Another Animated Year: Japanese Cinema in 2017

Take away a mega-hit like Your Name, the Shinkai Makoto anime that earned US$234 million in 2016, and the Japanese box office fell nearly 3 per cent to US$2.1 billion on 174.5 million admissions in 2017. The highest-earning Japanese film, at US$63 million, was Detective Conan: Crimson Love Letter, the 21st entry in the Detective Conan feature animation franchise, followed by Doraemon: Great Adventure in the Antarctic Kachi Kochi, the 37th installment in the Doraemon anime series, at US$41.5 million. In third place was the action/comedy/fantasy Gintama with US$36 million, tops for a local live-action film. Director Fukuda Yuichi and star Oguri Shun have since reunited for a sequel that will open in August.

In 2017, a total of 38 domestic films made JPY1 billion (US$9.2 million) or higher – the traditional benchmark of a commercial hit in Japan – while only 24 foreign films achieved this milestone, led by Beauty and the Beast with US$114 million. Even so, the market share for local films declined to 55 per cent, compared with 63 per cent the year before.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Toho was the number-one local distributor of the year, handling seven of the top 10 films in the domestic column. The company, which also operates Japan’s biggest theatre chain, has been the industry’s 800-pound gorilla (or, given its signature character, its 800-pound Godzilla) for decades.

Meanwhile, 1,187 films were released in 2017, 594 of which were Japanese and 593 of which were foreign. The previous year the numbers were similar, with 610 Japanese films and 539 foreign films on show. The so-called ‘4 K’ directorial elite of Kitano Takeshi, Kawase Naomi, Kore-eda Hirokazu and Kurosawa Kiyoshi, together with international cult favorites Miike Takashi and Sono Sion, all released films in 2017, but none made it into the Japanese box office top 10. (Kitano’s gang epic Outrage Coda ranked the highest among this group at number 18, with a US$15 million gross.) For all their invitations to major festivals, none of their films brought home a major prize.

At home, the Japan Academy handed out prizes in 21 categories on March 2 at its annual awards ceremony, the Japanese answer to the Oscars. The film scooping the most, at six, was Kore-eda Hirokazu’s legal drama The Third Murder. It won best picture, best director, best screenplay and best editing. Best supporting actor went to The Third Murder star Yakusho Koji, who played a two-time convicted murderer being tried for a third killing, and facing certain execution. Hirose Suzu, playing the daughter of the murdered man, took best the supporting actress prize. Aoi Yu took best actress honors for her turn as a mentally disturbed woman in Shiraishi Kazuya’s relationship drama Birds Without Names, while Suda Masaki was named best actor for his performance as a juvenile-delinquent-turned boxer in the Kishi Yoshiyuki’s two-parter Wilderness.

The Kinema Junpo Best 10 prizes are arguably more prestigious. Awarded since 1926 by Kinema Junpo – Japan’s oldest film magazine – these prizes are currently based on a poll of about 120 critics, journalists and editors. They also select Best 10 lists for Japanese and foreign films. Unlike the nearly 4,000 Japan Academy prize voters, which include employees at major distributors who presumably vote for their own company’s products, the Kinejun panel tends to prioritise art over commerce – or studio clout.

Some Japan Academy Prize nominees also end up on the Kinejun Best 10 lists, but the overlap is historically not large. For 2017, only The Third Murder from the five Japan Academy Best Picture nominees was also a Kinejun Best 10 film. On the other hand, Kinejun’s best Japanese film of 2017, the Obayashi Nobuhiko world war two drama Hanagatami, received no Japan Academy nominations.

Even more art-oriented are the Best 10 and Worst 10 polls conducted annually by Eiga Geijutsu, a film magazine edited by veteran scriptwriter Arai Haruhiko. Media attention focuses on the notorious Worst 10 list, which can include films that are showered with major foreign festival invitations and prizes. For 2017 Eiga Geijutsu’s worst of the Worst 10 was The Third Murder, which screened in competition at Venice, as well as winning all those Japan Academy prizes.

Mirai of the Future is a leading contender for the box-office champion among local films in 2018. It’s a new animation by Hosoda Mamoru, whose last film, The Boy and the Beast, earned US$55 million in 2015. Toho will release the film, which is about a four-year-old boy who meets his time-travelling sister of the future, on July 20.

Toho will also release Inuyashiki, by Sato Shinsuke (I Am a Hero) for Golden Week, a holiday period in late April and early May that’s a peak time for major commercial films. It’s an adaptation of a popular manga about a middle-aged salaryman (Kinashi Noritake) and a high-school boy (Sato Takeru). The two are turned into cyborgs by a mysterious white light and acquire incredible powers. The boy becomes a mass killer, while the salaryman devotes himself to saving lives. Inevitably, they clash. Two sequels are already in the works.

Another big Golden Week film is Laplace’s Witch, Miike Takashi’s adaptation of a best-selling Higashino Keigo mystery about a geochemist (Sakurai Sho) investigating two mysterious deaths at hot springs. He encounters a young woman (Hirose Suzu) who correctly predicts a third. It’s released by Toho.

Several directors are prepping films for probable submissions to Cannes. One is Kore-eda Hirokazu, whose latest is Manbiki Kazoku (lit. “Shoplifting Family”). It centres on a family of small-time criminals who take in a child they find on the street. Lily Franky, who also appeared in Kore-eda’s Cannes Jury Prize winner Like Father, Like Son (2013), plays the husband. Ando Sakura, who was a guest of Udine FEFF for 0.5mm (2014), plays the wife. Gaga will release it in Japan.

Fukada Koji is another director preparing for Cannes, with The Man from the Sea, a follow-up to his Cannes Un Certain Regard Jury Prize winner Harmonium (2016). Fujioka Dean plays a man found wandering on the Indonesian coast by a Japanese woman (Tsuruta Mayu) and her son (Taiga), who are engaged in disaster relief work. It’s shortly after the 2004 tsunami, and the man performs miracles that belong more to the realm of fantasy than reality.

Finally, Cannes regular Kawase Naomi has filmed Vision, a drama set in her native Nara Prefecture. It’s about a French journalist (Juliette Binoche) who encounters a mysterious man (Nagase Masatoshi) in the mountains while searching for a rare herb. The film is a a co-production between Paris-based Slot Machine and Kawase’s own Kumie production cooperative. Given that five of Kawase’s previous films have screened at Cannes, including her 2007 Grand Prix winner The Mourning Forest, another invitation is likely.

But the majority of filmmakers are not in the charmed circle of box office hit-makers and major festival invitees. They face a growing gap between the rich, with Toho at the top of the heap, and the poor, particularly young directors making indie films for arthouse release. The former produce films almost exclusively from proven properties in other media, particularly manga, while latter face a steady shrinkage in both budgets and screening slots. The end result: a creative hollowing out.

A growing number of filmmakers have become frustrated with this difficult situation, so are working abroad. Among them are Fukada, who shot The Man from the Sea entirely in Indonesia, and Sakamoto Junji, who went to Cuba to film his 2017 biopic Ernesto. Up-and-coming directors such as Fukunaga Takeshi (Out of My Hand) and Hirayanagi Atsuko (Oh Lucy!) are based in the United States. Also, actors such as Odagiri Joe (The White Girl), Kunimura Jun (Kokoro) and Fukuyama Masaharu (Manhunt) are in demand overseas, as well as at home. Examples of border-crossing Japanese talents could be multiplied, though poor language skills and a reluctance to take in the international plunge hold many back.

Another increasing popular alternative to the local indie film grind is making series for cable/satellite and streaming platforms, beginning with pioneering entertainment pay channel Wowow. Veteran Hiroki Ryuichi (Vibrator) was supervising director on the 10-part series Hibana about two struggling comedians that entertainment pay channel Wowow broadcast in 2016. Also, in September of last year Wowow aired Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s five-part series Yocho: (Foreboding), with an alien invasion story spun off from his 2017 Cannes Un Certain Regard entry Before We Vanish. Both series have since generated feature films.

Meanwhile, Sono partnered with Amazon Prime last year to make Tokyo Vampire Hotel. This nine-part series about two battling vampire tribes was partly filmed in Romania, with production values far above those for Sono’s scrappier indie efforts. This series was also edited into a feature that premiered at the Tokyo Filmex festival in November 2017.

At the top of the industry food chain, where the big producers/distributors and their media company partners dwell, not much has changed, save for dwindling returns for once sure-thing formulas. With J-horror long past its sell-by date, and action films about samurai and gangsters in a decades-long decline, the majors have increasingly resorted to romantic dramas about star-crossed young lovers, often with a medical catastrophe or time travel in the mix. If not that, they produce coming-of-age dramas and comedies, usually set in high schools. All are typically based on a hit manga, and star ‘idol’ talents who are cast more for their agency clout than acting ability.

The industry’s ultimate go-to genre, however, is anime. Auteurs like Shinkai Makoto, Hosoda Mamoru and the now-unretired Miyazaki Hayao garner the most kudos abroad, while scoring monster hits at home. But the annual entries in popular anime series aimed at kids are often more consistent earners over longer periods of time. Set for a July 13 release by Toho, the 21st feature installment in the Pokemon franchise, Pokemon the Movie: Everyone’s Story is a surer best for the year’s box office champion than anything else Japanese studios release this year, live-action included.
Mark Schilling