'Whiplash' Becomes Sleeper Hit in Japan

Daniel McFadden

Two months after its low-key bow, the critically acclaimed film is getting a wider release, with new dates booked through August, and has already covered its production budget at the Japanese box office.

When Whiplash opened in Japan on April 17, it was a fairly typical weekend at the local box office. Hugely popular anime franchises occupied the top two spots on the rankings, while a Hollywood blockbuster, Furious 7, had bowed in third — the only major market where it hadn’t opened at number one. Despite Whiplash's Academy Award for J.K. Simmons, as a niche film without a recognizable star, Whiplash didn’t even crack the top ten.

Two months later, distributor Gaga is expanding its release and has new dates booked at regional theaters beginning as far out as August. Released locally as Session, and six months later than in some other international markets, the film has exceeded expectations and has already more than covered its production budget ($3.3 million) with its takings at the Japanese box office.

Read more Japan Box Office: Anime Film Unseats 'Tomorrowland,' 'Cinderella' Passes $45 Million

“Our strategy was to have a limited release centered round the new Toho cinema in Shinjuku, the one with the Godzilla head on top of the building, where it would be one of the main screenings and attract a big audience when it bowed,” a Gaga spokesperson told The Hollywood Reporter. “With an unknown American director and cast, we expected it would be difficult to make it a hit.”

However, good reviews and strong word-of-mouth helped attract cinema-goers and increase demand from other theaters to screen Whiplash. The film now has more than a thousand reviews on Yahoo Japan and a rating of 4.3 out of 5 stars. As well as the Oscar and word-of-mouth, endorsements from entertainment celebrities and other famous people — often a big factor in Japan — have helped boost interest in the film, according to Gaga.  

Ukeru Magosaki, a former senior diplomat who served as head of the foreign ministry's intelligence and analysis division, wrote about Whiplash on his blog this week and tweeted his more than 80,000 followers, praising its never-give-up message and calling it, "Definitely one of the top five films I've seen in my life."

Read more Shanghai, Tokyo Film Festivals to Partner

The choice of Session as the Japanese title, referring to the drumming finale of the film, is easy to understand for local audiences and has also helped its success, according to Gaga.

Whiplash has so far pulled in $3.5 million (¥424 million) locally, with analysts predicting a final total beyond the $5 million mark, already making it the film’s second-biggest international market. It is unlikely though to match its incredible performance in South Korea, a theatrical market less than half the size of Japan’s, where it took more than $11.5 million, just $1.5 million shy of its U.S. total.   

Twitter: @GavinJBlair