August 24, 2017

Hollywood made in Japan

Hollywood rose to world domination by finding the common dramatic denominator amongst most of the movie-going population on the planet, epitomized by the Disney animated feature and the action movie (whether shoot 'em ups or CGI-heavy fantasy epics and space operas).

Hollywood films once dominated the box office in Japan too. Lately, Japanese filmmakers have started paying less attention to high-brow film critics abroad and learned how to appeal to those common denominators too. In other words, they stopped trying to be the next Kurosawa and started trying to be the next J.J. Abrams.

As a result, the home-grown share of the Japanese movie market has grown from under 30 percent to over 60 percent in under two decades.

Combined with digital technology, cinematographers have proved themselves capable of producing the Hollywood action-flick "look" for a fraction of the cost. Over the span of a single decade, the technological improvements in the Appleseed films (3D animation using motion capture) have been nothing short of staggering.

A Harry Potter or Frozen will still zoom to the top of the charts, but made-in-Japan movies now hold most of the top-twenty spots. Except that, more often than not, they do so by fitting into Japanese culture in ways that Hollywood films can't, by exploiting culture, currents, and trends that are literally foreign outside Japan.

The evolutionary spiral that results has been termed "Galapagos syndrome," referring to products so customized to Japan's "island culture" that they are incompatible with the rest of the world.

In the Japan Times, Stephen Stapczynski and Shoko Oda point out that two of Japan's biggest grossing films of 2016, Your Name and Shin Godzilla, couldn't be less alike, and yet "the two movies share one thing in common—they're relentlessly, unapologetically Japanese."

Your Name is at times a love letter to Tokyo's cityscapes, with key plot points revolving around regional Japanese traditions. Shin Godzilla has more fast-talking scenes riffing on Japan's post-Fukushima politics than it does building-stomping monsters.

Another good example is the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy. It follow the Hollywood action movie playbook, with slick production values and lots of action paired with a dumbed-down script stocked with cardboard characters (played by actors better than their parts).

Part 1 is worth watching for the dazzling swordplay. Part 3 is worth watching because Masaharu Fukuyama dominates the first third doing a combination of Yoda and Mr. Miyagi from Karate Kid. Plus Yosuke Eguchi shines as Saito Hajime, a cynical ex-Shinsengumi lieutenant who switched sides.

The seeming simplicity of the story aside, the Rurouni Kenshin series assumes a cursory understanding of the Bakumatsu era (during which the various sides negotiated by day and assassinated each other by night), the Boshin War, and the early Meiji period leading up to the Satsuma Rebellion.

Even a Japanese kid who slept through every history class in school will have absorbed the rough details along the way. Western audiences will have a much harder time figuring out what the heck is going on.

This is one of the many reasons made-in-Japan family films and copies of the Hollywood action flick formula can't compete with the Hollywood behemoths outside the Asian market, such that most never even get a DVD release in the U.S. (Getting American audiences to read subtitles is another reason.)

The live-action version of Chihayafuru is a fine adaptation and a great teen movie with a compelling female lead. But I can understand why U.S. distributors would pass on a story that centers around a competition involving medieval Japanese poetry. And only the hint of a romantic sub-plot.

Despite winning a "best picture" award in Japan, the live action film of The Great Passage (about a team of etymologists compiling a Japanese dictionary) also remains unlicensed, while the anime version was picked up by Amazon. The Chihayafuru anime series is available on Crunchyroll

So while the Fast and the Furious franchise has raked in $1.5 billion worldwide by stripping away the cultural baggage and concentrating on a handful of universal story elements, anime and manga have thrived by being not-Disney, by creating a unique media niche not easily duplicated. Which, ironically, makes it all the more niche.

Your Name set records around Asia for a Japanese-produced film. But it's still a niche product that, like all those highly praised Studio Ghibli movies, barely made a dent at the U.S. box office.

Thankfully, audiences are growing large enough to make "borderless" media worth the bother. Increasingly, studios in Japan (same Blu-ray region as the Americas) distribute discs with English subtitles. Maybe someday in the not-too-distant future, any movie made anywhere will be available everywhere at a reasonable price.

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