Tough 2011 For Japan Draws to a Close as Disasters Overshadow Everything

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Box office to be down around $325 million as tsunami and lack of blockbusters take their toll.

The events of March 11 overshadowed everything in Japan in 2011, as 20,000 people lost their lives to the tsunami and more than 100,000 were evacuated from around the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant.

The final box office figures for the year for the world's second-largest cinema market are expected to be down around 20 percent, or 25 billion yen ($325 million), on recent years due to both the effects of the disaster and a lack of a real domestic or imported blockbuster.

The year started well for Japanese film as Confessions (Kokuhaku) made the shortlist of the Academy Award’s foreign language category, though it missed out on becoming one of the five final nominees.  

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Then came March and nearly every aspect of the entertainment business was hit by the disasters and their aftermath. All television advertising was pulled, to be replaced by public information messages, as the networks showed nothing for weeks but disaster and rescue footage, as well as rolling coverage of the unfolding nuclear crisis.

Movie theaters were almost empty, as were bars and restaurants, as few felt either in the mood to be enjoying themselves, or to be seen doing so. Although cinemagoers trickled back in the following weeks and months, some films - including Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, with its scenes from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami – were removed from release schedules. The King’s Speech on the other hand, took in a bigger than expected $25 million as its themes of overcoming challenges resonated with a shaken population.

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July saw the country cheered by the first piece of good news in months, as Nadeshiko Japan, the women’s national soccer team, lifted the world cup in Germany, defeating the U.S. in a thrilling final. A fortuitous national holiday the day after the final helped the match score big viewer ratings despite the 3.45 a.m. kick off. The previously unloved women’s domestic league subsequently scored a broadcast deal with satellite network Sky Perfect TV, and the victorious national team members were soon omnipresent in a host of television commercials.

By the end of the summer, outside the disaster zone at least, normal service had pretty much resumed and there was room in the media for the year’s biggest celebrity scandal, with the enticing ingredients of showbiz and organized crime.  Shinsuke Shimada, host of half a dozen weekly TV shows on the major nets, suddenly resigned on Aug. 14 as a weekly magazine prepared to publish details of his friendship with an underboss in the yakuza mafia. As the nets scrambled to rearrange schedules and find replacements, the scandal shined unwanted light on the close ties between gangsters and some elements of the entertainment business.

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Tokyo International Film Festival unspooled in Oct. with a double opening bill of The Three Musketeers and Jackie Chan’s 1911, followed by Moneyball as its closer. Organizer’s had agonized earlier in the year over whether to hold the fest in the post-disaster climate, and then whether people would come to Tokyo following some semi-hysterical reporting on the dangers of radiation by sections of the global media. The organizer’s concerns were proved largely unfounded as the festival received record entries, while guests and exhibitors flew in from around the world.     

In Nov., Sony announced another quarter of red ink, projecting a loss of $1.15 billion for the fiscal year to March 2012. The company suffered another tough year as its supply chain was hit by the disasters in Japan and the later floods in Thailand, while its online security was breached by hackers who accessed tens of millions of accounts on its PlayStation Network. Meanwhile, the launch of Sony’s new portable console, the PS Vita, in Japan on Dec. 17, was beset by technical issues. Kaz Hirai, who was anointed heir-apparent to CEO Sir Howard Stringer the day before the triple disasters struck, seems to have his work cut out for him.  

Twitter @GavinJBlair

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