“Crazy Rich Asians” will open in Japan this week with distributor Warner Japan betting that the film’s muscular box office in the U.S. and elsewhere will carry over to Asia’s second-largest market. But the odds are against a huge win.
In mid-September, Warner revealed that it would expand the number of theaters showing the film from the originally planned 30 to 75. “Asians” has also been covered extensively in the Japanese media, though its cast is mostly unknown in Japan and its source novel has yet to become a bestselling sensation. (On Amazon Japan its current rank is 97,476.)
Writing for online lifestyle magazine Wezzy, Kaoru Domoto noted that Warner has localized the title to “Crazy Rich” (Kureiji Ricchi), deciding that “Asians” was not helpful. “Those born as Japanese in this country do not need to think of themselves as ‘Asian’ and are not in the position of a racial minority,” Domoto wrote. “Also, in the past, due to Japan’s economic development, Japanese were treated as ‘honorary whites’ in the West.”
Warner is targeting Japan’s female audiences with the poster copy “Women all over the world sympathize! A ‘goal in’ movie for finding true happiness!” ‘Goal in’ is Japanese-English for “get married,” which the heroine struggles to do against the opposition of her fiance’s wealthy Singaporean-Chinese family.
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But Warner’s goal – a hit in Japan – may prove elusive, given the spotty track record of past Hollywood-backed films either based on Japanese properties or made with the pan-Asian market in mind. One often-cited example is “Memoirs of a Geisha,” Rob Marshall’s 2005 film set in the geisha world of pre-war Kyoto. Lambasted locally for casting Chinese actresses in major Japanese roles and misrepresenting geisha culture, the film finished with a disappointing $11 million in Japan.
A more recent case is “Ghost in the Shell,” Rupert Sanders’ 2017 live-action version of a sci-fi manga that also inspired Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 cult hit anime of the same English title. Though Japanese fans professed little interest in the “white-washing” controversy that swirled around the casting of Scarlett Johansson, the film earned just $9 million in its Japan run. By contrast, the year’s No. 1 foreign film at the box office, “Beauty and the Beast,” made $110 million.
Chinese auteur Zhang Yimou has had his share of hits in Japan, including “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers,” but his 2016 Hollywood-China co-production “The Great Wall” could only manage $1.3 million at the Japanese box office.
There are success stories: Edward Zwick’s “The Last Samurai,” which was loosely based on the life of famed samurai general Saigo Takamori, made $120 million in Japan, the most of any foreign film in 2004. “A big reason was that the star, Tom Cruise, was extremely popular with women here at the time,” veteran box office analyst Hiroo Otaka said. “They also liked Ken Watanabe’s manly samurai. And the film’s manner of depicting them could be described as subtle.
“Even if Hollywood makes a film specifically about Japan, Japanese tend to not pay much attention unless the contents are engaging and of good quality,” Otaka said. “If a film depicts Japanese history, but the descriptions are distorted and the Japanese characters are unrealistic, they lose interest.”
Films set elsewhere in Asia stir up even less enthusiasm among local moviegoers. But “Crazy Rich Asians,” Otaka believes, “might be supported by relatively older, well-informed fans in metropolitan areas.” And that spells limited release, not crazy rich results for Warner.