Japanese biz’s recovery marked by restraint

Billions lost throughout entertainment industry

TOKYO — A month after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan, leaving 27,500 dead or missing and racking up an estimated $300 billion in damages, the impact on every part of society, including the entertainment industry, is still being felt — and it’s hard to know when things will feel like they’re back to normal.

In the disaster’s immediate aftermath the entire industry went into a tailspin, with thousands of events and film releases cancelled or postponed. Now Japan’s biz is slowly reviving, but it has miles to go before it reaches its pre-quake numbers.

Ongoing problems with safety, transportation, fear of nuclear contamination — the crisis at the damaged Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant has been escalating — and loss of electrical power — rolling blackouts were instituted for wide swaths of the country, including Tokyo — have not only put a crimp on electronic media but have also contributed to the general feeling that now is not the time to plug a new project or open a pic about sensitive subjects.

This reaction, called jishuku (“self restraint”), this has long been the response of the Japanese people to disasters ranging from military defeat to the death of an emperor to a natural catastrophe.

Considering the entertainment industry, the biggest impact of jishuku was on the TV biz.

Starting on March 11, commercials were pulled and replaced by public-service announcements from the Japan Advertising Council.

Paid ads began to trickle back by March 14, but the loss of revenue for March alone has been pegged at $1.17 billion.

Meanwhile, shows have had to be revamped or even cancelled if they were considered traumatic for viewers. For example, the eighth season of “24” was axed by the TV Tokyo network because its plotline includes nuclear disaster.

Another victim was “Panic Face,” a “Punk’d”-style variety show on the TBS net that got laughs by startling unwitting victims. “We have no plans to bring it back,” a TBS spokesman says.

Even scenes in TV dramas of family or friends digging into big meals have been cut. “It wouldn’t be right to show such scenes now while people in the affected areas are going hungry,” the TBS spokesman says.

The TV net is not alone — scenes and segments revolving around the preparation and consumption of food, which were once TV mainstays in this food-obsessed country, have been dialed back everywhere.

With ad revenues declining and viewer tastes changing, TV stations have been paring production budgets.

One casualty are the “tarento” (talents) — comics and other showbiz folks with a gift for amusing gab who front gameshows, variety shows and other skeins.

“(The networks) are cutting back sharply on tarento,” says veteran media critic Masaaki Hiruma. “The agencies have lost about 30% of their bookings.”

The effect is felt especially at talent shops such as Osaka-based Yoshomoto Kogyo, which specializes in supplying comics to TV and has a roster of 800 artists.

Hisayuki Hoshi, who handles international media relations at Yoshimoto, says, “In the past month, many comedy programs and events have been cancelled. However, it seems that the networks are getting over the jishuku mood. Yoshimoto is thinking of what we can do for people in the afflicted areas and bring back the smiles to their faces.”

Hiruma says the networks are toning down the rougher, cruder, crazier brand of comedy that once drew high ratings — as well as many foreign viewers via YouTube. “Even TV commercials are becoming more low-key,” he adds.

Pic distribs have been hit, with some being forced to delay or even abort releases. Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” was pulled because of its graphic depiction of the 2004 Sumatra tsunami, while alien invasion pic “Battle: Los Angeles” and Anthony Hopkins horror vehicle “The Rite” had their releases postponed for what was deemed inappropriate content — though in “The Rite’s” case, distrib Warner Japan also cited print transport problems that have since been solved, per Warner topper William Ireton.

Meanwhile, theaters in the Tohoku and Kanto regions closest to the quake’s epicenter that shuttered due to safety or power concerns are gradually reopening in selected areas.

Toho, the operator of the biggest exhib chain, shuttered 26 sites immediately after the quake. It says theaters in Akita, Oirase and Mito are now back in business. But even after they reopen their doors, the threat of rolling blackouts still hangs over many theaters and will probably worsen this summer when power demands spike.

And, as the world knows, the stricken nuclear reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi, whose shutdown is the cause of the outages, are beyond the point of saving — and making up for their loss will take months, if not years.

With the crisis keeping crowds away even from theaters that are open, this year’s box office is down 15% compared with the average for the past five years.

“There are too many subjective factors at play to make a full-year estimate with a high degree of confidence,” says Ireton, who was willing to guess that the 2011 B.O. will stay at 10% or 15% below the 2006-2010 average.

What has been playing well post-disaster are family pics, such as Disney toon “Tangled,” which has made nearly $20 million after four weeks in release, and inspirational fare, such as “The King’s Speech,” which boosted its cume past $12 million in its sixth.

With the release dates of so many Hollywood and other foreign pics being changed, local films have been dominating the B.O. rankings, claiming four of the top five spots on the chart for the weekend of April 2-3, including the latest installment in the “Kamen Rider” superhero action series for kids and “SP: Kakumei,” a security police actioner based on a popular Fuji TV show.

How long will the downbeat jishuku mood last?

It’s already starting to dissipate if the crowds enjoying themselves under Tokyo’s thousands of blooming cherry trees this month are any indication, though the partying was less raucous than usual.

But the slow-moving disaster at Fukushima Dai-ichi, which has been getting worse, is casting a pall over recovery efforts, Hiruma believes.

“We have to shake ourselves out of this jishuku mode — it’s sapping everyone’s spirit,” he says. “The Japanese have recovered from many disasters before — we’ll do it this time as well.”

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