Take a long hard look at this list of the ten top grossing films at the Japanese box office , downloaded on 31 October 2014.
1. Spirited Away 2001 ¥30.40bn (JP anime)
2. Titanic 1997 ¥26.2bn (US live action)
3. Frozen 2014 ¥25.92bn (US anime)
4. Harry Potter 1 2001 ¥20.3bn (US live action)
5. Howl’s Moving Castle 2004 ¥19.6bn (JP anime)
6. Princess Mononoke 1997 ¥19.2bn (JP anime)
7. Bayside Shakedown 2 2003 ¥17.35bn (JP live action)
8. Harry Potter 2 2002 ¥17.3bn (US live action)
9. Avatar 2009 ¥15.6bn (US CGI)
10. Ponyo 2008 ¥15.5bn (JP anime)
This could be the last time for a while – maybe a very long while – that a Japanese feature heads the field. The lead that Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning Spirited Away built up over 13 years has been eaten by Disney’s Frozen in a matter of months. If the musical celebration of parental incompetence and its consequences doesn’t out-earn every other movie screened in Japan by the end of November, it will almost certainly do so by the end of the year.
Now look at the content of the list: four Ghibli movies, all directed by Miyazaki senior, two US animations, and the rest live action, primarily foreign. Anime – in the broader, Japanese meaning of animation – is better represented than in the West, and the superhero movie is less important, but the marketing might of the US film industry still occupies Japan’s box office. This becomes even more obvious reviewing the top 20 earners, with only eight locally-made films.
On a month by month basis individual features buck the trend and rule Japan’s box office for a while. Other earnings – on merchandising, music and spinoffs – can give local movies solid franchise status. And of course, a U.S. movie needs substantial Japanese involvement in terms of translation, script , promotion and voice talent to score at the box office. So the Japanese industry is still earning, even if the majority of the money heads overseas.
But only one Japanese director makes a significant dent in American dominance of Japan’s box office, and that one Japanese director has just announced his retirement from making features.
“…. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
from ‘Ozymandias’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley