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Jasper “Statto” Sharp on movies, madness and other digital stuff

Japan’s box-office statistics are now in for 2013, showing a positive year for the industry, and particularly for anime. Admissions were up a smidgen, from 155.16 to 155.88 million attendances, and even though this was tempered by a small 0.5% dip in box-office receipts, overall takings were ¥194 billion (US$1.88 billion). This means that Japan retains its position as the world’s third-largest film exhibition market, having been knocked off the number two spot by China in 2012.

Unlike the Chinese, Japanese audiences are more likely to watch locally-made products. Of the 1117 Japanese releases, there were 526 imports (47%) against 591 domestic productions, these only contributed 39.4% of Japan’s gross ticket revenues, with the lion’s share going to Japanese films. In China, imports garnered a more significant 51.5% of the overall box office, despite strict quotas limiting the number of foreign films distributed in Chinese cinemas (although the number of Hollywood releases permitted in 2013 rose from 20 to 34).

Animation had a very strong showing indeed. The year’s top foreign release, Disney-Pixar’s Monsters University, took ¥8.9 billion (US$86.7 million), far out-grossing 2012’s number one title, the live-action Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, which took only ¥5.38 billion. Wreck-It Ralph and Despicable Me 2 also figured in the 2013 top ten, at positions four and seven respectively.

Even more noteworthy is the impressive showing for local animation with, for the first time since 1997, anime occupying six out of the ten domestic top spots. Typically for a Studio Ghibli release, it was Hayao Miyazaki who led the charge, with The Wind Rises takings over an incredible ¥12 billion (US$116 million).

Presumably, Miyazaki Senior’s announcement of his retirement had some bearing on this success, as it earned over double that of his son’s earlier From Up on Poppy Hill (which despite being the top-grossing domestic release of 2011, took only ¥4.46 billion), and also more than the ¥9.25 billion taken by the 2010 release of the Hiromasa Yonebayashi-directed Arietty. Nevertheless, the earnings for The Wind Rises are eclipsed by that of Miyazaki’s previous work as a director, the altogether more family-friendly Ponyo, which took ¥15.5 billion in 2008.

The annual holiday outings of Japan’s most-familiar anime franchises fared just as well as they usually do, if not better, although perhaps what is most unusual about 2013 is the presence of all these usual suspects together, with One Piece Film Z, Doraemon the Movie: Nobita in the Secret Gadgets Museum and Detective Conan: Private Eye in the Distant Sea occupying positions two, three and four respectively, and the most recent Pokémon and Dragonball Z releases at nine and ten.

This showing might be best explained by fewer standout live-action titles this year, although the success of Hirokazu Koreeda’s delightful family drama Like Father, Like Son at number seven (and already released in the UK) provides a rare ray of sunshine for Japanese film pundits jaded by the tedious recurrence of seemingly endless TV tie-ins among the annual lists of top-grossers.

One shock non-appearance is that of Studio Ghibli’s second release of the year, Isao Takahata’s Princess Kaguya, based on the 10th-century folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. Despite a very strong opening weekend upon its 23rd November release, it does not even appear among the top 35 domestic grossers of the year listed by the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan.

The first film directed by the Ghibli co-founder in the fourteen years since My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999), Princess Kaguya was originally intended to go on simultaneous release on 20 July with The Wind Rises, echoing the breakthrough pairing of Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies and Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro in 1988, although this was postponed due to production difficulties. Given that Takahata is two years older than Miyazaki, it is safe to assume that this will similarly be his last as a director.

The relative non-performance of Princess Kaguya might in some part be attributable to Japanese audiences’ satiation with Ghibli after the stir caused by Miyazaki’s swansong. Japanese critics seemed to be in agreement that it was the better work, with the influential magazine Kinema Junpo naming it the fourth best domestic release of the year, ahead of The Wind Rises at number seven, and Eiga Geijutsu positioning it in joint tenth position in its top ten, while slamming Miyazaki’s film as the second worst of the year! (Eiga Geijutsu’s voting process is apparently a little convoluted, with all the critics that are canvased allocating a fixed number of points for both the best and worst lists any way they see fit, resulting in such often rather eccentric results).

The second point of interest about the 2013 figures is the sheer volume of releases. Between 2006 and 2011, this oscillated between 700 and 800, split roughly half and half between Japanese and foreign films (the balance tipped slightly in favour of the local product). However, the number of overall releases leapt from 799 in 2011 (of which 441 were domestic films) to 983 in 2012 (with 554 domestic films) to, as previously mentioned, 1117 in 2013 (with 591 domestic films). However, last year’s overall admissions of 155.88 million are considerably down from the decade’s peak in 2010 of 174.36 million.

More films chasing diminishing audiences is never a healthy situation for any country’s film industry. But just what exactly does this recent glut of local releases comprise? After all, the past two years have seen the number of domestic titles soar well-above the previous high for the Japanese industry, of 547 in 1960. It turns out they are not “films” per se, but “content”, more specifically referred to as ODS, a very official-sounding acronym for the rather more prosaic term “Other Digital Stuff” – things that are shown in cinemas which aren’t technically films.

Live streaming of music, sports and other ODS content accounted for 75 of the 554 domestic releases in 2012, and although exact figures for 2013 are unavailable, the continuing growth in the number of overall releases makes it clear that this figure has also increased, and will no doubt continue to do so.

With Japan’s screens almost completely digitized now, it seems certain that cinemas are going to be providing very different content and playing a very different social role to what they did back in the previous peak years of cinema-going circa 1960, before television robbed them of so much of their audiences.

It is less certain what the growth of live ODS is going to mean for the annual theatrical excursions of characters like Doraemon, Pikachu, Detective Conan et al that are long-established through other media such as TV. Anime is, after all, a pre-recorded medium by its very nature. Or is it?

Maybe the post-Miyazaki Japanese box-office will dominated not by films, but by “events” such as live concerts by virtual stars like Hatsune Miku, streamed to packed cinemas across the nation? Keep watching this space…

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