Move over, Hollywood — Japanese moviegoers are shopping local these days.
While Walt Disney Co. claimed all five of the highest-grossing movies worldwide in 2016, the top spot in the world’s fourth-largest box office was a body-swapping, gender-bending animated coming-of-age story, beating out “Captain America: Civil War” and “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” the two best performers globally.
“Your Name.,” a story about two star-crossed high-schoolers who switch bodies when they dream, hit theaters last summer as an unheralded feature from a director who had never before made a blockbuster. And although it didn’t feature at the Academy Awards on Sunday — where Disney’s dominance extended to the Oscar for best animated movie with “Zootopia” — it has become a phenomenon in Japan.
It’s the second-highest grossing Japanese movie ever, with ¥24.2 billion ($214 million) at the domestic box office, the most any Japanese movie has made in more than 15 years. Director Makoto Shinkai has been hailed as a genius and the natural successor to Studio Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki, creator of the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away.”
But the success of “Your Name.” is just part of a larger trend. Over the past decade, as American studios have focused on the booming box office in China, Hollywood’s share of the Japanese market has plummeted. Last year, domestic films earned ¥149 billion, or 63 percent of total box office sales — in 2002, home-grown movies earned just 27 percent. Toho Co., which produced “Your Name.” as well as monster revival “Shin Godzilla,” the second-highest grossing movie released in 2016, is forecasting record profits.
The two movies share one thing in common — they’re relentlessly, unapologetically Japanese. “Your Name.” is at times a love letter to Tokyo’s cityscapes, with key plot points revolving around regional Japanese traditions. “Shin Godzilla” has more fast-talking scenes riffing on Japan’s post-Fukushima politics than it does building-stomping monsters.
“We weren’t thinking, ‘This will sell in Japan’ or ‘this will do well abroad’, ” says Tomoko Hazuma, a Toho producer for “Your Name.” “We just let the director, Shinkai, make what he wanted to make.”
Hazuma says she was unsure if “Your Name.” could surpass the success of the highly anticipated “Shin Godzilla,” which was released a few weeks prior. She attributes the movie’s box-office success to its cross-generational appeal.
Japan was once so enamored of Hollywood that Western stars famously made millions on the side advertising cigarettes, alcohol and other products in Japanese-only commercials.
But as budgets have skyrocketed, Hollywood has focused on China, casting Chinese actors in movies such as “Independence Day: Resurgence” and wooing the local market with China-set offerings such as 2014’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction” (a franchise originally based on Japanese toys).
Japanese audiences have been turning away. While “Age of Extinction” was a smash hit in China, it took 30 percent less at the Japanese box office than the previous entry in the series.
“The Chinese market is already three times the size of Japan’s,” says Akitomo Kishimoto, an analyst at Okasan Securities Group Inc. “Instead of competing with Japanese movies that spend a lot on marketing, it’s better for Hollywood to focus on the growing Chinese market.”
The strength of family-friendly cartoon franchises, which typically release a new movie every year, is among the reasons the Japanese box office has performed so strongly. Series such as Doraemon develop a fan base through TV, providing a predictable revenue stream from customers lined up to see the latest installment, according to Kishimoto.
The two most recent “Star Wars” movies both lost on the opening weekend to a cartoon franchise about a talking ghost cat. The live-action version of the hit “Yokai Watch” franchise — think Pokemon, but with ghosts — had ticket sales 30 percent higher than “Rogue One,” which opened on the same weekend, Variety reported. A movie in the same franchise beat “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” on opening weekend in 2015.
Indeed, animated movies are now among Hollywood’s most reliable successes in Japan. The top-five grossing foreign movies released in 2016 included the Oscar-winner “Zootopia,” as well as “Finding Dory” and “The Secret Life of Pets.” And while “Your Name.” has benefited from repeat viewers, it will still need legs in the last few months in theaters if it’s to match the success of Disney’s 2014 smash “Frozen.” (An alternative version of “Your Name.” using English-language songs recorded for the U.S. release is currently playing.)
Like everywhere else in the world, Disney trounced its Hollywood competitors in Japan last year, with three movies in the top 10. No other U.S. studio had more than one. A Disney spokesman said Japan remains an important market for the company, and it is thrilled by the reception its movies have had.
Kishimoto notes today’s Japanese don’t care if a movie is live action or animated. “There is demand simply for interesting movies,” he says.
While Japan has overpowered Hollywood at home, it has been unable to transfer this to success in the West. “Your Name.” won’t be released in the U.S. until April, but while it has performed strongly in South Korea and China, it may struggle to replicate this success in regions where its Japanese influence is less familiar. The movie failed to secure even a nomination for the best animated feature Oscar, surprising many watchers in Japan.
“Japan has failed to convert critical success into commercial success,” says Akira Lippit, a professor of cinema studies at the University of Southern California. “The paradox that grounds Japanese cinema is that it is actually incredibly creative and robust, and far more interesting than most of the world.”
Lippit notes that the trend of Hollywood studios taking these creative Japanese properties and re-skinning them with a Western look is set to continue with the Scarlett Johansson vehicle “Ghost in the Shell” — it opens a week before “Your Name.” hits U.S. theaters on April 7.