Cannes: Can Japanese Content Conquer the Global Market?

Andrew Joyce

With the three-decade Heisei era coming to a close, Japan's entertainment industry is shifting its focus from Hollywood imports to homegrown IP with international appeal (hello, 'Detective Pikachu').

On April 30, Emperor Akihito, 85, stepped down from the Chrysanthemum Throne, the first Japanese monarch to do so in more than two centuries. At midnight the same evening, his son Crown Prince Naruhito became the 126th emperor of the world’s longest-surviving dynasty. And so the three-decade Heisei ("achieving peace") era came to an end, and the new Reiwa ("beautiful harmony") era began.

Though the Western Gregorian calendar is widely used in Japan, imperial eras are seen as defining markers in the cultural, political and societal life of the nation.

Heisei began in 1989 as the bubble economy was reaching its height, amid fears of global Japanese economic domination. In September that year, Sony bought Columbia Pictures for $3.4 billion in cash, then the largest U.S. acquisition by a Japanese company. The following year, Matsushita (Panasonic) bought MCA (now part of NBCUniversal) for $6.6 billion in an ill-fated deal, which became a symbol of bubble excess. The ensuing crash wrought economic havoc from which the country has yet to fully recover. The film industry was also going through upheavals, though it would eventually enjoy a renaissance while the nation continued to struggle.

The first decade of Heisei saw Hollywood films dominate the box office, while the number of local releases fell to around 250 annually. "When I joined the movie business, Hollywood was king," recalls Takeo Hisamatsu, a former executive at Shochiku and Warner Bros. Japan who now heads the Tokyo Film Festival.

However, new directors with varied but distinctly Japanese visions also emerged. Takeshi Kitano (Hana-bi), Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters), Naomi Kawase (Sweet Bean) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Foreboding) — collectively referred to as "4K" — would go on to garner global acclaim and awards. 

One key change in the industry was the growing dominance of novel and manga adaptations. "Original-story films and also director-driven films were produced much less in Heisei compared to Showa [the preceding era]," says Toshiyuki Hasegawa, an industry veteran and current programming director at the Skip City festival. "How many copies of the original novels or manga were sold or who stars in the film became more important than directors’ creativity or script development."

While the resulting films may not have pushed the envelope creatively, they’ve helped domestic films become dominant at the box office for the past decade. The renaissance, which also led to more than 600 local productions getting released annually, was driven in no small part by anime. Animation house Studio Ghibli, though founded in 1985, became a hit factory during Heisei. Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001) won an Oscar and holds the all-time domestic box office record with $276 million. 

Miyazaki’s films have often featured strong-willed female characters, a relatively new trend in the male-dominated domestic productions. "There were suddenly films in Heisei where women were badass, committing crime, working, making people angry and killing people. These roles changed audiences’ perception of women," says film writer and critic Kaori Shoji.

But behind the camera, female filmmakers and executives remain scarce. "Still, wherever I go, all I see is old men in suits," says producer Yukie Kito. "As long as that continues it’s hard to see change happening. They don’t understand films that have a female perspective."

Even though the box office share of imports has fluctuated over the years, Japanese audiences remain enthusiastic consumers of foreign fare. However, for years, the local industry seemed reluctant to see its productions, IP or talent go abroad. But the entertainment industry has now started to look outward in a trend likely to strengthen during Reiwa.

Hollywood live-action remakes of Japanese properties include the recently released Pokémon Detective Pikachu and the upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario, Attack on Titan, a redo of anime smash Your Name from J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot and a reboot of J-horror classic The Grudge coming from Sony in 2020. 

But neither Hollywood nor remakes are the only game in town. As political tensions have thawed, collaborations with the burgeoning Chinese industry are also on the upswing. 

"The Chinese filmmakers working now grew up watching Japanese films and television, both legally and illegally," says producer Kito. "They are very respectful of Japanese directors and actors. When they work with Hollywood, it’s all about money, but they genuinely want to work with the Japanese industry."

Sino-Japanese co-productions include Legend of the Demon Cat, based on a Japanese novel, which pulled in more than $75 million. The next installment of the blockbuster Detective Chinatown franchise, which so far has banked more than $750 million, is set to shoot in Tokyo. And in 2018, the Asian neighbors finally signed a co-production pact.

Despite the language barriers, Japanese directors also have begun working in China. Yôjirô Takita, a foreign-language Oscar winner for 2008’s Departures, recently completed Silence of Smoke, while Shunji Iwai directed a Chinese cast in 2018’s Last Letter.

Other Japanese directors have been working even farther afield. Kurosawa recently finished shooting To the Ends of the Earth in Uzbekistan, and Kore-eda directed Ethan Hawke and Juliette Binoche in French and English in The Truth, which shot in France.

While most welcome this move to internationalization after decades of relative parochialism, some insiders worry that the directors leading the charge are the same names that emerged 30 years ago at the dawn of Heisei.

Miyuki Takamatsu, head of sales and production firm Free Stone Productions, sees the absence of "a single Japanese filmmaker" in the main competition or Un Certain Regard at Cannes this year as a wake-up call in terms of maintaining creativity. "As people in Japan feel the new year celebration coming with Reiwa," he says, "we the Japanese film people have to cleanse our minds and move forward."

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's May 14 daily issue from the Cannes Film Festival.