Japanese films dominated the Japanese box office in 2016 with a market share of 63.1 per cent, according to figures compiled by the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan (MPPAJ). This is not a recent trend: starting in 2006, the local industry has grabbed a majority market share every year except 2007, when new entries to the Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter series topped the year’s box office.
The highest earner in 2016 was Shinkai Makoto’s animation Your Name, which made US$209 million for the year. (It has since boosted this total to US$213million domestically.) A giddy, gorgeously animated mix of gender-swapping fantasy and teen romance, Your Name became the second-highest grossing Japanese film of all-time, behind the 2001 Miyazaki Hayao smash Spirited Away. It topped charts in China and South Korea and set a new worldwide box office record for a Japanese film.
Boosting this megahit, the Japanese box office totaled US$1.9 billion for 2016 – an 8 per cent gain over the previous year. This was the highest figure since 2000, when the MPPAJ switched from reporting distributor earnings (the share of the box office going to the film’s distributor) for the year’s top films to more internationally accepted numbers for theatrical earnings (defined as a film’s total box office take). The previous record was set in 2010, when Avatar was the number one film for the year.
Coming in at number two in 2016 was Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens with a US$103 million take. Number three was Shin Godzilla, a reboot of the iconic monster series, co-directed by Evangelion series creator Anno Hideaki and veteran effects maestro Higuchi Shinji. The latter finished with US$73 million. Both Shin Godzilla and Your Name were released by Toho, the powerhouse distributor and exhibitor that accounted for eight of the domestic top 10 for 2016.
The total number of films released last year, 1,149, was slightly higher than in 2015, as was the total number of local films, at 610, compared with 581 the previous year. Screen count also grew from 3,437 in 2015 to 3,472 in 2016.
Both Your Name and Shin Godzilla earned plaudits from the critics and industry, including a Japan Academy Best Animation nomination for the former and a Best Picture nomination for the latter.
But the year’s critical darling, as well as its biggest sleeper hit, was In This Corner of the World, Katabuchi Sunao’s animation about a young woman’s life in prewar Hiroshima and wartime Kure, a nearby port.
Based on Hiroshima native Kono Fumiyo’s manga of the same title, the film was given a mid-sized release of 63 screens by Tokyo Theatres, a mid-sized distributor, on November 12. Spurred by successful crowdfunding campaigns that drew widespread media attention, the film packed theaters from its first week, encouraging Tokyo Theatres to expand its release. By mid-February, it was showing on 289 screens nationwide and total admissions had climbed to 1.5 million.
Meanwhile, In This Corner of the World was scooping award after award, including the Best Japan Film prize bestowed by the Kinema Junpo Best Ten Awards, a critics’ poll sponsored by Japan’s oldest film magazine that this year celebrated its 90th edition.
While deserving this and other honors for its shockingly graphic and heartfelt depictions of the war’s human cost, including the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the film also celebrated the characters’ self-sacrifice and grit in ways reminiscent of Kinoshita Keisuke’s wartime propaganda films. Similar to Kinoshita’s 1944 classic Army, this patriotic spirit is tempered by a strong anti-war slant (though Kinoshita, restricted by wartime censorship, had to express it indirectly).
The soft nationalism of In This Corner of the World was part of an ongoing trend that reached its apotheosis in Shin Godzilla. Though the film’s satirical treatment of official fumbling in the face of national crisis – namely Godzilla’s appearance in Tokyo Bay – is pointed and funny, the narrative focus soon shifts to the task force assembled by a fiery young Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary (Hasegawa Hiroki) to combat the scaly menace. Hard-working and bright, if nerdy, these folks belong to a cinematic Team Japan of nearly 300 characters who come through gloriously in the end.
The obvious comparison was the so-called “Fukushima 50,” workers at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant who laboured ceaselessly, risking their own lives, in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011 earthquake, tsunami and reactor meltdowns. Previously a symbol of nuclear destruction, the title monster of Shin Godzilla has now morphed into an ambulant disaster zone.
But some things never change, and there were six animated films in the year’s box office top 10 for domestic releases. These included new entries in the popular Detective Conan, Yokaii Watch, One Piece, and Doraemon series. Once again the box office leaders were produced by so-called ‘production committees’ made up of TV networks and other major media companies.
Meanwhile, with the exception of In This Corner of the World, so-called mid-budget films are facing an ever steeper climb to find backers and audiences. The market is increasingly becoming divided between the ‘haves’ – the commercial films released wide in multiplexes – and the ‘have-nots’, the micro-budget indie films that play in a handful of theatres for limited runs.
Why does the number of releases keep growing despite this growing gap? One reason is the digitalisation of the filmmaking process that has reduced costs and lowered entry barriers in a gadget paradise like Japan.
Another is the rise of Motion Gallery and other crowd-funding sites that help filmmakers bypass production committees and go directly to fans for support. Still another is the willingness of said filmmakers to spend weeks and months promoting their films with stage appearances and other events to put them over the top financially (not that they always succeed). Despite this effort, their income from film work rarely rises above the fast-food level.
Knowing that such sacrifices are not sustainable indefinitely – even indie directors have to pay mortgages and support families – a group of film professionals, including director Fukada Koji and documentarian Tsuchiya Yutaka, have formed Independent Cinema Guild (Dokuritsu Eiga Nabe), an organisation for improving conditions in the indie sector. It aims to achieve NPO status, which will allow it to offer significant tax saving to potential donors. In the meantime ICG is working with Motion Gallery to support crowd-funding campaigns and holding symposiums and events to exchange information among members.
Also, the traditionally insular Japanese film industry is slowly becoming more internationalised, internally and externally. It’s opening up new opportunities for talent. One admittedly rough indication: when Ishihara Satomi played an Japanese-American presidential envoy in Shin Godzilla, she delivered many of her lines in what was intended to be native-sounding English (though many native speakers disagreed) – and the role shot her to stardom. Intentionally or not, her success showed that an ‘international’ image is still attractive to local fans (and got her a gig as a spokeswoman for a language school chain).
Meanwhile, Japanese actors and directors who speak English, with fair-to-native fluency, are growing in number. Some, such as actress Momoi Kaori, Iwai Shunji, and Watanabe Ken, have been active in the US for extended periods of time – or even permanently.
Japanese film folks are also increasingly found on film sets in Korea, China and elsewhere in Asia, speaking the local language on and off the screen. Veteran supporting actor Kunimura Jun scooped awards in Korea for playing a Japanese stranger who terrorizes a mountain village in Na Hong-jin’s 2016 hit horror The Wailing. Also, Otsuka Ryuji, a filmmaker who has been based in China since 2005, won a Special Mention in the 2017 Berlin Film Festival’s Generation 14plus section for his co-directed Chinese-language drama The Foolish Bird.
But major awards at Berlin and the other major festivals – Cannes and Venice – are becoming harder to come by for Japanese talent. The so-called ‘4K’ directors – Kawase Naomi, Kore-eda Hirokazu, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, and Kitano Takeshi – who have long been regulars at these festivals, are no longer generating the sort of awards buzz they did in past decades. Meanwhile, directors a generation or so younger are snagging the occasional invitation or prize, a recent example being Fukada Koji’s win of the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard at Cannes last year for his drama Harmonium. But international attention still mostly flows elsewhere.
Festival fashions are a reason: programmers are always looking for the next hot thing, and Japan is no longer it. Just as sushi is no longer exotic in London or New York, neither are Japanese horror films with long-haired female ghosts – or even low-key, sensitive family dramas that non-Japanese reviewers inevitably compare to Ozu.
More significantly, international filmmakers are now making world-class work not only in France, South Korea, and other countries with strong local industries, but also in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and other places once considered cinematic backwaters. The Japanese film industry, so long content to cater to its own market, has been slow to respond to this intensifying competition.
But fashions may shift again, especially if younger Japanese filmmakers (at least ones younger than the now fifty-ish ‘4K’ generation) are willing to work outside their cultural, commercial and personal comfort zones. Casting Ms. Ishihara is purely optional.