Filmart: With 'Flying Colors', Are China and Japan Friends at Last?

Panda THR Exclusive - H 2016
Courtesy of Lars Leetaru

After years of tense relations, Asia’s two biggest film sectors are warming up to one another, and the first Japanese live action release in over five years in the Chinese market could lead to a new era of collaboration.

Relations between China and Japan, Asia’s two biggest economies and entertainment markets, have fluctuated in the decades since they signed a formal Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1978. Tensions have risen and fallen over historical issues and territorial disputes. Yet for most of that period, business ties continued to grow; despite a nearly 12 percent drop last year, bilateral trade still amounted to more than $300 billion. And after years of tight restriction on Japanese content, opportunities in the huge and rapidly expanding Chinese entertainment sector are once again emerging.

The latest Sino-Japanese chill descended over the issue of a group of uninhabited rocks in the seas between the two countries, known as Diayou in China and the Senkaku Islands in Japan, and claimed by both countries, as well as by Taiwan. The left-of-center Democratic Party of Japan government bought the islands in 2012. Despite claims it was an attempt to keep them out of the hands of then Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, an outspoken nationalist and serial China-baiter, Beijing’s reaction was anger.

There were anti-Japanese protests in China, some Japanese companies’ premises were damaged, bilateral trade plummeted and entertainment industry deals were off the cards. Over the subsequent years the diplomatic situation slowly improved. China and Japan’s leaders started meeting again, and deals for Japanese TV series and VOD movie releases began to be signed again.

A breakthrough came in May last year, when Stand By Me Doraemon, a CGI version of the hugely successful manga, anime and big screen franchise, got a theatrical release in China. The blue “cat-type robot” had long been a favorite across Asia, is hugely popular in Hong Kong and well known in China. The film finished with $87 million in China, beating its total of $79 million in Japan, where it was the third-biggest hit of 2014. The stellar performance in China helped boost total Japanese film export earnings by 50 percent last year.

Since then a few anime have been released, including Toho’s Boruto: Naruto the Movie and Toei Animation’s Saint Seiya: Legend of Sanctuary this year. While their box office grosses haven’t matched Doraemon’s, let alone a Hollywood blockbuster, they represent good business for Japanese films, which have registered limited commercial export success over the years.

According to Japanese industry insiders, it has been easier to get anime, at least the mainstream, family-friendly variety, released in China due to the absence of controversial themes that could attract censors’ attention. A lack of real-live Japanese faces onscreen has also almost certainly been a plus. That too is about to change.

This spring, Flying Colors is set to be the first Japanese live action film released in Chinese theaters in more than five years. It is currently scheduled for release on 2,000 to 3,000 screens. To put that in perspective, Japan has a few more than 3,400 screens and anything more than a 500-screen release is reserved for blockbusters.

Based on a true story which was made into a million-selling novel, Flying Colors was released in Japan in May 2015 and took around $25 million at the domestic box office. The film tells the tale of a high-school slacker with the academic level of a fourth grade elementary school student who decides to apply to one of Tokyo’s elite universities.

The film was made by an 11-company film production committee, common practice in Japan, led by Tokyo Broadcasting System Television (TBS) and including cable and regional TV networks, an advertising agency, a telecoms group and a major newspaper. Production committees spread risk and give the participants an opportunity, and incentive, to promote the films through their own media platforms, but often result in slow decision-making. In the case of releases in China, where censors can call for unpredictable cuts, any changes have to be approved by all the committee’s members.

"According to the buyer, the reason that this film was chosen, among many good Japanese productions, is that the themes and story resonate with Chinese society. Particularly young people, who make up the movie-going segment,” explains Yuhka Matoi, from TBS, which also handled international sales.

“They said that China has an even more competitive education system than Japan. And so using the medium of a movie, with a plot based on a true story, the theme of not giving up even when the situation looks hopeless, is one that is encouraging to a lot of people," adds Matoi.

The release won’t though open the floodgates for Japanese productions into China, as they still have to compete for slots with releases from Hollywood and elsewhere under China’s quota system, which restricts the number of foreign films shown. Other Japanese companies have signed deals with Chinese buyers, but one said they are, "99.9 percent sure the films won’t end up getting a theatrical release."

Japanese entertainment properties, like those from other nations, still face hurdles in accessing the giant Chinese market. Japanese companies still usually need to work through intermediaries which have operations in China and understand the complexities of doing business there.

Then there is the issue of the ever-moving and opaque censorship goalposts. "Censorship is strict, especially around political themes and the kind of language used. The criteria changes all the time so it is difficult; the distributors are keen but they struggle with censorship. Even if we make a deal, that’s a risk," says a source who deals with the Chinese market for a Japanese company but asked not to be identified. “It’s the wild, wild east."