International success eludes Japanese cinema


TOKYO -- For the Japanese film industry, 2006 was always going to be a hard act to follow. With boxoffice receipts for local films breaking the ¥100 billion ($993 million) mark for the first time ever, expectations for 2007 were measured. Nevertheless, the sector put in another solid performance last year, and there's already enough in the pipeline to suggest 2008 will be no slouch, either.

While 2006 was also the first year in over two decades that domestic titles outsold overseas imports, capturing 53% of the market, the percentages were reversed in 2007: Hollywood took the top three earning spots, with "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" swashbuckling its way to ¥10.9 billion ($99.3 million), "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" conjuring up ¥9.4 billion ($93.3 million) and "Spider-Man 3" ensnaring ¥7.12 billion ($70.7 million). Foreign films' total boxoffice receipts went back over the ¥100 billion ($993 million) level again after dropping just below in 2006.

The number of screens in Japan increased to 3,221 last year, the highest number in operation since 1970. However, with overall annual boxoffice receipts hovering around the ¥200 billion ($2 billion) mark since 2001, further significant growth in theaters is unlikely, according to Ryoichi Baba from No.1 distributor Toho. "Earnings per screen are actually decreasing slightly, so it's not likely the expansion is going to continue much beyond the current level," he says.

Appropriately, Toho once again showed itself to be the Godzilla of Japanese cinema, distributing nine of the top 10 grossing domestic films in 2007. A big-screen spinoff of the most successful drama in Japanese small-screen history, "Hero," starring local superstar Takuya "Kimutaku" Kimura, was the highest-grossing Japanese release, taking in ¥8.15 billion ($80.9 million). The latest installment of "Pokemon" -- "Pokemon: The Rise of Darkrai" -- took second place, earning just over ¥5 billion ($49.6 million). In third and fourth, respectively, were the period drama "Always: Sunset on Third Street 2" and "Monkey Magic," the cinematic version of the TV drama, which both took in close to ¥4.5 billion ($44.7 million).

Toho, which celebrated its 75th anniversary last year, remains an old-style integrated studio, boasting the nation's largest production facility, the biggest distribution network and more than 550 screens across Japan. Two new giant soundstages are due to come online soon at its sprawling studio complex in the Tokyo suburbs. "We're expecting to be No. 1 again this year," Baba says. "Toho has a strong lineup, including 'The Hidden Fortress,' 'Detroit Metal City' and 'Ponyo on a Cliff,' the new animated movie from Studio Ghibili director Hayao Miyazaki, which could be a record-breaker when it's released in July."

Predicting that a Miyazaki production will break records is probably the closest thing to a safe bet in the film business. His 1997 film "Princess Mononoke" broke the Japanese boxoffice record previously held by 1982's "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial"; then 2001's "Spirited Away" did the same to the new record, which had been set by 1997's "Titanic." The Academy Award-winning animated feature earned $257 million globally, though more than 90% of that was in Japan.

Expectations are high for "Ponyo," reportedly in production for 20 months, as it is Miyazaki's first major release since the Oscar-nominated "Howl's Moving Castle" in 2004, which grossed more than $230 million worldwide.

"The Hidden Fortress," to be directed by Shinji Higuchi ("Japan Sinks"), is a remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1958 classic on which much of 1977's "Star Wars" was based. "Detroit Metal City," the tale of a Kiss-like glam band, continues the trend of live-action manga adaptations and will also be turned into an animated film.

Elsewhere, a spate of successful TV-to-cinema adaptations has hit theaters recently, a trend that looks set to carry on through 2008 and beyond. "Last year there was 'Unfair: The Movie,' 'Hero' and 'Monkey Magic' -- all hit movies from popular TV dramas," says Fuji TV's vp motion pictures Mina Mita. "It's a formula that works and one that we're pioneers of. So you're bound to see more of it. In fact, another big Fuji TV drama, 'Galileo,' is going to be turned into a movie called 'Suspect X' that's in the pipeline now."

Other than anime, Japanese film has yet to score many major successes abroad, particularly outside Asia. There is some government support for the Japanese film industry, but it comes via a number of different organizations and agencies whose briefs and responsibilities appear to overlap considerably. UniJapan (Japan Association for the International Promotion of Moving Images) is a nonprofit organization that supports the promotion of the Japanese film industry overseas. It was established in 1957 as the "Association for the Diffusion of Japanese Films Abroad" by the film industry and what is now the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

"We were created and are supported by the government and the industry, so our organization sits between the two," says UniJapan's Yuri Kubota about the somewhat complicated nature of the organization's relationship to other agencies.

UniJapan's Azusa Soya says that the situation is even more complex, with subdivisions also working with other quasi-governmental entities. "There is also J-Pitch, a team I work closely with, who look for opportunities for international co-productions and other partners from overseas, especially at the major film festivals," he says. "They are also supported by the Culture Agency and JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization)."

If the situation sounds like a case of excessive bureaucracy in need of a unified focused approach, some of those working inside the system would agree. "It's very complicated sometimes, with support, organization and, of course, money, spread around in different areas. I think it would be really helpful if we could get it all together," suggests UniJapan's Soya.

Muddying the waters even further is the fact that while there are an increasing number of co-productions and collaboration with companies from other Asian countries, there are few new players of major significance surfacing domestically, though Soya says there is one company that offers hope. "There aren't really any important new companies emerging at the moment," he says. "Though (domestic music giant) Avex --which had in the past been investing in films -- is looking to become more involved in the industry. 'Genghis Khan,' which they co-produced with Shochiku, was a big success. They also have agreements with Toei on distribution across Asia."

"Genghis Khan" was a relatively big international seller for a Japanese production, having been bought by more than 60 countries, mainly across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. No doubt the domestic film industry would like to see its productions emulate the Mongolian warlord's exploits, storming the gates of Europe and beyond.