Japan’s film industry was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic this year, but it bounced back sooner and stronger than even Hollywood could.
The most visible sign of that strength is the stupendous box-office numbers racked up by “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie — Mugen Train,” an animated film based on a hit manga and TV series. Released on Oct. 16, it zoomed past the ¥10 billion mark in just 10 days, a record in Japan. Following this rocketing start, the film soared ever higher into the box-office stratosphere. By Nov. 29, after 6 weeks on release, it had surpassed “Titanic” (which earned ¥26.2 billion in 1997) to take second place on the all-time earnings list with ¥27.5 billion. It’s next target: the ¥31.68 billion made by Miyazaki Hayao’s animation “Spirited Away” on its initial release in 2001 and after revival screenings this year, which added ¥880 million to its box office total.
“Demon Slayer” benefitted from the fortuitous timing of its release — after most theaters had resumed normal (that is, non-socially distanced) seating in September, but before its Hollywood rivals had returned to the screens. It was also boosted by the popularity of its source material, a manga series by Koyoharu Gotoge that has sold more than 100 million copies.
But the film, whose title “demon slayer” is a boy set on revenge after his family is killed and his sister kidnapped by demons, is also evidence that fans here still yearn for the theater experience, especially on the IMAX screens that enhance the film’s many action scenes to eye-popping effect.
Even so, one film does not make up for months of terrible business. The year got off to a promising start with Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite.” The winner of last year’s Cannes Palme d’Or and the first foreign film to win an Oscar for best picture made an impressive ¥4.7 billion following its Jan. 10 opening — a record for a Korean film in Japan. But once coronavirus infections spread and the government called for theaters to close in early April, the industry watched helplessly as its earnings fell off a cliff.
The shutdown lasted until late May, but afterward, with theaters spacing out patrons to maintain social distancing, a quick recovery to business-as-usual remained impossible. Distributors also postponed the release of dozens of films, both foreign and domestic. Theaters responded by screening old Studio Ghibli films and other classics to keep fans coming, but total box-office take stayed low.
In July and August, normally a peak movie season with students and their families on summer holidays, earnings were an estimated 30% to 40% of the previous year’s, month-on-month. Toho, Japan’s leading film company, earned ¥16.58 billion from its distributed titles from March to August — 31.4% of the figure for the same period in 2019. And for the first nine months of the year its box-office earnings were down by nearly half.
Worse off than the mighty Toho were Japan’s many arthouse theaters, or “mini-theaters,” that screen the hundreds of domestic indie films released annually. (Of the 689 Japanese films that opened in 2019, by far the majority were indie.) Operating on thin profit margins in the best of times, mini-theaters faced bankruptcy once forced to close by COVID-19 concerns. Riding to the rescue were Koji Fukada and Ryusuke Hamaguchi, two directors with indie roots and major festival accolades. On April 13, they launched the “Mini Theater Aid” crowdfunding campaign to save the sector from extinction.
The response far exceeded expectations, with ¥331 million collected from nearly 30,000 contributors by May 15 — more than three times the campaign’s original goal. The funds were distributed to 118 theaters and 103 organizations across the country.
Since then, the government has also appropriated funds for mini-theater support. One example is Korea Japan Collaboration Films, a program of five Korean films shot in Japan that will be shown in cooperating mini-theaters in Osaka, Fukuoka, Nagoya and Yokohama from December to February with a grant from the Agency for Cultural Affairs.
Meanwhile, film festivals in Japan and elsewhere were forced to either cancel or move online once the pandemic took hold in March. The most prominent casualty was the Cannes Film Festival, which scuttled its 2020 edition, scheduled for May. Instead, festival officials assembled a program of 56 films for screening at festivals and release in theaters under the Cannes label. Among them was Cannes regular Naomi Kawase’s “True Mothers,” Koji Fukada’s “The Real Thing” and Goro Miyazaki’s “Earwig and the Witch,” the first CG feature animation by Studio Ghibli.
Another major festival, Venice, held a physical edition in September, but with less glamour and fewer guests than usual. The Silver Lion for best direction went to veteran Kiyoshi Kurosawa for “Wife of a Spy,” a suspense-packed wartime drama starring Yu Aoi as the title “wife.” She and her husband (Issey Takahashi), an idealistic trading company president, join forces in a risky scheme to bring Japanese war atrocities to the attention of the world.
Released in Japan in October, “Wife of a Spy” earned a less-than-stellar ¥250 million, with online rightists bashing it for being anti-Japanese. This compares with the ¥2.85 billion made by the 2003 period actioner, “Zatoichi,” which won director Takeshi Kitano the previous Japanese Silver Lion.
Japan’s biggest film event, the Tokyo International Film Festival, also screened its films in actual theaters. But in place of its three main sections of former years — Competition, Japanese Cinema Splash and Asian Future — TIFF presented 32 films in a new section it called Tokyo Premiere 2020. The winner of the Audience Award — the section’s only prize — was “Hold Me Back,” a laugh-filled rom-com about a 30-something woman (the single-named Non) who seeks love with the aid of an unseen “advisor” in her head. The film’s director and scriptwriter, Akiko Ohku, won the same award in 2017 for the similarly offbeat “Tremble All You Want.”
Local films also dominated the box office rankings for the year, with “Demon Slayer” leading the way. Of the top 10 high-earning films, as designated by the independently run industry data site, Pick Scene, eight are Japanese, with “Parasite” and the Christopher Nolan sci-fi “Tenet” being only the non-Japanese entries, at No. 3 and 6, respectively. Of the Japanese films, seven were released in July or later, beginning with the goofy Yuichi Fukuda high school comedy, “From Today, It’s My Turn!!,” which made a resounding ¥5.3 billion following its July 17 bow. Only “Kaiji: Final Game,” the last installment in the “Kaiji” trilogy, opened earlier, on Jan. 10. Starring Tatsuya Fujiwara as the player of four dangerous games, the film ranked at No. 9 with ¥2.06 billion.
As for the year’s most critically acclaimed Japanese films, the local awards season has just begun so all verdicts are not yet in. On Dec. 2, however, the Hochi Film Awards, an industry bellwether sponsored by the Hochi sports newspaper, named the Nobuhiro Doi mystery, “The Voice of Sin,” the best film of 2020.
And its star, Shun Oguri, took the best actor prize for his role as a newspaper reporter investigating a 35-year-old extortion case. The best actress award went to Asami Mizukawa for her performance as the title spouse in “A Beloved Wife,” Shin Adachi’s comedy about a quarreling couple (and my personal favorite). Also, Naomi Kawase was named best director for “True Mothers,” a rare local honor for this internationally acclaimed filmmaker.
And Hochi’s best animation? “Demon Slayer,” to the surprise of absolutely no one. Box-office numbers don’t always speak louder than quality for the deciders of this and other local year-end honors, but they do have a voice. In this case, given the film’s 22.5 million admissions to date, that voice is loud indeed.
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