Why 'Fifty Shades of Grey' Failed to Hit the Mark in Japan

Courtesy of Universal
'Fifty Shades of Grey'

The local distributor discusses what effect the role the toned-down version, a lack of a huge book fan base and timing had on the release's box-office success in the country.

As Fifty Shades of Grey opened simultaneously around the world on Valentine's Day weekend, setting records for an R-rated movie in country after country, audiences in Japan were distinctly underwhelmed.

After a reasonable Friday night, the racy adventures of Christian and Anastasia faded fast, finishing the weekend with just $682,000 (¥81 million) from 324 screens, leaving it in the fifth spot on the Japanese box-office charts for its opening weekend. By way of comparison, it opened to $2.2 million in the Philippines, a cinematic market a fraction the size of Japan's. The following weekend saw the film drop out of the top 10 in Japan.

Why did Japan, with a generally relaxed attitude to erotica and no religious-based objections, fail to fall for the Fifty Shades phenomenon? A delayed release of the new Japanese-language editions of the books, poor timing for the film release and an R-15 (a rating that allows those aged 15 and older to see it) re-edit blurring out parts of the sex scenes all conspired to leave local audiences a bit cold.

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The original translated versions of the EL James books hadn't been big sellers in Japan, probably not helped by the fact that there is plenty of Japanese erotica, of all varieties imaginable, already on shelves. The release of the Japanese-style "tankobon" editions (smaller and cheaper books usually split into two or three volumes) didn't hit stores until Jan. 9 this year, barely a month before the film was released.

"We'd hoped that the books would get released earlier and that we could have promoted the film and book together," Shigeto Arai, managing director of promotion at local film distributor Toho-Towa, told The Hollywood Reporter. "But with the day-and-date worldwide release, we couldn't move it back."

The books are now benefiting from the publicity of the film, and the three volumes that the first book is split into have sold 510,000 copies, plus attracted 10,000 digital downloads, according to publisher Hayakawa Shoten.

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"Sales have doubled in February compared to January, mostly due to the film's release," said Aya Tobo from the publisher's editorial department. "Although the books haven't been the massive hit they have [been] in the West, it's selling well for an imported, translated novel."

Going with an R-15 release for the film instead of an R-18 was "probably a miscalculation," conceded Arai from Toho-Towa, which handles most of Universal's releases in Japan, along with other Hollywood titles.

"We thought that an R-15 version would broaden the audience and also widen the window for advertising slots on television. But the TV networks are very strict about what they'll show," explained Arai. "There also wasn't much time to do the editing, and the quality of the blurring out in some of the scenes has come in for some criticism."

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In response, beginning Wednesday, the original unblurred version of the film has started screening in Japan with an R-18 rating at an initial six theaters.

"The reaction has been good so far, and the two screenings in Tokyo sold out," said Arai. "If it continues to do well, the plan is to show the R-18 version at more theaters." The distributor didn't disclose latest box-office figures for Japan.

Twitter @GavinJBlair

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