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The Decline of Japanese Software

Kurosawa's problems with financing are closely tied to the overall decline of the Japanese film industry. By 1989, movie ticket sales in Japan were down to 143.5 million (a mere 13 percent of the all-time 1958 peak of 1.3 billion), and only 1,912 movie theaters were still doing business.[7] This decline was apparent even in the United States, where Japanese-language movie theaters, which had been going strong for at least eighty years, were now disappearing. On October 31, 1990, film critic Kevin Thomas observed: "Ironically, at a time when Japanese companies are investing heavily in the American film industry and the Japanese-speaking community is growing, the last of those theaters [in Los Angeles] is going out of business."[8]

Largely because of this sharp decline in the Japanese film industry, Japanese movie studios have been reluctant to back venturesome movies; instead they are increasingly investing in other leisure activities, such as video porn, bowling alleys, bicycle races, and amusement parks. Even in the purchase of MCA/Universal, it was reported, "a key factor appears to have been MCA's theme parks in which Matsushita was deeply interested";[9] and after acquiring Columbia Pictures,


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Sony announced its intention of opening a chain of international amusement parks called "Sonyland," which would soon display the company's latest cutting-edge soft- and hardware and make Disneyland look obsolete. The Japanese films that are doing well at the box office these days are not (for the most part) art films in the tradition of Kurosawa, but primarily commercial fare. For example, the biggest success in 1989 ($35 million in ticket sales) was Kiki's Delivery Service , an animated film about a young witch who makes deliveries on her broomstick — a premise no sillier than that of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles .

As the world becomes ever more "multinational," tastes in mass media become increasingly uniform worldwide, and business interests, regardless of nationality, seek software with a track record of global appeal. With the Japanese film industry at its nadir and with current Japanese films proving limited in international marketability, successful electronics giants like Sony and Matsushita (which sells its products under the more familiar brand names Panasonic, JVC, Quasar, National, and Technics) are investing in Hollywood in order to acquire American software that can match and extend the power of their own hardware. As Elaine Dutka and Nina J. Easton put it:

Experts say that, with the coming entertainment revolution, the values of studio libraries will skyrocket, making the MCA and Columbia deals look like bargains in retrospect. . . . The value of the movies themselves will skyrocket given the privatization of European broadcast stations, greater at-home access and the possibility of packing more and more programming on satellites through digital compression.

They quote Andrew Lippman, associate director of MIT's Media Laboratory, as saying: "It's 'old-think' to have a U.S.


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vs. Japan attitude. . . . Without international cooperation, it will be impossible to distribute a program worldwide."[10] In this process of radical restructuring, then, not only hardware and software are being transformed, but also nations and industries.

In the 1970s and 1980s, partly because of Japan's technological innovations in and growing domination over electronics hardware (television sets, compact disc players, and video cassette recorders), American movies have been increasingly domesticated as part of an ever-expanding home entertainment system, which, in the global context of multinational consumer capitalism, has redefined our conception not only of "movies," but also of "home." When Sony took over first CBS Records and then Columbia Pictures, it also raided Warner Communication (one of its big American rivals) to recruit the producing team of Peter Guber and Jon Peters, those Super Mario Brothers of Hollywood, to run the studio. Because both this deal and Matsushita's later takeover of MCA/Universal were "brokered" by "superagent" Michael Ovitz, chairman of the Creative Artists Agency (which represents superstars like Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford, and Tom Cruise), the definitions of Hollywood agent and superstar also underwent transformation.

Now that it controls a major movie studio, Sony will probably help pioneer Hollywood's conversion to high-definition television (HDTV) technology, thereby erasing a functional difference between the two modes of formerly competing image production (as well as between two competing nations) and cashing in on its former mastery of video hardware. Robert Epstein reports that "when Sony paid $3.4 billion for Columbia and moved it to the Culver City lot, it also budgeted another $10 million for its 2-year old HD team. Right now, the Sony people say their main interest in Culver City is to demonstrate their equipment in a studio setting."[11]


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And if Sony/Columbia is pursuing this course, can Matsushita/Universal be far behind?


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