Japan 2014 in Review: Big Year for Disney, Tough Year for Sony

Courtesy of The Walt Disney Company
'Frozen' scored big at the Japanese box office in 2014

'Frozen' and 'Maleficent' boosted Disney at the box office, 'Godzilla' came home, but Studio Ghibli's future remains unclear

Hollywood in 2014 recovered at the Japanese box office after a few tough years, though mostly due to Disney, and much of that was down to one film: Frozen.

Also in 2014, Godzilla came home in more ways than one. Speculation over the future of post-Hayao Miyazaki Studio Ghibli abounded, while the Tokyo Film Festival caught the anime bug.

If Sony thought 2013 was a wild ride, it was the calm before the storm of 2014. And SoftBank reminded Hollywood of Sony in 1989 as, flush with cash, it shopped around for something to buy.

Here is THR's look at the big media and entertainment industry stories of 2014 in Japan:

Disney Domination Boosts Hollywood

Disney had a big year in Japan in 2014. Hollywood has struggled at the Japanese box office in recent years, but Frozen almost single-handedly put that right in 2014 as audiences took to Elsa and Anna with a passion.

The film's 16-week run at number one in Japan saw it top a quarter of a billion dollars before smashing home-entertainment records and inspiring a multibillion-dollar expansion of Tokyo Disneyland with Anna- and Elsa-themed attractions at its center.

It was finally knocked off its perch by Maleficent, which racked up another $66 million for Disney. In October, the Tokyo International Film Festival opened with the world premiere of Big Hero 6, before a December release capped off a stellar year for Disney.     

Godzilla Returns

 

After Disney topped the box office for 19 weeks, the Legendary reboot of Godzilla made a triumphant return to Japan, topping the box office despite some hurtful early comments about the waistline of the latest incarnation of the monster.

No doubt prompted by the half a billion dollars that Gareth Edwards' take on Japan's favorite monster had earned globally, the studio behind the original movie, Toho, announced its own revival of the franchise, with a first installment set for 2016. 

Storms for Sony

Sony had a tumultuous 2013, but there was more in store for the entertainment and electronics conglomerate in 2014.

The year started well as the PlayStation 4 continued to beat sales targets, shifting 6 million units by March and 10 million by summer.

Elsewhere, things were not so rosy. Multiple downgrades of Sony's financial forecasts throughout the year were interspersed with assurances from CEO Kaz Hirai that the company was being turned around, before the prediction of a $2.15 billion loss for the fiscal year due to a fall in the value of its mobile phone operations.

On Nov. 18, Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton came to an investors' day at Sony headquarters in Tokyo predicting $10 billion in annual revenue within a few years, before dismissing concerns about North Korea’s response to The Interview. A week later came news of the first hack at SPE, which would go on to make headlines across the globe as details of finances, personal information and executive emails led to a media frenzy and the eventual cancellation of the theatrical release of the comedy.

Sony Corp. headquarters in Tokyo and the Japanese media were curiously quiet on the whole incident, almost as if they wanted to emphasize that this particular problem was very much an American one. 

SoftBank in the Spotlight

Hollywood suddenly became aware of SoftBank in 2014 as the Japanese Internet, telecommunications and investment conglomerate began looking around for ways to spend its huge cash pile.

It began with an offer to buy DreamWorks Animation for $3.4 billion, coincidentally the same price Sony paid for Columbia Pictures back in 1989, the last time Japan Inc. was shopping in Hollywood.

When talks broke down, a $250 million investment in Legendary Pictures quickly followed as SoftBank's indefatigable CEO and founder Masayoshi Son looked for ways to spend the tens of billions from its stake in Alibaba after the Chinese e-commerce company's IPO.

Son's visionary $20 million investment in Alibaba in 2000 is now valued at north of $50 billion, and more investments and acquisitions in Hollywood and elsewhere are expected to be on the cards.

Studio Ghibli’s Fate 

After the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki in 2013, many of Studio Ghibli’s adoring fans were worried about whether the anime hit factory could carry on without its co-founder.

The beginning of 2014 saw Miyazaki miss out on an Oscar for his final film, The Wind Rises. In August, Miyazaki’s partner and current studio head, Toshio Suzuki, seemed to suggest that Ghibli’s production department could be dissolved, though his vague pronouncements have caused confusion on a number of previous occasions.

The company has confirmed nothing since then. 

Tokyo Fest Goes Anime

The 2014 edition of the Tokyo International Film Festival got into animation big time.

It included a showcase of the works of Hideaki Anno (Evangelion), screenings of the latest from Mamoru Ishii (Ghost in the Shell) and animated shorts from Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario Bros.

The directors and producer of Big Hero 6 also attended the opening premiere, while John Lasseter gave a talk about how Ghibli has been a big inspiration for him.  

Media Darlings and Pariahs

A couple of people became overnight celebrities in Japan in 2014, only to fall from grace.

At the beginning of the year, the Japanese media was salivating over Haruko Obokata, a young female researcher who had claimed she had made a breakthrough discovery in regenerative stem cells. After her findings were published in scientific journal Nature, television reports and newspaper articles fawned about the camera-friendly Obokata and the frock she wore in place of a lab coat.

However, questions were soon raised about the validity of her data and some fabricated images. Nature retracted the paper in July, and Obokata's tearful press conference a few weeks later, in which she continued to claim her findings were genuine, became a huge event on TV and online. On Dec. 19, having failed to replicate her experiments, she resigned from the government-funded RIKEN Institute.

In February, a supposedly deaf composer, Mamoru Samuragochi, whose against-the-odds story had captured classical music fans in Japan, was exposed as a fraud who had not only paid someone else to write his music, but also wasn’t really deaf either.

Meanwhile, the press conference of the year award in Japan may have to go to local politician Ryutaro Nonomura, whose wailing and melodramatic explanation of his 195 trips to hot springs at taxpayers' expense became a viral hit in the country.   

Death of Two Stars
As 2014 came to a close, Japan lost two screen tough guys who had made their names playing yakuza gangsters.

Ken Takakura, known to Western audiences for Black Rain, died in November; news of Bunta Sugawara’s death followed a couple of weeks later. 

Twitter: @GavinJBlair

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