The Future of Japanese Film

Japanese Cinema Turns the Tables on Hollywood

Economy Culture

For decades filmgoers in Japan tended to prefer foreign films—especially Hollywood blockbusters—to their home-grown cinema. But in recent years, Japanese films have been making a comeback. Film critic Ishiyama Shin’ichirō takes a closer look at the factors behind this reversal of fortunes.

Japanese Cinema on Top Again

At the outset of the 1970s, Japanese moviegoers began to turn in increasing numbers to foreign films—particularly those from the United States and other Western nations. For decades those films enjoyed a leading share of the Japanese film market. If we look at the statistics of the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan, which date back to 1955, we can see that during the “golden age of Japanese cinema,” between 1955 and 1965, films produced in Japan enjoyed as high as a 78% share of the domestic market. But this share steadily declined in subsequent years, hitting a low of 27.1% in 2002.

In recent years, however, the Japanese film industry has managed to claw back more and more audience share. In fact, the latest figures, for 2012, show that Japanese films now have a decisive majority of 65.7% for the domestic market, almost double the share of foreign films. The last time that Japanese films cleared the 60% mark was in 1969—over 40 years ago.

According to the MPPAJ statistics, a total of 983 films were released in 2012—a large increase over the previous year. The number of Japanese films, in particular, has increased substantially. In terms of sheer numbers, Japanese films are showing signs of pulling away from foreign films. In 2012, box-office revenue for Japanese films was roughly double that of foreign films and Japanese film revenue was 28.8% higher than the previous year—setting a new record for a year-on-year increase. In contrast, that same year revenue for foreign films shown in Japan declined by 17.9%

National Film Statistics for 2012

   2012 Change compared to  2011 2011
Filmgoers 155.16 million 107.2% 144.73 million
Box-office revenue Total ¥195 billion 107.7% ¥181 billion
Japanese films ¥128 billion 128.8% ¥99.5 billion
Western films ¥67.0 billion 82.1% ¥81.6 billion
Number of films released Total 983 123.03% 799
Japanese 554 125.62% 441
Western 429 119.83% 358

Source: Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan

Lackluster Fare from Hollywood

The 65.7% market share in 2012 for Japanese films is over 10 percentage points higher than the 54.9% of the previous year. This remarkable increase was due not only to the strength of Japanese films but also to the recent stagnation of Hollywood films.

Box-Office Revenue for Foreign Films: Top Five in 2012

Ranking Release month Film name Box-office revenue Distributor
1 December (2011) Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol ¥5.38 billion Paramount Pictures
2 September Resident Evil: Retribution ¥3.81 billion Sony Pictures
3 August The Avengers ¥3.61 billion Walt Disney Studios
4 June Amazing Spider-Man ¥3.16 billion Sony Pictures
5 May Men in Black 3 ¥3.13 billion Tōhō-Tōwa 

If we look at the top-grossing foreign films in Japan for 2012, the box-office champ was Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, followed by Resident Evil: Retribution. These two films are sequels, as are the foreign films that ranked fourth and fifth for the same year. These are the sort of films that get produced because they are the safe option—almost guaranteed to be hits. The film that ranked third, The Avengers, is yet another superhero action movie, based on a Marvel Comics series. The only distinguishing feature of these films is the level of their special effects, but this is something that quickly gets old.

These top-ranked films seem to lack a distinctive concept, and this is true of recent Hollywood films in general. These films are a far cry from the 1998 film Titanic, which grossed ¥26.2 billion at the box office to become Japan’s all-time top-grossing foreign film. James Cameron, the director, used the latest special effects to tell the tale of that ill-fated ship, while painting a vivid picture of blighted love, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

These days it is hard to find a similar work of genius with the power to captivate audiences. And even the supply of “safe options” has dwindled now that popular series like Harry Potter and the Pirates of the Caribbean films have reached their end.

All-time, Top-grossing Films in Japan

Rank Release year Title Box-office revenue Distributor
1 2001 Spirited Away ¥30.4 billion Tōhō Co., Ltd.
2 1998 Titanic ¥26.2 billion Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
3 2001 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone ¥20.3 billion Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. 


Wider Collaboration Behind Japanese Success

So which Japanese films edged out their Western counterparts in 2012? According to the statistics, the top three were Limit of Love: Umizaru, Thermae Romae, and Odoru daisōsasen za fainaru aratanaru kibō (Bayside Shakedown: The Final—A New Hope). All three were produced by Fuji Television and distributed by Tōhō Company.

Box-Office Revenue for Japanese Films: Top Five in 2012

Rank Release month Title Box-office revenue Distributor
1 July Limit of Love: Umizaru ¥7.33 billion Tōhō Co., Ltd.
2 April Thermae Romae ¥5.98 billion Tōhō Co., Ltd.
3 September Bayside Shakedown: The Final—A New Hope ¥5.97 billion Tōhō Co., Ltd.
4 November Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo ¥5.30 billion T-Joy & Khara
5 July Wolf Children ¥4.22 billion Tōhō Co., Ltd.Toho

Limit of Love: Umizaru (Japanese title: Brave Hearts)

Thermae Romae

Bayside Shakedown: The Final—A New Hope

One element underlying the recent success of Japanese films seems to be the increasingly close  collaboration between distributors and commercial television networks in Japan. An executive at the studio Tōhō explains more about this recent phenomenon: 

“There is more investment in Japanese cinema these days thanks to the involvement of television networks, publishers, advertisement agencies and other businesses. This has made it possible for us to domestically produce the kind of films that people want to see. We are also doing a better job of coming up with concepts that are well suited to viewer interests. The joint investment from television networks and publishers has brought the added benefit of opportunities to more widely promote films; this has been a key factor behind box-office hits.”

The collaboration between film companies and television networks extends beyond simple examples of adapting popular television dramas to the big screen; both sides are also teaming up, from the early planning stages, to come up with cutting-edge productions. This partnership has made it possible to create the sort of historical dramas and science-fiction films that had been too expensive to produce in the past.

Foreign films may be set for a revival in Japan, though. Films shown in 2013, like Les Miserables and Life of Pi, seem to represent a return to form. If this is indeed the beginning of a comeback, Japanese filmgoers may be in for a thrilling ride.

(Originally written in Japanese.)

Films shown above:

Brave Hearts Umizaru (standard edition DVD; currently on sale)
Selling sgency: Fuji Television, Robot, Pony Canyon, Tōhō, Shōgakukan, A-Team, FNS 27
Distributor: Pony Canyon

Termae Romae Deluxe Edition (special two-disc DVD set; currently on sale)
Selling agency: Fuji Television
Distributor: Tōhō

Odoru daisōsasen za fainaru aratanaru kibō (standard edition DVD; currently on sale)
Selling agency: Fuji Television, INP
Distributor: Pony Canyon

movie culture film cinema Spirited Away Cannes Film Festival