Film | Wide Angle

How the Japanese film industry is coping with the COVID-19 crisis

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

The Japanese film industry’s response to the COVID-19 crisis has ranged from theater closures to business as usual — or as usual as possible when many of us are glued to Netflix and satisfying our movie addiction without visiting real cinemas.

Distributors have been postponing the releases of some films, despite the school spring break normally being a peak box-office period. Disney’s “Mulan,” Paramount’s “Sonic the Hedgehog,” Pixar’s “Onward,” Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” and the James Bond thriller “No Time to Die” are among the films so affected by the situation.

Other films, such as “Fukushima 50,” about the March 2011 Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant disaster, have opened as planned, just minus the usual stage introductions and other PR events.

In the case of “Fukushima 50” the lack of hoopla didn’t matter: The film rose to No. 1 at the Japanese box office following its March 6 release. Writing for Yahoo News, journalist Hiroaki Saito opined that the film’s appeal came from its story’s resemblance to the present crisis.

“The situation now reminds me of nine years ago, when radiation from the nuclear accident was spreading,” he writes. “There’s the same unseen dread and the same struggle with no end in sight.”

Meanwhile, Toho Cinemas, which operates Japan’s largest theater chain, is allowing advance ticket buyers to apply for refunds right up to screening time. Another chain, Aeon Cinema, has announced the closure of nine theaters in Hokkaido and other infection cluster zones from March 7 to 15. It is also taking measures to limit virus exposure at its other cinemas, such as canceling late screenings and selling tickets only for selected seats to give a safer distance between patrons.

Many theaters across the country, both large and small, are taking similar steps, with some even closing altogether, despite the damage to their bottom lines. Until recently that damage was not severe, however. By March 1, after three straight weeks as box office No. 1, Bong Joon-ho’s Academy Award-winning drama “Parasite” had earned ¥3.7 billion, an all-time record for a Korean film in Japan.

But the film that deposed it at the top last weekend, “Fukushima 50,” may not make the ¥1 billion that is considered the mark of a commercial hit in Japan. Internet commentators suggested the reason may be that older people, a key demographic, are staying at home and keeping away from cinemas due to virus concerns.

Film festivals are also taking measures. The Osaka Asian Film Festival (March 6-15), the largest event of its kind in Western Japan, announced the cancellation of all stage introductions, as well as various related events, while offering refunds to advance ticket buyers.

Meanwhile, several smaller festivals have canceled their latest editions completely, including the Onomichi Film Festival (Feb. 28- March 1), Kitakan Film Festival (Feb. 29), Eejanaika Toyohashi Cinema Festival (March 13-15) and AnimeJapan 2020 (March 21-24).

“I can’t urge people to go to movie theaters,” Saito concluded. “But by seeing movies, we can get the courage to overcome our present reality, with its cloud of anxiety.” His recommendation: “Fukushima 50,” in which catastrophe is avoided and all of the main characters survive.

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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