For Japanese fans of Hollywood blockbusters, this year has been, well, a bust. Afraid that releasing their comic book-inspired movies and other multiplex fare in the middle of a pandemic meant dropping them down a black hole, Hollywood studios have delayed release after release both in the U.S. and worldwide. One result is that Japanese movies have had the local market pretty much to themselves throughout the summer and into the fall.
“Tenet,” Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi epic that spent years in development and production, was no exception. Initially set for a July 17 domestic opening by distributor Warner Bros., the film was postponed three times, until Warner finally decided to release it internationally in 70 countries, including Japan, with the rollout starting Aug. 26.
In COVID-19-ravaged North America, “Tenet” opened Sept. 3 in select cities, but hasn’t been able to bring a pandemic-weary populace back to cinemas. By Sept. 27, it had earned only $41.2 million compared to its estimated production budget of $200 million.
However, the film grossed $242 million internationally during the same period, giving it a much-needed boost. Following its Sept. 18 bow in Japan on 488 screens, the film has held the No. 1 box-office slot for two weeks in a row, while total earnings have soared to ¥1.2 billion ($11.4 million). During the Sept. 26 weekend, “Tenet” kept up this blistering pace, making ¥246 million ($2.3 million) on 144,707 admissions.
This is not entirely surprising: Another Nolan sci-fi, “Inception,” made a resounding ¥3.5 billion in Japan in 2010, though it benefitted from the casting of local star Ken Watanabe in a major role.
Even so, given that the pandemic has scared away potential patrons, especially those in the most vulnerable over-60 crowd, while forcing theaters to cut available seating by half, “Tenet” has outperformed expectations.
One reason is that, in contrast to the United States, where the cinema business is still in a state of collapse, Japanese multiplexes have successfully catered to key demographics — young adults and teenagers — that are justifiably more comfortable going to theaters than many of their overseas counterparts.
Infection rates in much of Japan are low relative to the West and public safety measures at theaters, from mask-wearing to temperature checks, are greeted with compliance instead of defiance. Also, many multiplexes here offer IMAX and other state-of-the-art theaters that maximize the ”Tenet” experience to draw fans.
Critically, the film has mostly been greeted with positive reviews, despite its hard-to-follow plot turns and murky sound design (both deliberate expressions of Nolan’s creative vision). Blogger Yuichi Maeda writes, “It’s hard to grasp the story even after seeing the film once or twice. So in that sense, it’s not a pleasant film to watch. But even though I felt uncomfortable, I had an extremely extraordinary experience.”
On Twitter, fan comments range from one-word reviews (“abstruse”) to fashion notes (“loved the Tom Ford suits!”), but Twitter user @yorokovu0721 voiced what may be the general consensus: “I did not completely understand various things, but the film was interesting.”
On film review site Eiga.com, 494 fan reviews average 3.7 stars out of five. Atsunobu Ushizu writes in a four-star review: “A new era in movies is advancing at us relentlessly. In that sense, ‘Tenet’ is a revolution. A Pandora’s box.”
“Tenet” may also grab bragging rights as the No. 1 foreign film at the Japanese box office of 2020. Not that it has a lot of competition.