Last year was an annus horribilis for much of the Japanese film industry, except for companies lucky enough to partake in the bonanza that is “Demon Slayer.” The animated film set a new all-time box-office record in 2020 and is still going strong with total earnings of ¥34.6 billion as of Jan. 4.
Whether 2021 will see a similar mega-hit is not yet clear, but given the lack of Hollywood fare on current distributor lineups, it looks as though Toho and other domestic studios will have the field much to themselves, just as they did last year, when releases of most major Hollywood titles were set back indefinitely. That situation is unlikely to change through at least the Golden Week holiday period, normally a peak movie season.
Warner Bros., which distributed the only Hollywood film to make last year’s box-office top 10, Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi, “Tenet,” is releasing “Tom and Jerry,” an animated-live action hybrid based on the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon series, on March 19. Otherwise, domestic films, including the latest installments in the long-running “Doraemon” (March 5), “Detective Conan” (April 16) and “Crayon Shin-chan” (April 23) animated series, will have relatively little foreign competition this spring for the family audience.
A likely animated hit, if not on the “Demon Slayer” scale, could be “Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time” (Jan. 23), the long-awaited fourth and final entry in Hideaki Anno’s “Rebuild of Evangelion” tetralogy. The film was originally set for a June 2020 opening, but was postponed due to the pandemic.
Also, Toho-Towa intends to release the new, if long-delayed, James Bond film, “No Time to Die,” sometime this year, but has yet to pencil in a date. Meanwhile, domestic distributors have action-packed thrillers on their lineups such as “The Fable: Korosanai Koroshiya” (“The Fable: A Contract Killer Who Doesn’t Kill,” Feb. 5), the follow-up to the 2019 hit about a professional assassin played by Junichi Okada. From its title, the new film promises to be the latest in a long line of Japanese actioners with an onscreen body count of approximately zero, but the trailer’s hair-raising stunts promise thrills aplenty.
Also, Tatsuya Fujiwara and Ryoma Takeuchi star as industrial spies battling international opponents over solar power technology in “The Sun Stands Still” (March 5), a thriller based on two bestselling novels by Shuichi Yoshida. Originally set for a May 2020 release, the film was another victim of the virus.
Still others are the two concluding entries in the five-film “Rurounin Kenshin” saga about a feudal-era assassin (Takeru Satoh) who vows to no longer kill his enemies, but instead fight them into submission with his reversed-blade sword. The first of the new installments is the confusingly titled “Rurouni Kenshin: The Final,” which opens April 23. The second, “Rurouni Kenshin: The Beginning,” is scheduled for release June 4. Both were originally set to bow last summer.
Based on Nobuhiro Watsuki’s comic series, the stories of the first three films were manga-esque in the extreme, but the action choreography was more hard-hitting and inventive than the local genre norm. The last two films, both directed by Keishi Otomo, may well be more of the same.
Fans of more serious fare by Japanese auteurs can look forward to “Under the Open Sky” (Feb. 11), Miwa Nishikawa’s drama about an ex-con (Koji Yakusho) who served a sentence for murder and is now trying to restart his life. The film, which screened at the Chicago and Toronto film festivals to rave reviews, is based on an award-winning novel by Ryuzo Saki. Nishikawa is also an acclaimed novelist who typically uses her own fiction for her films; this is her first adaptation of another’s work.
Another talented female director, Yukiko Sode, has weighed in with “Aristocrats” (Feb. 26), a drama about two women — one a sheltered daughter of an upper-class family (Mugi Kadowaki) and the other a striver from the countryside (Kiko Mizuhara) — who become involved with the same man. The film premiered at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival.
More populist but similarly sharp and perceptive about its characters and their milieu is “Kiba: The Fangs of Fiction” (March 26), a comedy-inflected, twist-filled drama set in the world of publishing. Daihachi Yoshida directs and Yo Oizimi stars as a canny editor and relentless corporate infighter.
Similarly entertaining if leaning toward the indie side of the spectrum is “Over the Town” (April 9), Rikiya Imaizumi’s drama about a slacker (Ryuya Wakaba) who works in a used clothing store in Tokyo’s Shimokitazawa neighborhood and finds himself involved with four women. As usual with Imaizumi, who co-scripted, romantic complications proliferate with touches of humor, but real feelings emerge and real pain is felt by the characters.
A world away from the romantic troubles of 20-something Japanese hipsters is “Along the Sea,” Akio Fujimoto’s drama about three Vietnamese women working illegally in a small fishing port in the dead of a snowy winter. Premiering at the San Sebastian festival last year, the film is, like Fujimoto’s 2017 “Passage of Life,” a gripping look at the lives of Asian immigrants in Japan that plays like a docudrama, if one artfully fictionalized. Release has been set for some time this spring.
If you are looking to escape the pandemic blues for a brighter, warmer place, try “One Summer Story,” Shuichi Okita’s comedic drama about a teenage girl (Moka Kamishiraishi) on a quest to find her birth father (Etsushi Toyokawa). In her search, the protagonist, a fan of a cult anime in which the characters are construction materials, joins forces with a nerdy classmate who is also a calligraphy expert (Kanata Hosoda) and his transgender “private detective” brother.
These and other characters are derived from Retto Tajima’s cult manga, but filmed with Okita’s distinctive style that is part smart observational comedy, part touching human drama, minus sentimentality and overemoting. An early summer opening is planned, nearly a year after the film’s originally scheduled release in June 2020.
Many films for the second half of the year have yet to be officially announced, while details for others are still sketchy. But Kazuya Shiraishi is making a sequel to his gritty 2018 crime thriller, “The Blood of Wolves,” which recalled Kinji Fukasaku’s classic hard-boiled “Battles Without Honor and Humanity” gangster action series. Release is set for some time this year.
Also, Satoshi Miki is restarting production on “Big Monster Cleanup” (the literal translation of the Japanese title “Daikaiju no Atoshimatsu”), a comedy based on his original script about the mess a Godzilla-like monster leaves behind after it finally expires. Miki’s recent work has been high in volume and low in laughs, so hopefully this will be a return to the dry, quirky brilliance of his 2007 comic masterpiece, “Adrift in Tokyo.”
And, yes, this was yet another project delayed by the pandemic, by about a year to be precise. If nothing else, 2021 could mark a return to movie-making as usual.
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