TV

Is it fifth time’s the charm for ‘Game of Thrones’ in Japan?

by Shaun McKenna

Staff Writer

Last week, the sixth season of “Game of Thrones” premiered to record ratings in the United States. When factoring in all the ways people watch it — live as it airs and streamed later — the episode titled “The Red Woman” brought in 10.7 million viewers, beating the 10.3 million record set by last year’s fifth season finale.

Around the world, the fifth season saw an average of 20 million viewers per episode. The show is considered a global phenomenon with sizeable fan bases in North America, Europe, Australia and South America.

The fantasy drama, adapted from the “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series by George R.R. Martin and airing on U.S. cable channel HBO, reportedly has two years left before coming to a close. But as the series starts to wind down overseas, here in Japan the push to promote it is really just getting started.

Ahead of the season six premiere, actress Maisie Williams visited Japan as part of the PR effort. The 19-year-old has grown up on the show as fan favorite Arya Stark, and after six seasons of interviews and promotion, selling it to new audiences can be a bit challenging.

“In the beginning I always used to pitch it as a fantasy series,” Williams says. “Now it’s more — well, it is a drama series … but the way I tackle it is that it’s many families with flaws and strengths fighting in the most unethical ways to get power. And whoever is lost along the way is lost along the way.

“Or I just say, ‘Where have you been?!’ ” (Laughs.)

A lot of newcomers may have just been here in Japan. The program airs on Star Channel, a premium cable channel that specializes in Hollywood flicks, and on streaming-service Hulu Japan. On May 3, the fifth season will be released for sale on Blu-ray and DVD via Warner Bros. Japan.

Star Channel doesn’t make the ratings for the show public, but promoters say that “Game of Thrones” regularly ranks in the top spot of DVD rentals when it’s released — compared to other Western releases.

There’s a new effort to get Japan on the bandwagon, though. Starting last week Star Channel began simulcasting the sixth season of “Game of Thrones” as it aired live on U.S. television. That’s right, “Game of Thrones” is on at 10 a.m. on a Monday morning (it gets repeated at 10 p.m.). This is also done in Britain, where 60,000 watchers stayed up until 2 a.m. Monday morning to watch the episode — a new record for Sky Atlantic.

The simulcasting was the focus of a press conference Williams took part in with Japanese comedian Junichi Davidson. She’s officially here to promote season five, so there were no Jon Snow questions. Instead the domestic media learned about Williams’ impression of her character, how she’s good friends with Sophie Turner (her sister, Sansa, on the show) and that she was looking forward to visiting an owl cafe.

The promoters may have been better off including actress Rila Fukushima, who had a small role in “Game of Thrones” last year as a mysterious red priestess in Volantis.

Fukushima, who also stars on the U.S. program “Arrow” and was in the film “The Wolverine,” spoke to Star Channel for a video about her experiences on “Game of Thrones,” recalling the interesting way in which she got the role.

“When I was called into the audition room, I was welcomed with a round of applause and was told, ‘You have a giant forehead and narrow chin. A person with your look must’ve been around in medieval Europe.’ After that, they instantly told me ‘You got the part!’ and here I am, starring in ‘Game of Thrones.’ “

Fukushima told The Japan Times via email that while she hasn’t encountered many cultural differences acting overseas, shooting “a single scene in ‘Game of Thrones’ takes a very long time.” She adds that the filmic scale of the show might appeal to a Japanese audience.

“I used to be interested in film before but now there are so many interesting TV dramas,” Fukushima says, weighing her experiences in both mediums. “Though TV requires more of a time commitment than film, which is shorter and more intensive … I think the number of roles that suit Asian actors in overseas TV dramas has been increasing.”

At a time when many film fans are concerned about “whitewashing” in Hollywood — when a white actor is cast as a character that is of a different ethnic background in the source material — highlighting Fukushima’s participation in “Game of Thrones” could be an asset in promoting it here.

Or it might not matter, according to Taku Takahashi, a “Game of Thrones” fan and one half of pop duo m-flo.

“I think the Japanese audience just isn’t too fond of medieval themes,” he says. “I also think the Japanese media just now is very compliant and not willing to take risks — though I think risks are what the audience might want in terms of story.”

Takahashi has seen similar issues in the music world, where getting pop stars to take risks with their songs is also rare.

Takahashi was told about “Game of Thrones” by a “Trekkie” friend last summer. He says he didn’t think he’d get into it because he’s not a fan of fantasy, but he got hooked rather quickly after renting past seasons on DVD (for the record, his favorite character is Bronn). He then started getting his friends to watch.

“I think it’s important to create a fan base here instead of hiring a famous comedian to do the promotion,” he says. “I think the comedian was funny, he’s cool, but it had nothing to do with ‘Games of Thrones.’ Japanese PR needs to do more promotion via the Internet, similar to how it’s done in the United States.”

Takahashi might be on to something. In a recent story looking back at the run-up to the “Game of Thrones” series premiere on April 17, 2011, The Wall Street Journal detailed the ways executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss reached out to the online community even before the show had aired, creating a solid fan base that felt it had a part in the program’s creation.

Engaging with a dedicated online community is something that Japan’s music industry is very much used to — ask any idol pop or visual-kei fan — but it hasn’t quite happened in the TV industry.

Benioff and Weiss have said that they see “Game of Thrones” wrapping up in another two years (perhaps with shorter seasons). It has been one of the most talked-about shows of the decade and Williams thinks its legacy will be felt in a couple of ways.

“It’s hard to predict but it will either be the genre or the layout of the show,” she says. “Obviously there’s a lot of fantasy about, but I feel like we’ve kind of brought it to the masses, it was quite niche before. It’s opened the door for more people to enjoy fantasy.

“Or it will be the structure of the show and how there are multiple story lines all equally as important and all linked through one common thread — though very much separate. That’s something that will be done again.”

Western TV shows are already picking up on other narrative devices pioneered by “Game of Thrones” — from the killing off of major characters to the use of “sexposition” (telling important plot details during sex scenes to catch the viewer’s interest). If producers, writers and promoters pay attention to what’s being done with “Game of Thrones” overseas, perhaps the next big global cultural phenomenon might be a Japanese one.

“Game of Thrones: Season 5” is on sale from May 3. For more information, visit www.star-ch.jp/gameofthrones.