The 2019 Oscar race is entering its final stretch, with prognosticators already unveiling their lists of winners. This year two Japanese films are up for Academy Awards — Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” (best foreign language film) and Mamoru Hosoda’s “Mirai” (best animated feature film).
An executive at the Japan office of a U.S. streaming service confidently tells me both films are top Oscar contenders. “‘Mirai’ is the only film for kids in its category. The other four nominees will split the ‘adult animation’ vote, and that will make ‘Mirai’ the winner,” he explains.
Meanwhile, “Shoplifters,” a drama about a makeshift family that won the Cannes Palme d’Or, faces stiff competition from “Roma,” the autobiographical family drama by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron. The latter film has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards including best picture and best director. “Picking ‘Roma’ for best foreign language film when it is already a favorite for the main awards will strike Academy voters as overkill,” the executive says. He predicts they will instead check the box for “Shoplifters.”
I listen and nod — and still think the realistic chances of this pair range between fair (for “Shoplifters”) to slim (for “Mirai”). For one thing, the consensus of professional Oscar pickers, including awards columnist Scott Feinberg at “Hollywood Reporter” and veteran reporter Anne Thompson at “Indiewire,” is that the Oscars will go elsewhere.
Front runner “Roma” has scooped award after award, beginning with a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and continuing with dozens of critics’ prizes and three Golden Globes, as well as a Directors Guild Award to Cuaron. Meanwhile, other best picture nominees are very much in the running, including “Green Book” (winner at the Producers Guild Awards) and “Black Panther” (SAG-AFTRA awardee).
But the tightness of this race makes it less likely voters will deny “Roma” a relatively minor prize. A “Roma” fan is instead more likely to tick the best foreign language film box for insurance, so her favorite will be honored as a “best film” even if a rival takes the “best picture” Oscar.
Meanwhile, “Mirai” has benefited from what one Japanese film journalist has described to me as the “Miyazaki effect.” That is, the reservoir of goodwill Japan’s master animator has built with Oscar voters for Japanese animation, especially the humanistic, family-friendly sort made by Hosoda and his Studio Chizu animators. But Hosoda is not yet a Miyazaki in terms of international recognition and support.
Also, all the pre-awards buzz has been generated by other films in the animation category, especially “Incredibles 2,” at $1.2 billion the highest-grossing animated film of the year, “Isle of Dogs,” which was directed by critical darling Wes Anderson, and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” winner of the Golden Globe for best animated feature.
That said, Oscar voters make fools of Oscar pickers every year — and this year will be no exception, especially since the Academy has expanded the voting pool beyond the mostly white, mostly industry veteran members who had decided Oscar picks for decades — and mostly knew little about Asian films beyond a few big names. More diversity among the 8,000 Oscar voters could result in more surprises when the envelopes are opened at the Dolby Theatre on Feb. 24. Koreeda and Hosoda will probably go to the Oscars with low expectations — but they should bring their acceptance speeches.