‘Frozen’ warms hearts across Japan

by May Masangkay

Kyodo

Michiko Miyata had never watched Disney movies, thinking they were only for young people. But she was in for a big surprise when she saw the company’s latest animated film about a princess with ice powers and her sister.

“I was touched by the story about the love of sisters. The movie was also a reaffirmation of being true to one’s feelings,” said the 65-year-old Saitama resident, who watched the film with her husband.

Miyata is among the throng of women in Japan who have joined moviegoers across the globe in embracing Disney’s 2013 megahit “Frozen,” which has set box-office records worldwide, won an Academy Award for its anthem song “Let It Go,” spurred spinoffs such as a Broadway musical and an ice show, and fueled huge music and toy sales.

Titled “Anna and the Snow Queen” for the Japanese market, it has become the third best-selling film of all time in Japan since its March 14 premiere, with box-office revenues of more than ¥20.3 billion, Walt Disney Studios Japan said. The film is still being shown in theaters.

A testament to just how popular the film is among Japanese women, dozens of female moviegoers from their 20s to their 60s could be seen emerging from a weekday showing at Toho Cinemas Scalaza.

“This is a film that even adults can enjoy,” said a 30-year-old Tokyo clerical worker. Two other women in their 50s were amazed at the film’s beautiful images and music, akin to a stage musical.

Tami Ihara, executive marketing director at Walt Disney Co. (Japan) Ltd., said the movie’s success lies in the marketing strategy adopted for Japan, which focused on the characters of the two heroines — Elsa, the cool Snow Queen, and her younger, perky sister Princess Anna.

“Unlike in the United States and other nations, we deviated from the strategy of catering to families and specifically targeted Japanese women, who have the power to spur consumption and create a fad,” Ihara said.

Japan was the last country to screen “Frozen,” but the craze has not subsided thanks to a string of rare promotional moves by the Japanese unit of Walt Disney Co., such as releasing a full trailer of “Let It Go” in theaters before the film was released. A singalong version was also shown from April.

“In particular, ‘Let It Go’ has struck a chord in Japanese people’s hearts and emerged as a cheer-up song for women,” said Akio Doteuchi, a senior researcher on social development with NLI Research Institute.

Explaining why people in Japan have identified with the song, Doteuchi said women as well as men are “seeking a society that is not boxed in a stereotype.”

He said the film is a bright spot at a time Japan suffers from a big income gap among its citizens and many young people are in nonregular employment.

The film has also defied a trend of sluggish consumer spending following the consumption tax hike by 3 percentage points in April, with Doteuchi noting that adults are willing to pay to watch movies for the “experience” they get out of it.

“Women who are in their 30s and now mothers are the generation that watched ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Little Mermaid’ as children, and they spend money on Disney for themselves, and not necessarily for their children,” Ihara said, adding that Tokyo Disneyland has helped embed Disney culture in the Japanese public.

Disney’s Japanese unit also tapped into Japanese women’s love of musicals, inspired by the success of the 2012 film “Les Miserables,” Ihara said.

Though not a musical, the next Disney film, titled “Baymax” in Japan and due out in December, hopes to ride the momentum created by “Frozen.” The company will target Japanese women by appealing to the title character in the film, this time a health care robot.

“I believe Japanese girls and women will come to love Baymax for its cuddly appearance, similar to Hello Kitty in that it has only eyes and no mouth, and for its role in giving care when so many people in modern-day society are stressed,” Ihara said.

With “Frozen” and “Baymax” coming at a time Walt Disney Co. (Japan) Ltd. has been successful in marketing merchandise under the Disney-for-adults concept for the past two to three years, the challenge lies in making Disney films relevant to adult moviegoers as well.

“The key really is how much of the character will be accepted and identified by the audience,” Ihara said.