Tokyo Film Festival: China-Japan Deals on the Rise, But Risks Remain

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The shifting geopolitics of the region and the Chinese government's wariness of excessive foreign cultural influence could lead to a pushback against Japanese content.

The current expansion of cross-border film business deals between China and Japan is, understandably, being hailed as one of the success stories of this year's Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF), coming as it does after some rocky years of bilateral relations. But risks and headwinds remain.

Progress on a co-production treaty and more cross-border releases were announced at TIFF Thursday, while a large contingent of Chinese buyers attended the festival's TIFFCOM content market. 

Plus, it was unveiled this week that Pokemon the Movie: Volcanion and the Mechanical Marvel, the 19th installment in the huge anime franchise is set to open in China on Nov. 11. It will be the first Pokemon film to get a Chinese release in 20 years, and only the latest in a slew of Japanese films to hit Chinese screens recently.

But the region's complex geopolitics and the Chinese government's desire to prevent too much foreign cultural influence could cause a reversal of the recent progress.

Japan is currently benefiting from China's de facto ban on South Korean content after the government in Seoul announced it would install the U.S. THAAD anti-missile system because of the threat from North Korea, something acknowledged by Chinese buyers at TIFFCOM. But if the tensions around North Korea's missile and nuclear tests escalate and more U.S. military hardware is deployed in Japan, that will be dimly viewed in Beijing. That could lead to similar problems for Japanese content.

Despite the potential risks, China's huge, expanding entertainment sector remains a major attraction to a Japanese film industry facing a slowly shrinking home market. As well as Japanese films scoring at the Chinese box office, Japanese IP is also being increasingly utilized.

A Chinese film based on a Japanese novel by Keigo Higashino, The Devotion of Suspect X, took $58 million after its March release, while a local remake of veteran director Yoji Yamada's What a Wonderful Family! also hit screens this year.

The cultural similarities that China and Japan share help stories to translate across their borders, according to Gu Xiaodong, CEO of Shanghai Artown Entertainment, which produced the remake of Yamada's film.

"The family situations portrayed in What a Wonderful Family! are so similar to those in the big cities of China that they really resonated with audiences," explained Gu, who said when Yamada witnessed the audience at a Shanghai film festival laughing and crying he immediately gave the go ahead for a remake.

Nevertheless, Gu cautions that talk of a Japanese remake boom is both overdone and potentially counterproductive.

"There have been quite a few made and that's been reported widely, but the number of films being made in China is increasingly rapidly; as a proportion of that, it's tiny. And because of all the attention it gets, the authorities react and discourage too many being done," Gu said. "I think it's going to get harder to do now. My company's productions are currently split about 50-50 between remakes of overseas films and domestic originals, but I expect that to shift to about 90 percent originals."