Here’s the latest in our series of reports touching on the people, projects and polemics buzzing around the globe. This week’s report follows articles on France, India and Italy. The series will be taking a break for the next few weeks and return in August.
Japan lost its standing as the world’s No. 2 movie market when it was outpaced by China in 2012. At No. 3, it still enjoyed a slight increase in box office with $2.4B compared with 2011′s $2.3B. While China’s local market share dropped in 2012 (to rebound strongly thus far in 2013), Japanese films consistently have been dominant at home since 2008 and hit a 47-year high of 65.7% in 2012, according to the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan. Tastes have changed, say watchers, as Japanese moviegoers seek lighter fare and films that better represent themselves. “Japan is very insular,” a distribution exec says. “They have a hard time exporting and importing films.” The studios are not necessarily suffering on a local level, however. Warner Bros and Fox have had success in Japan recently, working with films based on well-known manga series and TV animations. Added to that, Fox just shot part of The Wolverine locally and Warner Bros in September will release a Japanese remake of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.
Japan is a complex place to do business. For one, the lack of a mechanism designed for foreign shoots can make filming a challenge. The Wolverine did it, and it’s expected that could help at the box office since it’s a film that represents the Japanese and their culture. But reception in Japan won’t be clear until September 13 when the movie opens there after rolling out most everywhere else in late July and early August. Japan has little trouble with piracy, so day-and-date releases are not the rule.
Also opening on September 13 is Warner Bros’ remake of Unforgiven. Directed by Sang-il Lee, the movie stars Ken Watanabe. (One of a handful of Japanese actors who works in Hollywood and at home, he’ll also star in Martin Scorsese’s Japanese-themed passion project Silence, which starts shooting next year in Taiwan.) The Unforgiven remake was developed for over a year with Lee writing the script. The arc of the story is akin to the original, but samurai are replacing cowboys. It’s set in late 19th century Japan and has Akira Emoto in the Morgan Freeman role. The wisdom of remaking an Oscar-winning Clint Eastwood film could be questioned, but a non-Warner exec opines that “most people won’t know it’s a remake.” The most recent U.S.-to-Japan studio remake was 2010’s Ghost transfer, Ghost: In Your Arms Again, which grossed about $10M locally. (In 2010, there was also indie Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night, a sort of companion sequel to Oren Peli’s original micro-budget hit.)
Another particularity of the Japanese market is the practically built-in success of TV and manga adaptations. “Almost every hit movie is related to TV,” I’m told. The top three local films in 2013 so far are Doraemon: Nobita’s Secret Gadget Museum, Detective Conan: Private Eye In The Distant Sea and Dragon Ball Z: Battle Of Gods, the latter backed by Fox and all reaching well above $30M. All three hail from popular animated TV series that have been adapted into features going back as far as 1980. Along with others like the Pokemon franchise, each of the brands releases one film a year, consistently ranking near the top of the box office.
The success of these types of films isn’t new, but amid a declining and aging population, tastes have shifted from some of the more typical Hollywood blockbusters. “In the past 10 years, which films work has completely changed,” a distribution exec says. Animation is still strong, as are franchises like Mission: Impossible, but some worry that superhero movies are no longer a sure thing. Iron Man 3 has taken about $25M to Ted’s $44M this year, per BoxofficeMojo. Man Of Steel has yet to bow.
Japanese movies are not known for their ability to travel, but they did have a sort of golden age of U.S. redos. Yet the robust genre business that paved the way for a series of U.S. remakes in the early 2000s is a thing of the past. A U.S. indie distributor says that back in the late ’90s and early 2000s, “I always had something to track, but not anymore.” Hideo Nakata’s hit 1998 horror pic Ringu was remade as The Ring by Gore Verbinski for DreamWorks in 2002. Nakata also directed 2002’s Dark Water, which was remade in the U.S. in 2005 with Walter Salles helming. Also from the period, Takashi Shimizu’s 2002 pic Ju-On: The Grudge was remade as The Grudge in 2004. (The 2000 Japanese blockbuster Battle Royale was planned as a feature remake and a series adaptation, but neither got off the ground.)
Quizzed as to why the trend died out, one U.S. exec says simply that the genre is “no longer part of what is working in Japan.” Says Vincent Maraval of France’s Wild Bunch, which works often with Japanese directors: “The production of this kind of movie accelerated in the U.S. while Japanese genre production declined. And, Asian producers in general have been stung by the number of remake rights that have been sold without leading to films being made.” Another person suggests that Japan was “completely overtaken by Korea as having the ‘cool’ cinema.” This person cites movies like Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, which Spike Lee remade and is set to be released October 25.
One veteran Japanese director who scored big in Cannes this year was Hirokazu Kore-eda. His Like Father, Like Son won the Jury Prize and was picked up for U.S. distribution by Sundance Selects (Wild Bunch was the seller). The movie is likely to be Japan’s entry for the Foreign Language Oscar. The last Japanese winner was in 2008. Yojiro Takita’s Departures surprised some when it won, competing in a strong field that included Germany’s The Baader Meinhof Complex, Cannes Palme d’Or winner The Class, Austria’s Revanche and Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir. While spinoffs of TV dramas and animations based on popular mangas are two sure bets, “Every now and then you have a movie like Departures, which was about an undertaker,” says a studio exec. The person adds that one hopes there is potential for these “quote-unquote ‘real’ movies.”