Born of a merger between two film companies in 1951, Toei is one of Japan’s leading film producers, distributors and exhibitors, with a wide range of media businesses. Starting in the 1950s with samurai swashbucklers and continuing in the 1960s with actioners featuring Japan’s native gangsters, the yakuza, Toei gained a reputation as maker of entertainment for the masses, not the critics.
Rival Toho may have had Kurosawa Akira and Shochiku, Ozu Yasujiro — both world-class auteurs — but Toei had Ishii Teruo, whose “Abashiri Prison” action series (1965-’72) made a major star of the strong-but-silent Takakura Ken, and Fukasaku Kinji, whose “Battles Without Honor and Humanity” series (1973-’74) was a groundbreaking re-creation of a real-life yakuza war. Neither won many awards or much international recognition at the time, but their contributions helped make Toei a box office powerhouse. (And critical recognition did come later, especially for Fukasaku, whose “Battles” series is now widely recognized as a cinematic landmark.) Beginning in the 1950s and continuing in the 1960s as the diffusion of television caused theatrical earnings to plummet, Toei branched out from its signature genre films into animation through subsidiary Toei Animation, with future anime auteurs Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao on the payroll, and tokusatsu (“special effects”) TV series featuring spandex-wearing superheroes.
Among its hits was the “Kamen Rider” show (1971-’73), about the adventures of a motorbike-riding cyborg, and the Super Sentai series, which featured color-coded superheroes, starting in 1977 with “Himitsu Sentai Gorenger.” Later iterations became the source material of the 1990s “Power Rangers” series, made in collaboration with L.A.-based Saban Entertainment.
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Today Toei is still very much in the live-action film business, with upcoming releases including “Blood of Wolves II,” director Shiraishi Kazuya’s follow-up to his hit 2018 cops-vs.-gangsters actioner “Blood of Wolves.” Both films carry the DNA of Toei’s signature 1970s yakuza pics, particularly those by Shiraishi favorite Fukasaku. Shiraishi is also directing “Kamen Rider Black Sun,” the reboot of a well-remembered 1987-’88 tokusatsu series, for a summer 2022 start.
Also under the Toei corporate umbrella are a national chain of 23 cineplex sites, operated by subsidiary T-Joy and its partners; studios in Tokyo and Kyoto that make film and TV content; the Toei Digital Center post-production facility and the Toei Animation Oizumi studio, both in Tokyo.
In common with other Japanese majors, Toei has long been a vertically integrated company, able to take projects from the development to the distribution and exhibition stage, while partnering with other media companies in “production committees” that share the financial risks and rewards and jointly publicize the finished product.
Toei also exploits its content over a range of platforms, including the Toei Channel, which is broadcast on cable and satellite, and the Toei Tokusatsu World Official YouTube channel. Among other revenue streams are merchandising, real estate, talent management and rights licensing.
The company is headed by Tezuka Osamu, who took over as president in June 2020. A company lifer, who spent most of his career in TV program production, Tezuka is no relation to the pioneering manga artist of the same name who was responsible for Japan’s first animated TV series, the 1963 “Astro Boy.” Only the sixth president at Toei since its founding, Tezuka told staff after his promotion last year that “all employees are producers,” explaining that all “should be able to say ‘let’s try’ when they have something they want to make.” This runs counter to the standard decision-making process in the Japanese industry, in which, as Tezuka noted, proposals that “aren’t sure bets have a hard time getting a hearing.” But Tezuka ascended to the top in the midst of a pandemic and Toei, like every other film company in Japan, has taken a hard hit to its bottom line. In the fiscal year ending in March, Toei’s operating profit plunged to ¥12,997 million ($118 million) from $200.5 million the year before, a drop of 41%. Total sales fell from $1.3 billion in financial year 2019 to $981 million in fiscal 2020 for a year-on-year decline of 24%. Tezuka told newspaper Sports Hochi that he doesn’t know “how far business will return to normal,” adding hopefully, “But the Black Plague in the Middle Ages was followed by the Renaissance.” Toei is not wasting any time in getting its own renaissance going.
Shiraishi’s “Kamen Rider” reboot is part of a project celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first “Kamen Rider” show, which bowed in 1971. For the project, Toei has recruited Anno Hideaki, creator of the long-running “Evangelion” sci-fi franchise, to direct “Shin Kamen Rider,” a movie set for release in March 2023. The title is suggestive of another Anno hit, the 2016 “Shin Godzilla,” which earned $78 million worldwide.
Together with Toho and Anno’s Khara animation house, Toei is also a distributor of “Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time,” the fourth and final entry in the “Rebuild of Evangelion” series, all directed by Anno. Opening March 8, the film had grossed $81.4 million on 5.86 million admissions as of June 16, making it the box office leader for the first half of 2021.
Will this success spark a renaissance in Japan’s pandemic-hit box office — and Toei’s corporate fortunes? We probably won’t have to wait until “Shin Kamen Rider” opens in 2023 to find out.