Audiences eager to get past disaster

TOKYO — Japan has certainly moved further forward than seemed possible in the nervous, chaotic weeks following the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami disaster. So has its entertainment industry.

But Japan is not the same county it was before March 11. Volunteerism is way up (nearly 930,000 people have gone north to aid recovery efforts), as are sales of disaster supplies (Geiger counters are a particularly hot item), while blind trust in the bland reassurances of politicians and power company spokesmen is way down.

And audience tastes have changed. Pics about families, animals and friendship are in demand, while monster epics, that once favorite local genre, are nowhere to be seen.

In the uncertainty and confusion following the quake, in which 19,000 died and the country was brought to the edge of nuclear catastrophe, Japan’s entertainment industry shut down. Theaters closed or pulled films that were deemed inappropriate for traumatized auds, concerts were cancelled and TV networks switched to nonstop disaster coverage, interspersed with public service ads.

One of the few with the show-must-go-on spirit was pop songstress Cyndi Lauper, who landed with her band the day of the quake and, instead of making a U-turn with the hundreds of thousands of foreigners fleeing the country, went ahead with her planned tour.

A year later, Lauper returned to Japan, this time to a hero’s welcome. In addition to visiting the disaster-hit areas and giving a nationally televised concert at Tokyo’s Orchard Hall, she held a packed presser at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan. “It’s a big tragedy, but everybody is trying to move forward,” she told assembled journos. “I just want to say, hey, don’t forget about Japan.”

Indeed, the past year has seen auds eager for distraction and encouragement filing into theaters even as they stocked up on disaster supplies.

One beneficiary was “The King’s Speech,” whose message of triumph-over-adversity resonated strongly with local auds. Bowing right before the earthquake on Feb. 26, 2011, it finished its Japanese run with a sterling $22 million. Feel-good toon “From Up on Poppy Hill,” from perennial hitmaker Studio Ghibli, was released in July and became the year’s top-earning domestic pic, with $54 million.

Thanks to strict power conservation, the prospect of rolling power blackouts in the peak summer season were never necessary.

But business didn’t make a quick, painless return to usual. Helmers took pics in various stages of production back for a rethink. One was Yoji Yamada, who was about start shooting his remake of the 1953 Yasujiro Ozu classic “Tokyo Story” when he pulled the plug after March 11. “I want to write a story set in a Tokyo that has experienced (Japan’s) largest postwar disaster,” he told the press on April 14. The pic is now set for a January 2013 bow.

Other directors, such as Sion Sono with “Himizu” and Ryuichi Hiroki with “River,” finished their films as planned, but changed their stories to include disaster-related themes and scenes.

Scores of helmers, Japanese and foreign, went north to make docus and dramas on the disaster and its aftermath. Among them were Lucy Walker and Kira Carstensen, whose docu short “The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom” juxtaposed tsunami survivors rebuilding their lives with nearby cherry trees in bloom — an ancient Japanese symbol of hope and renewal. The pic had its own blossoming: It was nominated for an Academy Award.

Among this outpouring, however, commercial pics have been conspicuous by their absence. One reason is that the big media companies that produce them, including the five commercial TV networks, nearly always begin with a proven property, whether a hot TV drama or bestselling novel — and that property has yet to emerge from 3/11.

Headlines do occasionally drive domestic projects, such as the three new pics — one each from distribs Fox, Shochiku and Toei — based on the story of Hayabusa, a Japanese satellite that returned safely to Earth in June 2010, after a crisis-plagued, if successful, journey to collect asteroid soil samples. The aim is to boost national morale and pride by showing real-life heroes overcoming formidable obstacles with old-fashioned Japanese teamwork. In other words, they are 3/11 pics by proxy, even though they were in the works before the disaster.

The Japanese B.O., though, needed more than an indomitable spacecraft to pull it out of low orbit in 2011; it was down 18% compared with the previous year, to $2.34 billion, with local pics dropping 16% to $1.29 billion. The fall wasn’t all due to the disaster. In a statement accompanying an announcement of less-than-stellar 2011 box office numbers, Toho admitted that the weakness of its lineup was partly to blame. In 2010, its top 10 pics earned $578 million; in 2011, that number was $393 million.

This year, barring another calamity, recovery looks likely. Toho’s lineup includes the latest installments in blockbuster cop thriller “Bayside Shakedown” and rescue diver action series “Umizaru.” Rival Shochiku will release “Insight Into the Universe,” a period drama by helmer Yojiro Takita (whose “Departures” won an Oscar), while Toei will open “The Northern Canaries,” a meller from star helmer Junji Sakamoto set on the snowy northern island of Hokkaido, that is being billed as the studio’s 60th anniversary project. It stars Sayuri Yoshinaga, an iconic thesp who has been spinning out hits for five decades.

Finally, Warner, the most active distrib of domestic product among the Hollywood majors, will bow “Samurai X,” a period swashbuckler, based on a bestselling comic series, which is expected to be a hot summer ticket.

To all appearances, this is a normal-enough lineup of would-be blockbusters, just as the nighttime streets of Tokyo’s entertainment districts seem as glittery and crowded as they were before Japan’s biggest post-war catastrophe, in which Japan’s northeast coast was rocked by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and inundated by a wall of water 30-feet high. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant suffered three reactor meltdowns and spewed massive clouds of radiation.

A year later, the TV networks still fill their primetime schedules with raucous variety and quizshows, as well as an endless procession of skeins featuring food being prepared and consumed. But much of the talent on those shows, from pretty-boy pop stars to low-brow comedians, have gone north to do volunteer work or have appeared at charity events.

Before-and-after photos show even the most devastated areas with cleared streets and signs of normal activity. But mountains of debris remain — only 6.3% of the estimated 22.5 million tons of debris has been disposed of, with the national government pushing local counterparts around the country to dispose of it, but finding few takers because of radiation fears.

Considering the immediate aftermath of 3/11, Japan has certainly made huge strides. But much is still to be done.

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