This year, the second into the COVID-19 pandemic, has also been the second in a row in which Japanese films have routed the Hollywood competition. The official figures, compiled annually by Eiren (Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan), will not be available until next month, but according to entertainment data site Entame Seikatsu Private Life, nine of the top 10 box-office earners for the year to date have been domestic releases.

The No. 1 film, at ¥10.2 billion, is “Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time,” the long-awaited fourth and final installment in Hideaki Anno’s “Rebuild of Evangelion” sci-fi/fantasy anime film series, while the only non-Japanese film, at No. 9 and ¥3.6 billion, is the latest addition to the “Fast and Furious” franchise, “F9: The Fast Saga.” By contrast, three non-Japanese films made the top 10 in 2020: “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (¥7.3 billion), “Parasite” (¥4.7 billion) and “Tenet” (¥2.7 billion).

Will total box-office numbers exceed the ¥143 billion earned in 2020, which was sharply down from the ¥261 billion recorded in 2019? According to Entame Seikatsu, 35 Japanese films this year made ¥1 billion or more, the traditional marker of a commercial hit. This figure was just 25 in 2020, but one of those films was the anime megahit “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba — The Movie: Mugen Train,” which set an all-time record for Japan’s box office with ¥36.5 billion. As a result, earnings of 2020’s top 10 films totaled ¥62.3 billion versus ¥51.3 billion for 2021. This suggests a less-than-banner box-office year, though the market share for local films may well exceed 2020’s 76.3%.

Meanwhile, director Ryusuke Hamaguchi had a fantastic year with his three-part anthology “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” which won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, and “Drive My Car,” his adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story that scooped the best screenplay prize, as well as two other awards, at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It was also recently named the best film of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle

Hamaguchi had been regarded as a rising star in the Japanese film world since the 2015 release of his widely praised ensemble drama “Happy Hour,“ whose four leads won a collective best actress prize at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. Nonetheless, he has labored in the shadow of the so-called 4K directors — Naomi Kawase, Takeshi Kitano, Hirokazu Kore-eda and Kiyoshi Kurosawa — who have dominated international critical discussion about serious contemporary Japanese cinema for more than two decades.

Now it is Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” that is getting the attention and accolades here and abroad. This slow-burn drama about a widowed theater director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) processing his feelings for his dead wife as he confides in his reticent female chauffeur (Toko Miura) has been selected as Japan’s nominee for best international feature film at next year’s Academy Awards. But “Drive My Car” earned only a modest ¥30 million following its domestic release on Aug. 20. By comparison, Kore-eda’s 2018 Palme d’Or winner “Shoplifters” made a resounding ¥4.55 billion in Japan, proving that critical acclaim and box-office clout are not necessarily incompatible.

This year, however, multiplexes were mostly filled with anime and live-action manga adaptations rather than films by 4K auteurs, while mid-budget films based on original scripts were pushed to the commercial margins. In response, more filmmakers have been partnering with Netflix and other streaming services to make content for international audiences with the sort of creative freedom harder to find in a domestic industry fixated on money-spinning franchises.

Some have had breakout hits, such as action specialist Sato Shinsuke with “Alice in Borderland,” a turbo-charged sci-fi series with a twisty “death game” premise that dropped on Netflix in December 2020 and ranked in the streaming service’s “top 10 most-watched shows” list in nearly 40 territories. Then, about nine months after its initial launch, the monster success of the similarly themed South Korean series “Squid Game” boosted “Alice in Borderland” back into the top 10 rankings in more than 50 countries around the world. A second season is currently in the works.

Other directors have taken their Netflix projects in bolder directions than their usual output, such as Ryuichi Hiroki with “Ride or Die,” which was more sexually explicit than anything the former director of “pinku eiga” (softcore adult films) had made in decades. The road movie centers on two women (Kiko Mizuhara and Honami Sato) who go on the run and find freedom and passionate love after one murders the abusive husband of the other. Also, veteran provocateur Sion Sono made his first full-fledged venture into Hollywood with his Amazon Prime film “Prisoners of the Ghostland.” Nicolas Cage stars as a failed bank robber who is strapped to explosive devices and sent on a rescue mission in an alternate world, starting from a town that is a bizarre mashup of the Old West and Japan’s Meiji Era (1868-1912) — and could have only originated from Sono’s one-of-a-kind imagination.

The sexually explicit drama 'Ride or Die' is director Ryuichi Hiroki’s first project with Netflix and stars Kiko Mizuhara (right) and Honami Sato (left) as lovers on the run. | AIKO NAKANO / NETFLIX © 2021
The sexually explicit drama ‘Ride or Die’ is director Ryuichi Hiroki’s first project with Netflix and stars Kiko Mizuhara (right) and Honami Sato (left) as lovers on the run. | AIKO NAKANO / NETFLIX © 2021

Younger filmmakers have also been blazing new paths this year, if with fewer resources than streaming services have lavished on Sato, Hiroki and Sono. One was 33-year-old Akio Fujimoto with “Along the Sea,” an indie drama about the three Vietnamese women working as technical trainees in Japan’s frigid north that delivered stark realism and a gut-punch ending. With its non-native protagonists played by non-Japanese actors, Fujimoto’s film stands out in an industry almost exclusively focused on Japanese stories, despite the country’s increasingly diverse society.

Another was 25-year-old actor-director Sara Ogawa, who filmed “The Goldfish: Dreaming of the Sea,” based on her original script about an orphaned teenage girl (Miyu Ogawa) befriending a troubled young newcomer to her group home, with lyricism, insight and strong narrative bones.

Yugo Sakamoto, also 25, helmed “Yellow Dragon’s Village,” an action-horror about young daytrippers fighting crazed mountain villagers bent on turning them into human sacrifices, which entertained audiences with its scrappy energy, fresh take on horror and hardcore martial arts scenes.

Finally, 46-year-old director Keisuke Yoshida revitalized his career this year with the boxing film “Blue,” an unsparing inside look at the sport’s lower reaches, and “Intolerance,” an eviscerating drama of retribution and redemption. These films and his 2016 thriller “Himeanole” were screened at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, where the filmmaker was honored with a special Director in Focus section.

After a long period of struggle in the zone between art and entertainment, which brought him little in the way of festival recognition or financial rewards, Yoshida had finally arrived. But for him and other Japanese directors who made excellent films this year and yet are still little known by the wider world, a breakthrough like Hamaguchi’s must look like a distant dream. Major festival invitations are few and the competition for them is fierce. And Netflix, which tends to prefer big-name talents and proven properties, may not be the gateway they are looking for. Their battle for festival invitations and box-office success will continue into 2022 — and beyond.

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