Tokyo Content Market: Japan-China Film Industry Collaboration Rapidly on the Rise 

New Classics Media/Kadokawa Corporation/Emperor Motion Pictures/Shengkai Film
The Japan-China co-production 'Legend of the Demon Cat' earned nearly $100 million in 2018.

Better political relations, a new co-production treaty and a growing appreciation for cultural similarities are boosting cross-border business between the two Asian economic giants, according to panelists at Tokyo's annual TIFFCOM content market.

A surge in film industry collaboration between China and Japan, the world's second- and third-largest economies, dominated discussion on the opening day of TIFFCOM, the Tokyo International Film Festival's annual content market and seminar series.

Improved diplomatic relations between the two Asian economic giants, along with a new China-Japan co-production treaty signed last year, have helped drive cross-border cooperation to unprecedented levels in the film sector, various speakers at TIFFCOM said. 

Chinese director Zhang Yibai, whose 2007 film The Longest Night in Shanghai was one of the earliest joint China-Japan projects, pointed to the natural cultural connections between the Asian neighbors, which he thinks will help facilitate more joint projects in the coming years.

"Chinese and Japanese cultures are similar; I watched a lot of Japanese movies and television growing up. We're geographically close and although we can't understand each other's spoken language, we basically can when it's written," said Zhang, referring to the logographic characters used in both China and Japan.

The economic incentives for greater industry integration, meanwhile, have perhaps never been weightier for both sides. 

With the U.S.-China trade war waging, Beijing's film regulators remain eager for ways to reduce their cinema sector's reliance on Hollywood product, which tends to make up 35-45 percent of the country's total annual box office. But an ongoing ban by Beijing on South Korean entertainment content — a reaction to Seoul's 2017 decision to install a U.S.-made anti-missile system on the Korean peninsula — has left the Middle Kingdom without access to one of the region's most prolific suppliers of commercial filmmaking.

Regulators have thus allowed local distributors to bring in record numbers of Japanese film titles, resulting in an unprecedented overseas windfall for some Japanese studios (Seoul's loss also has been Bollywood's gain).

Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away (2001) was rereleased in China in June, earning an astonishing $69 million nearly 20 years after its original release. Contemporary Japanese anime releases also are generating big earnings in China, such as Detective Conan: The Fist of Blue Sapphire ($33 million) and One Piece: Stampede ($27 million and counting), both of which were brought out in China this fall. Japanese live-action and prestige cinema has made its own box office breakthroughs, as well: Hirokazu Kore-eda's Cannes Palme d'Or winner Shoplifters took in $14.1 million from China last year — a sum inconceivable for a Japanese art house film in any other international market.

Yuya Ishii, director of The Great Passage, Japan's 2014 foreign-language Oscar entry, said at TIFFCOM that it's more important than ever before for Japanese filmmakers to look beyond their domestic market. One filmmaker pursuing that path is Yōjirō Takita, Japan's most recent Oscar winner for his 2009 film Departures. Takita wrapped production earlier this year on the family drama Silence of Smoke, his first Chinese-language feature, produced by China’s Magilm Pictures, Beijing Orange Letter Media and Hong Kong’s Media Asia.

Chinese films, meanwhile, have yet to make much impact at Japan's national box office, but tapping into the country's popularity as a tourist destination among China's upwardly mobile middle-class consumers is emerging as an appealing storytelling avenue for Beijing studios. The next installment in Wanda's blockbuster Detective Chinatown franchise will be set almost entirely in Japan and counts both Chinese and Japanese A-listers — Satoshi Tsumabuki, Huang Bo and Wang Baoqiang — among its all-star cast. Currently shooting in Tokyo and Osaka, Detective Chinatown 3 is expected to be one of the biggest releases at China's 2020 New Year box office (Detective Chinatown 2 earned $544 million in 2018).

Major players from both countries are also looking for ways to tap into the Japanese industry's expertise to capitalize on the Chinese audience's growing appetite for domestic animation. Japan's Toei Animation and powerhouse Chinese studio Bona Film Group are currently at work on the big-budget animated co-production The Monkey Prince, based on the oft-adapted Chinese classic saga Journey to the West.

Producer Chiaki Noji, head of China operations at Japan's Shochiku, cautioned of the dangers of trying to please audiences on both sides of co-productions. "If you aim at both equally, you will fail in both equally, in our experience," said Noji, noting that producers should pick a primary target market rather than risk trying to bridge the differences in sensibility between Japanese and Chinese filmgoers.

Zhang took a different slant, saying that "audiences in both countries should love co-productions." He added, "We often think about the differences between South Korea, China and Japan, but we need to be aware of what we have in common."

Veteran Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige's China-Japan co-production Legend of the Demon Cat, which was released last year in Japan, could be considered a modest success case for the two industries. Based on a popular Japanese novel, the film starred a mixed Japanese and Chinese cast and was set in a grandly realized version of Tang Dynasty China. Although it failed to become a blockbuster, it earned nearly $100 million worldwide, including heathly totals in its two target markets.

Added Ishii at TIFFCOM: "Working internationally can be hard, but some films can indeed cross international boundaries easily."