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Japanese Film Industry Seeks Inspiration in Asia

The official Japanese box office numbers for 2018 are not yet in –the Motion Picture Producers’ Association of Japan (Eiren) will announce them in late January – but preliminary figures don’t look great for the home team.

“Code Blue: The Movie,” a medical thriller based on a Fuji TV series, was the year’s highest-earning film at $83 million, according to the Private Life entertainment data and ranking site, but only three of the box office top ten were Japanese. The other two, “Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer,” at $82 million, and “Doraemon the Movie: Nobita’s Treasure Island,” at $48 million, were entries in long-running anime series.

A total of 29 Japanese films made JPY1 billion ($9.0 million) or more. This compares with 38 that passed the same milestone in 2017.

Faced with the prospect of more decline at home, as Japan’s aging population continues to trend down, the Japanese film industry is increasingly looking abroad for everything from new markets to fresh inspirations.

In the latter category are Japanese remakes of foreign films. Examples include local versions of “Ghost” (1990), “Unforgiven” (1992) and “Sideways” (2004), but in recent years sources of material have been shifting from Hollywood to Asia, while production numbers have ticked upward. Among such Asian film remakes include: “Sunny: Our Hearts Beat Together,” Hitoshi One’s reworking of a 2011 Korean female buddy movie; “You Are the Apple of My Eye,” Yasuo Hasegawa’s remake of the 2011 Giddens Ko hit about teen romance in Taiwan; and “Memoirs of a Murderer,” Yu Irie’s 2017 detective thriller based on the 2012 Korean film “Confession of Murder.”

Also, though not a remake, “Ten Years Japan” was inspired by “Ten Years,“ a 2015 omnibus speculating about the state of Hong Kong in ten years’ time. Supervised by this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner Hirokazu Kore-eda, the film features segments by five young Japanese directors set in a near-future Japan.

Despite all this Asian ferment, the highest scoring Japanese remake is Yuichi Fukuda’s “50 First Kisses,” which earned $11.0 million. It is based on “50 First Dates,” a 2004 romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler.

Co-productions between Japanese and Asian partners are also on the upswing. They may be boosted by the co-production treaty Japan and China formalized in May of this year. For Japanese filmmakers the treaty’s big advantage is that co-produced films can avoid Chinese import quotas on foreign films.

Among the first to benefit from the treaty, however, was Hong-Kong-born director Kenneth Bi. His romantic drama “Wish You Were Here” stars Japanese actor Takao Osawa and is partly set in Japan’s Hokkaido.

The biggest Japan-China coproduction of the past couple of years was “Legend of the Demon Cat,” made before the treaty was signed. It is a historical fantasy directed by Chinese veteran Chen Kaige and based on a novel by Japan Mineo Yoneyama. Backed by a consortium that included Kadokawa — the novel’s publisher and the film’s co-distributor – “Legend” earned $15 million in Japan following its Feb. 24 release. That was disappointing, given the scale of its budget and the $200 million of sets later turned into a theme park.

This less-than-inspiring example has not discouraged Sony Pictures Entertainment Japan, producer of the new shot-in-China “Kingdom.” Based on Yasuhisa Hara’s best-selling manga and directed by Shinsuke Sato (“Inuyashiki,” “Gantz”), this period drama unfolds in the China of the Warring States Period, but has an all-Japanese main cast. Release in Japan is set for April 19. The film’s opening date in China has yet to be confirmed. “It has the flavor of a Japanese fantasy, so Chinese fans should be able to find something fresh in it,” said Sato at a Tokyo launch event in October. “I hope everyone in China will have a chance to see it.”

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