The Journey) is attached and has written a pilot script based on the crime franchise.
According to DRG, there are two further projects in development, including a dark re-imagining of the Robin Hood story. With Mark Skeet and Matthew Faulk (Titanic: Blood and Steel, Vanity Fair) attached to write, the series will be “a vibrant, venal and complex post-watershed saga set in a bloodstained 12th century England,” said the distributor. The other is a sci-fi series, created and written by Richard Smith (Trauma,) exploring how an isolated community is torn apart by secrets and lies following the crash landing of a UFO.
On the distribution front, Netflix has acquired rights to Renaissance period drama Medici: Masters of Florence for a select number of territories. The Rai-backed drama, which is distributed by Wild Bunch TV, will air on Netflix in the US, the UK, Ireland, Canada and India from December 9. It has already been picked up by broadcasters and streamers in France, Germany, Australia and Japan. The fact Netflix has done a deal for a limited number of territories is interesting, because it suggests the international drama market may be moving away from a model where Netflix attempts to secure the rights to series on a worldwide basis.
Also this week, Deadline is reporting that Amazon has struck an exclusive SVoD deal for USA Network’s new supernatural thriller Falling Water. The show, which tells the story of three unrelated people who discover they are dreaming separate parts of a single common dream, hasn’t rated that well on USA. But Amazon’s involvement will make it easier for the network to back a second series – an increasingly common scenario in the US TV business.
This week has also seen some interesting strategic insights from Eurodata TV Worldwide as part of its Scripted Series Report 2016. Based on feedback from 103 channels, Eurodata found that networks, on average, devoted 32% of primetime to series.
Within this total, local series are the biggest hits. “They represent no less than 84% of the primetime top 15,” said Eurodata. “Imports, and consequently international hits, appear less often in rankings of the top programmes. Despite this, broadcasting these imports remains a winning strategy for smaller channels. As an example, The X-Files succeeded in placing among the top shows for M6 (France), Pro7 (Germany), TV3 (Sweden) and Channel 5 (the UK). US imports are challenged by series imported from countries geographically closer to the channel. The latter occupy a minor place in schedules: 15% of the channels studied broadcast a significant amount of these imports in primetime. Most of all, they are an alternative for small markets and smaller channels.”
There is also a trend towards greater exposure, Eurodata added. “In addition to longer availability thanks to catch-up opportunities, a series is now more available over various platforms in a single country. Traditional players and OTT platforms play with the various windows possible for their content. The multiplatform strategy is often a winning one. For example, Zwarte Tulp (NL Film), a new show in the 2015-16 season for RTL4, is a hit in the Netherlands. Five months before its launch on the RTL Group’s first channel, the series had been streamed on Videoland, the group’s SVoD platform. The series Black Widows (DRG) was broadcast simultaneously on the TV3 channels of the MTG group in Sweden and Denmark, and also on the group’s SVoD platform. It is among the channel’s top three shows in both countries.”
According to Eurodata, examples of collaboration between TV and SVoD services are on the rise. “Whether to reduce production costs, grow a viewer base or [increase] international visibility for their content, or fill their schedules and catalogues, players from the various groups are working together in production and distribution. One example, the series Narcos, was recently broadcast on Univision in the US after its distribution on Netflix. In the future, El Chapo will be coproduced by Netflix and Univision and Britannia (Sky Vision) will be a Sky/Amazon coproduction.”
Other trends include a shift towards short formats and adaptations. Eurodata explained: “Short formats have proven popular. They are often conducive to quality series, as they encourage participation by well-known actors, screenwriters and directors. The Night Manager (WME/IMG, The Ink Factory), adapted from John Le Carré’s eponymous novel, immediately earned fourth among series in the UK and fifth in Denmark. Adaptations, meanwhile, allow inspiring characters and stories to reverberate further. Many of the season’s hits are adaptations of series that exist in other countries. Among the European countries covered in the report, the proportion of local adaptations launched has doubled with respect to those in the 2014-15 season. Some channels particularly count on these to appeal to their viewers. This is the case with the Dutch channel SBS6, whose top three series are exclusively local adaptations of foreign formats.”
Avril Blondelot, international research manager at Eurodata TV Worldwide, said: “True international hits are appearing less and less in the national top rankings.”
However, the international stage is playing a growing role in the development of local series. “More and more new series have been adapted from foreign formats,” commented Eurodata media consultant Léa Besson.
The Japanese have a good strike rate when it comes to exporting animation and entertainment formats. But they have struggled with drama. There are a few reasons for this but, when it comes down to it, the core problem is that scripted shows that work in Japanese primetime don’t travel that well.
The country’s leading players want to do something about this because the revenues they are generating from the domestic media market aren’t as strong as they used to be. So now they are looking at formats and coproductions as ways of building up their international profile and generating a new revenue stream. They are also starting to ask themselves if there is a way of making shows that can tap into the world drama zeitgeist that has propelled Korean, Turkish, Nordic and Israeli drama around the globe.
There were a couple of examples of the way Japan is seeking to shift its mindset at the Mipcom market in Cannes this week. One was a deal that will see Nippon TV drama Mother adapted for the Turkish market by MF Yapim & MEDYAPIM. The new show will be called Anne and will air on leading broadcaster Star TV. It’s the first time a Japanese company has struck this kind of deal in Turkey.
Also this week, Japanese public broadcaster NHK screened Moribito II: Guardian of the Spirit, an ambitious live-action fantasy series based on the novels of Nahoko Uehashi – likened by some to JRR Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings.
Produced in 4K and HDR, this is the second in a planned trilogy of TV series, the first of which consisted of four parts. The show has been attracting interest from channel buyers beyond Japan’s usual sphere of influence, suggesting the country may be starting to have the kind of international impact it wants.
Interestingly, NHK brought the actor Kento Hayashi to Cannes to help promote the Moribito franchise. Hayashi also starred in Netflix’s first Japanese original, Hibana, another scripted show that has captured the attention of audiences and critics around the world.
Away from Japanese activity, companies that had a good week in Cannes included ITV Studios Global Entertainment, which said its hit period drama series Victoria has now sold to more than 150 countries, including new deals with the likes of Sky Germany, VRT Belgium and Spanish pay TV platform Movistar+. It also sold comedy drama Cold Feet – renewed for a new season in 2017 – to the likes of NPO Netherlands, ITV Choice Africa, Yes in Israel, TV4 Sweden and NRK Norway.
Further evidence of the appeal of lavish period pieces came with the pre-sales buzz around Zodiak Rights’ Versailles, which is going into its second season. At Mipcom, the show was picked up by a range of broadcasters and platforms including BBC2 (UK), Amazon Prime (UK), C More (Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland), DirecTV (Latin America) and Movistar+.
Moving beyond period pieces, other shows that cut through the promotional clutter included Sony Pictures Television (SPT)’s time-travel drama Timeless, which sold to the UK’s Channel 4 to air on its youth-skewing E4 network. The show was also picked up by the likes of OSN in the Middle East, Fox in Italy, AXN in Japan, Viacom 18’s Colors Infinity in India and Sohu in China.
SPT also sold new sitcom Kevin Can Wait to Channel 4 in the UK, though perhaps the most interesting Sony-related story at Mipcom was the news that its international television network group AXN has joined forces with Pinewood Television to a develop a slate of six TV drama projects.
The series will be financed in partnership between Sony Pictures Television Networks and Pinewood Television. The plan is for them to air on AXN channels in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe, with a programming emphasis on high-impact action, crime and mystery. The deal was brokered by Marie Jacobson, executive VP of programming and production at SPTN, and Peter Gerwe, a director for Pinewood Television.
Jacobson said: “As we look for alternative paths to expand original series development, Pinewood TV make for the ideal partners. We are look forward to developing projects with them that play both in the UK and on our channels around the world.”
Other high-profile dramas to attract buyer attention at the market this week included StudioCanal’s Swedish-French eight-hour drama Midnight Sun, picked up by ZDF in Germany, SBS in Australia, HOT in Israel and DR in Denmark.
Distributor FremantleMedia International licensed its big-budget series The Young Pope to Kadokawa Corporation in Japan, while Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution licensed The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story to French pay TV operator Canal+.
Another show that enjoyed some success this week was DRG-distributed The Level, a six-part thriller that was picked up by ABC Australia, UTV in Ireland, TVNZ in New Zealand and DBS Satellite Services in Israel, among others. Produced by Kate Norrish and Polly Leys, joint MDs of Hillbilly Films, the show follows a reputable cop with a secret that is about to unravel. The show has previously been picked up by Acorn Media Enterprises for the US market.
Reiterating the growing interest in non-English drama, Global Screen enjoyed some success with Rivals Forever – The Sneaker Battle, which tells the true story of how brothers Adi and Rudi Dassler set up Adidas and Puma. France Télévisions acquired free TV rights and will air the series in early 2017 on France 3, while Just Entertainment in the Netherlands has landed video, pay TV and VoD rights. Other buyers included DR (Denmark), FTV Prima (Czech Republic), LRT (Lithuania) and HBO Europe (for Eastern Europe).
Turkish drama successes included Mistco’s sale of TRT period drama Resurrection to Kazakhstan Channel 31. Eccho Rights also sold four Turkish dramas to Chilean broadcaster Mega. The four shows were all produced by Ay Yapim and include the recent hit series Insider. This continues a good run of success for Turkish content in the Latin American region.
While Mipcom is fundamentally a sales market, its conference programme is also a useful way of tuning into international trends and opportunities in drama. There was an interesting keynote with showrunner Adi Hasak, who has managed to get two shows away with US networks (Shades of Blue, Eyewitness) in the last three years despite having no real track record with the US channel business. He believes the current voracious demand for ideas has made this possible: “This is a small business, where everyone knows everyone. If you create material that speaks to buyers, they will respond.”
Participant Media CEO David Linde also talked about the way his company is starting to extend its influence beyond film into TV and social media. Known for movies like An Inconvenient Truth, Food Inc, Snitch and Spotlight, the firm’s expansion into TV will see a new series about journalists breaking stories, developed by the team behind Oscar winner Spotlight.
Masafumi Endo, head of drama at Japanese broadcaster NHK, tells DQ what series need to be successful in the Far East and why viewers can look forward to meeting the ‘Japanese Harry Potter.’
DQ: What are the most popular dramas currently on NHK and why are they a hit with viewers? Masafumi Endo: NHK’s traditional drama slot features series that could be described as Japanese telenovelas. We have created 93 of these in the past 55 years. They air for 15 minutes at 08.00, Monday through Saturday. Each work consists of 156 episodes that are broadcast from October to March.
Here Comes Asa! is the 93rd series of this kind. It explores how a girl, born to a merchant family in Kyoto in the 1860s, fights for the advancement of women and goes on to establish a women’s college. With help from her understanding husband and people around her, she battles to clear her path in male-oriented times and strives to shape an era in which women being in work is taken for granted. Her efforts have captured the imagination of the viewers.
The drama stars Haru, Hiroshi Tamaki, Aoi Miyazaki and Masaomi Kondo. Another appeal for the viewers has been watching the lead actress, Haru, who won the part via an audition that drew more than 2,000 applicants, mature as a performer over a six-month period.
NHK has also produced 55 year-long historical sagas, which we call taiga dorama (big-river drama), in 53 years. Sunday at 20.00 has become a fixed timeslot for families to enjoy these epic stories. This year, Sanada Maru (pictured top) focuses on the life of the second son of a feudal lord of a small province during Japan’s warring-states period in the 1500s. The drama, which follows the struggles of the Sanada clan that survives the uncertain age on the strength of its family ties, seems to have inspired a growing number of viewers. It stars Masato Sakai, Masao Kusakari, Yo Oizumi and Masami Nagasawa.
How would you describe the television drama business in Japan at present?
The time people spend watching TV is falling regardless of age or gender. TV dramas are also faring poorly in general. Exports overseas have reached no further than Asia, and Japan lags behind Korea and China in this respect.
What genres are most popular in Japanese drama and why? Do viewers prefer a certain type of drama, such as serialised stories or procedurals? Two recent hits among Japanese viewers were both serial dramas made by the commercial TV networks. Many Japanese viewers are used to watching serial dramas and the challenge is making sure they return week after week.
The first, Naoki Hanzawa, airs on commercial network TBS. The show sees the titular character join a major bank to avenge his father, who died when Hanzawa was young. Faced with a torrent of challenges, he finds a way out using his intellectual power. The phrase he utters when he is cornered, “Baigaeshi da!” (I’ll pay back double), has become a slogan.
Downtown Rocket (also on TBS), meanwhile, is set in a modern Japan mired in economic turmoil and bleak prospects. The leading character, who heads a small company that is on the brink of going under, talks eagerly about his dream. The drama depicts how the heads of small factories join forces and gather their technologies to launch the first grass-root-level rocket. A quote from the main character – “What’s wrong with smaller companies having a dream?” – gave courage to many Japanese people feeling the effects of recession.
Both of Downtown Rocket’s protagonists have many shortcomings but they are upbeat and positive and work hard to achieve their goals. The viewers seem to appreciate dramas that depict some kind of success story, where the characters never give in to adversity.
What makes NHK drama stand out compared with other broadcasters’ series?
Since NHK is a public broadcaster, it is not judged by the ratings or expected to generate advertising revenue. Thus it is free from the will of sponsors. Consequently, we can produce dramas that not only reflect what viewers want but also deal with themes of public nature and value. We can also take the risk of creating historical dramas with universality and discover less-known talents to appear in our shows.
We have the tradition and skill accumulated through creating 55 historical sagas in 53 years and 93 TV novel series in 55 years. NHK is also capable of making programmes incorporating new technologies such as 4K and 8K.
How well does Japanese drama compete with international drama?
NHK produces programmes that target viewers in Japan and is not focused on overseas sales. In terms of technology, we believe our quality enables us to compete in the global market. But international acceptance of stories based on Japan’s unique culture, customs and religion, and the fact that the protagonists are Japanese, poses a challenge.
How are your TV dramas financed? Are budgets increasing as viewers expect cinematic production values?
It’s the same in Japan as around the world, with viewers now expecting high quality in TV drama. This affects production costs but, being a public broadcaster, NHK revenues do not increase annually. Our budget for drama production has barely increased in the past few years, which means we have to cope and come up with ways to overcome our budget situation.
Can you explain your drama development process?
Many of our dramas are produced in-house, with our producers working out projects and proposing them to the programming department. When the plans are approved, they go on to oversee the production. They choose a screenwriter and work on the casting.
The drama is then created by the in-house producer, director, production staff, assistant director, art and technical staff. However, in recent years, an increasing number of dramas have been outsourced to external production companies.
Do you take part in international coproductions? Do you think this is a good model for making drama?
Since 1980, NHK has coproduced around 20 dramas with overseas broadcasters and production companies.
For instance, A Son of the Good Earth (1995) was jointly produced with CCTV of China and focused on a Japanese orphan left behind in China at the end of the Second World War. The drama received a great response when it was first aired and has been rebroadcast a number of times.
Likewise, The Ginger Tree (BBC, WGBH), The Last U-Boat (ZDF, Capital Cities/ABC Video Enterprises, ORF, Manfred Durniok Filmproduction), Mission Top Secret and Escape from Jupiter (coproduced with Australia in 1993 and 1994 respectively), The Menam Never Sleeps (Channel 3, Thailand) and The Best Bad Thing (A Cinar Production, WQED, ZDF) were international coproductions.
What new dramas do you have coming up in 2016?
The historical saga Sanada Maru, which began airing in January, is an original work of Koki Mitani, a leading screenwriter in terms of popularity and talent. Its protagonist is Nobushige Sanada, a hero in Japan’s warring-states period. The story follows how the Sanada clan, a samurai family lacking in power, navigates the raging waves of the period amid powerful feudal warlords. The drama features popular performers both young and seasoned to appeal not only to the elderly, who are fans of historical drama, but also the younger generation. It has performed well so far.
NHK has also purchased the format of The Sniffer, the hit Ukrainian detective series that has been remade worldwide. We will produce it as a local drama. It will be NHK’s first such attempt, and will debut this fall.
A major fantasy drama called Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is also awaiting broadcast. The show was given a special 4K screening on the opening night of MipTV – marking a first for an Asian broadcaster. Based on a series of bestselling fantasy novels, the drama depicts otherworldly adventures in great scale. It’s reminiscent of a Japan-made Harry Potter. Fantasy is a genre that is not often seen in Japanese television drama. We hope this show will reach a wide audience and we plan to air 20 episodes over three years.
How do you see Japanese drama changing in the next 12 months?
We do not expect a drastic change in the coming year or so. But we may see gradual changes as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and other video streaming services become more popular.
For instance, there is a tendency for edgy videos or works that appeal to a niche group of viewers being streamed first before going on to be accepted by wider audiences. Although TV stations cannot produce overly edgy programmes due to the nature of broadcasting, the industry may need to make certain changes.