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New Era Launches on Japanese Screens

As a new imperial era begins in Japan, the local film industry is enjoying a renaissance, following a long period of decline, but the digital age is presenting fresh challenges.

With the abdication of Emperor Akihito on April 30, Japan entered a new era — and not only figuratively. The country assigns a name to each imperial era that corresponds to the reign of the country’s emperor. When Akihito took over in 1989, the Heisei Era began, and the ascension to the throne of his son, Naruhito, on May 1, heralded the start of the Reiwa Era.

The months leading up to this transition have been a time of national stocktaking, with the movie industry being no exception. In April, Kinema Junpo, Japan’s oldest film magazine, published a special issue looking back at Japanese cinema in the Heisei Era, and the Showa Era that preceded it (1926-1989).

In 1989, the Japanese film industry was in the grip of a long decline that started with the widespread diffusion of television in the early 1960s. Admissions for the year totaled 143.5 million, compared with the post-war peak of 1.099 billion in 1957. Meanwhile, local films claimed a 46.6% market share, down from 78.3% in 1960, according to industry organization Eiren (the Motion Picture Producers Assn. of Japan).

Early in the Heisei Era, industry oblivion seemed more likely than resurrection. Younger fans, save for the kids who flocked to popular anime, overwhelmingly preferred Hollywood product. Made for a fraction of the budgets, Japanese commercial films struggled to compete.

What a difference three decades make. In 2018, admissions grew to 169 million while Japanese films claimed a 55% market share, the 11th straight time they had beaten their foreign rivals. Also that same year the number of Japanese film releases rose to 613 and the number of screens to 3,561. Comparable figures for 1989 were 255 and 1,912, respectively. So far this year, Japanese movies have dominated the top of the local box office with home-grown films like “Doraemon: Nobita’s Chronicle of the Moon Exploration,” “Masquerade Hotel” and “Detective Conan: The Fist of Blue Sapphire” outgunning the Hollywood opposition.

According to veteran industry analyst Hiroo Otaka, a key factor in the industry’s recovery was the multiplex boom that began in 1993 with the opening of Japan’s first true cinema complex. “The big transition to multiplexes was an epoch-making development,” he says. “With the exception of arthouses, 26 years later we’re in an era when ‘movie theater’ means ‘multiplex.’”

The current system of multiplexes screening large numbers of films in a variety of formats “has won the strong support of fans, especially young ones,” Otaka notes. It has also spelled the demise of the “uniquely Japanese” block-booking system in which studios forced the theaters in their chains to screen their films on a fixed schedule.

The flexibility of multiplexes, which are constantly adjusting their screening schedules in response to audience demand, “means that hit films can achieve higher earnings that they could have before the multiplex boom,” Otaka says. And the Japanese industry has learned how to make those hits.

With industry giant Toho in the lead, the major studios have long given over nearly all of their line-ups to films based on proven properties from other media, especially hit comics, novels and TV dramas.

These adaptions are produced by so-called “production committees” (seisaku iinkai) — consortiums of media companies that share the risks and rewards of a given project. Although the production committee system had its beginnings in the 1970s, it hit its stride after Fuji TV and Toho partnered to make and release films based on Fuji’s cult hit “Bayside Shakedown” series, which starred Yuji Oda as a cheeky cop in the trendy Tokyo Bay area. The second film in the series, 2003’s “Bayside Shakedown 2,” earned $155 million, still an all-time high for a live-action Japanese film.

Another trendsetter was Studio Ghibli, the animation studio founded in 1985 by master animators Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki. Ghibli flouted anime industry convention, which was to turn hit kiddy cartoons into endlessly replicable franchises, by making one-off, auteur-driven films that appealed to all ages and became box office powerhouses, starting with Miyazaki’s 1989 smash “Kiki’s Delivery Service.”

For more than two decades, Ghibli films regularly dominated the foreign and domestic competition. The peak was Miyazaki’s 2001 fantasy “Spirited Away,” whose $275 million take set an all-time box office record for Japan that still stands. The genius of Miyazaki was crucial to this success, but Suzuki’s canny marketing and the partnership of the NTV network, which backed all Ghibli films from “Kiki” on, also played a role.

Yet another barometer of the industry’s Heisei revival is the iconic Godzilla series. After a decade-long hiatus, Toho rebooted it in 1985 with “The Return of Godzilla,” the first in what came to be called the “Heisei Series” of movies featuring the fire-breathing monster.

“Taking a more adult approach [than earlier series entries], the Heisei Godzilla films presented Japan as a world-class nation ready to take its place among the big boys,” says Norman England, who covered the series extensively as a reporter for U.S.-based Fangoria magazine. This approach proved successful, with the films regularly placing in the annual local box office top 10.

Toho followed up with six films that, released from 1999 to 2004, were known as the “Millennium Series,” but the last, Ryuhei Kitamura’s “Godzilla: Final Wars,” was a flop — and Toho put the series on ice for 12 years.

Directed by animation master Hideaki Anno and sci-fi effects wizard Shinji Higuchi, the 2016 “Shin Godzilla” was a radical revamp of a series long defined by its “man in suit” aesthetics. The all-CG monster, as well as Anno’s breathless story of bureaucrats, scientists and military types teaming up to defeat it, was a hit with local audiences: The film made $74 million, more than any of the other 28 series installments to date.

“‘Shin Godzilla’ was in step with the resurgence of populism here,” England says. “In come the young neo-patriots with pure hearts and love of country ready to do whatever it takes to save Japan.”

The box office appeal contributed to the industry’s Heisei revival, but will that resurgence continue into the Reiwa Era?

Takeo Hisamatsu, a former executive at Shochiku and Warner Bros. Japan, who is now director of the Tokyo Intl. Film Festival, has a laundry list of issues he believes the industry needs to address.

“We live in a digital age and film production here has to respond to that,” he says. “Also, we need to promote original scripts since the supply of good media properties has become exhausted. And we have to develop more projects with an eye on the foreign market and make more co-productions with foreign partners. Finally, we need to raise the skill levels of young creators and support them when they try something new.”

But not, presumably, yet another Godzilla reboot.

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