Film / Reviews

Disaster not the only reason for Japan's sluggish 2011 box office

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

After several years of boom, Japanese films finally had a bust in 2011. Although official overall figures have not been released, domestic box-office leader Toho has announced that total revenues from its titles will be down about 20 percent this year compared with 2010. The industry as a whole will probably register a similar drop.

A lack of true blockbusters has cut into earnings. Last year, six Japanese films — all released by Toho — cleared the ¥4 billion mark, led by Studio Ghibli’s feature animation “Kari-Gurashi no Arrietty (The Secret World of Arrietty),” with ¥9.25 billion. This year only two have: Ghibli’s “Kokuriko-zaka Kara (From Up on Poppy Hill),” with ¥4.29 billion, and the latest installment in the “Pokemon” anime franchise, with ¥4.14 billion.

Also, only 22 Japanese films released so far in 2011 have earned ¥1 billion or more — the traditional measure of a commercial hit. Last year this number was 29.

The impact of March 11’s earthquake and tsunami and subsequent reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant was certainly significant, especially in the Tohoku region, where theaters stayed closed for weeks as owners assessed and repaired damage. Nationwide, however, the box office recovered relatively quickly, as fans sought relief from disaster stress.

In addition, when distributors were forced to pull or delay foreign films that were judged inappropriate for postdisaster audiences, such as the Clint Eastwood drama “Hereafter” and the Chinese epic “Aftershock,” domestic film distributors benefited, especially if they were handling family-friendly fare. Released on April 16, the latest entry in the long running “Meitantei Konan (Detective Conan)” anime series for kids grossed ¥3.05 billion, only a notch down from the ¥3.2 billion earned by the previous installment.

Finally, summer power cuts, which many in the industry feared would empty theaters in the peak July/August school vacation season, never materialized, and the big summer releases, such as the concluding episode of the “Harry Potter” series, did business pretty much as usual.

And so it’s hard to blame all of the industry box-office woes this year on the disaster. Toho, in announcing its less-than-stellar results, admitted as much, saying that weakness of its slate was partly at fault. Audiences have tired of once-successful formulas, such as the medical melodrama featuring a happy couple torn apart by terminal illness, while their makers, including once-omnipotent TV networks, struggle to lure them back — with 3-D being the current tactic of choice. The format, however, packs much less box-office punch than when “Avatar” was sweeping all before it.

Meanwhile, filmmakers at all levels, from acknowledged masters to struggling newcomers, have been making their own adjustments to the postdisaster climate. Veteran Yoji Yamada suspended preproduction on his reworking of the Yasujiro Ozu classic “Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story)” after March 11, saying that he intended to rewrite the script to reflect new realities. Meanwhile, other directors, such as Sion Sono with “Himizu” and Ryuichi Hiroki with “River,” finished their films as planned, but changed their stories to include disaster-related themes and scenes.

Documentary filmmakers also took their cameras to Tohoku soon after March 11. By October, the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival was able to screen a section of 29 disaster-themed documentaries. Among the most controversial was “311” by documentarians Tatsuya Mori, Takaharu Yasuoka, Takeharu Watai and Yoju Matsubayashi, who were criticized for trying to film the dead in the tsunami zone. That same month, the Tokyo International Film Festival screened three disaster-related films, including Masahiro Kobayashi’s “Girigiri no Onnatachi (Women on the Edge),” a drama about three estranged sisters who reunite and theatrically fight in their family’s home in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture — not far from where the director’s own home was swept away by the tsunami.

The Japanese films garnering local yearend honors, however, had nothing to do with the disaster whatsoever. The Hochi sports newspaper, whose annual film prizes serve as harbingers for the awards season, named as its Best Picture “Yokame no Semi (Rebirth),” an overwrought Izuru Narushima melodrama based on a best-selling novel about a woman (Hiromi Nagasaku) who kidnaps a baby girl and raises her until she is arrested. Mao Inoue stars as the girl, grown to adulthood, who tries to uncover the mysteries of her past.

Meanwhile, the Yokohama Film Festival, another awards bellwether, bestowed its Best Picture prize on “Oshikamura Sodoki (Someday),” a Junji Sakamoto ensemble comedy starring Yoshio Harada, who died shortly after its July opening. A versatile, powerful performer, Harada appeared in everything from Nikkatsu New Action programmers to films by leading independent directors, often playing strong-willed rebels of various sorts.

His passing, with no obvious successor in his field, was a reminder that Japanese cinema faces more challenges than natural and man-made catastrophes can throw at it. Turning this year’s bust into a future boom will require new visions that, hopefully, Japanese filmmakers are already striving to supply.