Why Japan Won't Save 'Ghost in the Shell' From Being a Box-Office Flop

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'Ghost in the Shell' (2017), left; 'Ghost in the Shell' (1995)

Despite the generally positive local reaction to the Hollywood addition to the beloved franchise, the film's home fanbase is too small to make a difference.

Japan isn't going to save Ghost in the Shell from registering red ink, though the filmmakers may be able to take some solace from the way their version is being received in its birthplace.

The Rupert Sanders-directed, Scarlett Johansson-starring take on the classic manga and anime opened Friday in Japan, taking in $3.2 million from 233,000 admissions at 611 screens over the weekend. Its Saturday-Sunday total was $2.4 million, landing it behind Sing, which topped the box-office charts for the fourth weekend. (Local charts are calculated on admissions rather than revenue, putting Ghost in the Shell third behind Disney's Moana.)

Despite a committed marketing campaign in Japan — including a talk-show event featuring Sanders, Johansson and Takeshi Kitano to unveil the trailer in November and holding the world premiere in Tokyo last month — the film is unlikely to finish with more than $15 million in its spiritual homeland of Japan.

In its favor, Ghost in the Shell is attracting better word of mouth and reviews in Japan than it has in the U.S. It currently has 3.5-star rating on Yahoo Movies Japan, which is, remarkably enough, higher than the 3.2 stars held by Mamoru Oshii's seminal 1995 anime. Meanwhile, on other review sites, the new version has scored 4 stars and ratings of up to 75 percent.

Of the tens of thousands of tweets in Japan about the new Paramount version, more than 80 percent have been positive. But therein lies part of the problem: the tweets are in the tens, not hundreds, of thousands. While Oshii's original Ghost in the Shell (Kokaku Kidotai) has an adoring cult following in Japan, it is a relatively small one. The film took in just $2.3 million at the Japanese box office in 1995, a figure surpassed by Sanders' version on Saturday and Sunday alone.

And with 22 years having passed since the release of the anime, and 28 years since Masamune Shirow's manga hit bookstores, its core (predominantly male) fans are now in their 30s and 40s. Ghost in the Shell doesn't have the family-friendliness of a Disney or a Hayao Miyazaki film, nor the appeal to teenagers that made Your Name such a phenomenon.

Even the presence of Johansson, a popular star in Japan who appears in local TV commercials, isn't going to bring the millions into theaters needed to make it into the kind of megahit that would help recover the reported $200 million Paramount, DreamWorks and its Chinese investors have sunk into the production and marketing of the project.

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