Japan 2013 in Review: Hollywood's Box-Office Woe, Sony's Wild Ride

10:00 PM PST 12/23/2013 by Gavin J. Blair
"The Wind Rises"

Hollywood continued to stumble at the Japanese box office this year, anime legend Hayao Miyazaki bowed out on a high note and Sony's fortunes took some surprising turns.

Success at the Japanese box office remained elusive for most Hollywood productions in 2013. A foul-mouthed teddy bear scored big, but the tentpole blockbusters and franchises underperformed -- while those aimed deliberately at the Japanese market bombed. Japan’s anime master topped the charts and called it a day, while festival favorite Kore-eda finally got paid. A new state secrets law has the media on edge, while the content industry is happier with the government after getting some hefty backing. The trials, tribulations and triumphs of Sony have been played out -- and closely observed -- from Culver City to New York to Tokyo. A fictional banker was one of Japan’s heroes in 2013, while Tokyo’s governor went from hero to the proverbial zero, leading the successful 2020 Olympics bid, but also taking half a million bucks in a paper bag.

Here is THR's look at the big media and entertainment industry stories of 2013 in Japan:

Hollywood Struggles at the Japanese Box Office
Hollywood registered its lowest box-office share in more than four decades in 2012, and although final figures for 2013 have yet to be released, it’s been another tough year in Japan for imported fare. Some of this weak performance is due to the resurgence in Japanese films, with local TV drama spinoffs, manga adaptations and sequels still scoring big; the rest can probably be put down to declining interest among the young in all things foreign. Hollywood’s best performer was Monsters University, which took $86 million (¥8.95 billion) to put it No. 2 on the annual box-office chart, but even that was below the $90.1 million (¥9.37 billion) Monsters, Inc. managed in 2002. Ted, in third place for the year, was something of a surprise hit, clocking $40 million (¥4.15 billion): a cute but foul-mouthed teddy pushing the right buttons for Japanese audiences. Disney’s Wreck-it Ralph, released locally as Sugar Rush, was the only other import in the top 10, racking up $28 million (¥2.93 billion).

The only things that did worse than Hollywood blockbusters this year were Hollywood blockbusters with Japanese themes. Pacific Rim, with its giant robots, Kaiju-style monsters and Japanese stars onboard, opened in the sixth spot on the charts in August, and ended up banking almost 10 times more in China than in its "spiritual home." Wolverine, released locally as Wolverine Samurai, was set in Japan, Hugh Jackman is popular and did his promotion duties, but it managed less than $8 million, and less than X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Samurai epic 47 Ronin was released on Dec. 6, ahead of its Christmas Day launch in the U.S., and looks set to do worst of all, having dropped out of the top 10 after one week at No. 6. The big-budget take on one of Japan’s most cherished historical events has not gone down well with local audiences, with the addition of sorcery to swords and the insertion of a half-foreign character (Keanu Reeves) into the tale. The marketing has also been criticized, with the 47 Ronin title not connecting with local audiences who know the story by the name "Chushingura."

Mixed, But Mostly Triumphant, Year for Hayao Miyazaki
It was a big year for anime master Hayao Miyazaki, who topped the Japanese box office with $112 million (¥11.6 billion) for The Wind Rises (Kaze Tachinu), based partly on the life of the designer of the infamous Zero fighter plane. Miyazaki, an avowed pacifist, managed to both upset nationalists at home and be accused of glorifying war by some in neighboring Asian countries. Miyazaki, an avowed smoker, also managed to draw the ire of anti-smoking campaigners who objected to the scenes of characters puffing away. Miyazaki also announced his retirement and the world's most-tweets-per-second record was broken during a TV screening of his film Howl’s Moving Castle. Miyazaki finished 2013 as a founding member of a film industry group opposed to Japan’s new state secrets law.

Controversial State Secrets Bill Muscled Into Law
Forced through parliament at the end of the year, despite opposition from the public and nearly everybody in the media, the state secrets law had some talking of a return to the World War II era of propaganda and thought police. The vague wording of the law has caused many in the media to worry about the consequences of reporting on government activity. The mere hearing of what could be arbitrarily deemed a "secret" from a government official could now result in prison time in Japan.

Festival Darling Hirokazu Kore-eda Finally Gets Paid
Long a festival favorite, especially in Europe, Hirokazu Kore-eda finally got a box-office hit at home when Like Father, Like Son (Soshite Chichi ni Naru) opened and scored $22.8 million (¥2.37 billion) in Japan. This came after the babies-swapped-at-birth drama won the Jury Prize at Cannes and got picked up for a remake by DreamWorks, Steven Spielberg having headed the jury at the festival. Kore-eda also joined Miyazaki in the anti-state secrets law group.

Wild Ride for Sony
It was a busy year at the entertainment and electronics giant, as activist investor Daniel Loeb pressed for a sell-off of at least some of its entertainment assets. Sony Pictures, which had been a consistent bright spot in recent years while the core electronics divisions bled money, was suddenly under pressure following a summer of box-office flops. At the same time, Sony started to turn around its games and devices businesses under the guidance of Kaz Hirai, who also initiated a "fire-sale" of properties and noncore subsidiaries and investments. Sony finished the year on a high note as the PlayStation 4 console was launched to wide acclaim.

Hanazawa Naoki Becomes Both Meme and Unlikely Broadcast Hit
The TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System Inc.) banking drama Hanzawa Naoki was an unlikely hit, its finale topping 40 percent in viewer ratings, the highest in 30 years for a commercial drama. The main character’s "bae-gaeshi" -- double payback -- catchphrase became ubiquitous, with sports stars and politicians heard dropping it. Reportedly a pirated hit across Asia, the series was also bought legitimately by Taiwan and Hong Kong networks. Subsequent dramas featuring Masato Sakai, who played the title character, have been in high demand. Sakai has also been appearing in TV commercials as Hanzawa. 

Tokyo Olympic Glory -- and Shame
Tokyo celebrated as it was selected to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. Public broadcaster NHK is working on rolling out its 8K Super Hi-vision TV format in time for Games, and will test broadcast the super-high-definition system at Rio 2016. The shine was taken off the win somewhat by a political funding scandal that embroiled Tokyo Governor Naoki Inose, who spearheaded the bid. Inose resigned on Dec. 19 after an offer to forgo his pay for 2014 was deemed insufficient penance for his alleged acceptance of the equivalent of $500,000 delivered in a paper bag. Plans for the new Tokyo Olympic Stadium have also been scaled down, following complaints of excessive expense from a Japanese public already saddled with the highest government debt in the industrialized world.

Government Pushes "Cool Japan" Message and Content Overseas
The Cool Japan Fund was launched this summer with $552 million (¥57.5 billion) from the government and a group of Japanese companies, to promote creative cultural content overseas, including anime, manga, fashion and food. While many have welcomed the government finally putting its money where its mouth is after a decade of talking Cool Japan, there are concerns from others in the creative industries about both the concept itself and how it is being implemented. A turf war between two of the ministries involved, as well as general lack of direction and business know-how among those overseeing the various projects, are among the complaints heard from industry insiders. However, some positives are emerging, with content holders already using subsidies to localize their films and programs for overseas markets.   

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