Rocked hard by the earthquake and tsunami of March 11 and the never-ending crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant, the Japanese film biz still faces an array of challenges nearly two months later.
Encouragingly, the box office damage has not been as lasting as seemed likely immediately after the disaster, when Tokyo auds stayed away in droves and theaters in the worst-affected areas closed their doors indefinitely.
Seeking an alternative to the hundreds of events canceled in the quake’s wake — or simply looking for stress relief, fans have since flocked to pics that offer light family entertainment, including the latest hit entry in the “Detective Conan” toon series, or nerve-soothing uplift as exemplified by the long-running “The King’s Speech.”
Meanwhile, distribs have pulled or delayed pics with content that might be disturbing to disaster-sensitized auds. The latest victim is “The Floating Castle” (Nobo no shiro), a big-budget period actioner produced by TBS and its partners. A sequence portraying the inundation of a castle was judged inappropriate and the producers decided to rework the pic, while pushing back release from Sept. 17 to 2012, with Asmik Ace and Toho distribbing.
Chikahiro Ando, head of production at Robot Communications, which has made some of the biggest domestic B.O. hits of the past decade, including entries in the smash “Bayside Shakedown,” “Always” and “Umizaru” series, sees the current mood lasting for the next two years or so.
“Disaster films are definitely out,” Ando says. “Instead, we’re going to see more films that give audiences energy and make them laugh.”
This post-disaster shift, Ando adds, may not seem radical on the surface but is affecting everything from scriptwriting to acting.
“People’s mentalities have changed,” he says. “You may have the same words in the script as before, but actors are reading them a different way.”
A big reason for the continuing psychological impact, he says, is lingering worries about the nuclear reactors and earthquake aftershocks. “Things are bit dicey right now,” he says.
Producer Shoji Masui, whose credit include the international smash “Shall We Dance?” and the hit dramedies of Shinobu Yaguchi (“Waterboys,” “Swing Girls,” “Happy Flight”), sees a dramatic change from a Japan that, whatever its economic troubles, was basically peaceful and secure to a country reeling from its biggest crisis since World War II.
“Before people were going to all these sad movies because they wanted to feel something and cry,” Masuio says. “They were looking for something they couldn’t find in their own peaceful, untroubled lives. But things are different now.”
That, Masui believes, opens the door wider for comedy, a traditionally weak genre in Japan, but one in which his company, Altamira Pictures, excels.
As evidence, he recalls his own experience with “Shall We Dance?,” which he was making when the Kobe earthquake, which killed nearly 6,400, struck in January 1995.
“I was wondering if we should go ahead,” he says, “but when the film was released, people (in the affected areas) really enjoyed it.”
He has similar hopes for Yaguchi’s, as-yet untitled laffer, whose post-production was temporarily disrupted by the quake but is skedded for release in 2012.
Meanwhile, theater owners in Tokyo and elsewhere have another concern: Power cuts that have affected operations since March 11 — an impact expected to intensify this summer.
Kanae Rai, who together with her husband, Mitsuhiro, operates the landmark Cinema Rise arthouse in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, frets that the national exhibitors org has yet to decide on a unified policy for the coming cuts and blackouts.
“Some are saying we should cut power 10%, other 20%,” she says. “How many degrees should we raise the air conditioning? What should we do about the projectors? There are a lot of questions that need to be answered.”
Japanese buyers going to Cannes, however, are less ambiguous about what they are looking for: pics that lift spirits rather depress them. While noting that a serious arthouse pic like the 2010 Palme d’Or winner “Uncle Boomee” can still draw auds to Cinema Rise, Rai says she will be looking for pics at Cannes this year “that make people feel happy and warm.”
Yuji Sadai, prexy of distrib Bitters End, whose slate has ranged from frothy domestic comedies (“Cannonball Wedlock”) to violent foreign arthouse fare (Korean helmer Yang Ik-joon’s “Breathless”), says he will be shopping for “entertainment films that help people forget the present” at the fest.
“Real life is difficult now in Japan,” he says . “So films that portray a tough reality will have a hard time attracting fans.”
Pics can help heal Japan | Japan film biz aids quake victims | Mortal thoughts