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Old Hollywood, new Japan

Japanese filmgoers may love American movies, but the nation's TV networks know what audiences really want to see on the big screen.

September 24, 2006|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

Tokyo — OLD-TIME Hollywood moguls would have loved a film producer like Chihiro Kameyama.

Sure, they might have raised an eyebrow at the former TV executive's designer glasses and, no, he wasn't chomping a cigar as he held forth on the healthy state of Japanese movies from a corner office of Fuji TV's headquarters, the eccentric Tokyo landmark that looks like it belongs on "The Jetsons."

But when Kameyama talks pictures, well ... you can just feel the ghosts of Zanuck and Mayer and their studio yes-men nodding in agreement at his chatter.

Entertain, entertain, entertain! That's Kameyama's credo. Japanese audiences want movies that make them laugh and cry, he says. They want their made-in-Japan movies to have characters they can relate to, not some knock-off American superhero. ("Nobody would buy a Japanese Schwarzenegger," he says. "It wouldn't be credible.") You gotta give them characters they recognize from everyday life, he says.

Oh -- and not too much blood. "People don't die in our movies," Kameyama says simply. "We're going for a mass audience, and you can't have a lot of bloodshed and people dying. You'd think in a disaster movie people would ask: 'How can nobody die?' But they don't." He shrugs. "It makes me think that people don't want to see so much violence after all."

It's a collection of aphorisms Kameyama has stirred into box office riches for Fuji, which, in addition to being Japan's biggest commercial TV broadcaster, has become a prolific producer of the live-action feature films that are seriously cutting into Hollywood's share of the box office.

Fuji is not alone. All four of Japan's powerful TV networks have entered the movie business, creating a new source of domestic film production that is changing the economics of Hollywood's biggest market outside the U.S.

"Hollywood still has hits, but overall, their movies have gotten boring and Japanese audiences have gotten up," says Yoshio Kakeo, director of the Kinema Junpo Film Institute and a leading voice on the Japanese film industry.

Audiences weren't so picky back in the '90s, when Hollywood could send just about anything across the Pacific and the Japanese would pay to see it. The American invasion that picked up speed in the early '60s had finally surpassed the Japanese studios for ticket sales in 1975, a grip on the Japanese moviegoers' hearts and wallets that seemed to only tighten every year.

But in the last four years, the Japanese share of the domestic industry has begun to claw back a portion of Hollywood's market share. Domestic films bottomed out at just 27% of the Japanese market in 2002. Since then, that share has risen every year, reaching 41% of the country's $1.68-billion box office in 2005.

Last year's Japanese take was due, in large part, to the box office juggernaut of animation doyen Hayao Miyazaki's "Howl's Moving Castle," which grossed almost twice as much by year's end as "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," its closest competitor. But the Japanese run of successes has continued through 2006, and not just in animation, where "Tales From Earthsea," directed by Miyazaki's son, Goro, has enjoyed a long run in the No. 1 slot.

This summer season's movie buzz was also about live-action flicks such as "The Sinking of Japan," a disaster epic in which the entire Japanese archipelago goes under, and "Umizaru 2: Test of Trust," another disaster/rescue flick. That follows the surprising No. 1 run this year of "Suite Dreams," a comedy (who said the Japanese wouldn't pay to see comedy because their TV is full of it?).

The trend looks set to continue into the fall with films like "Udon," a late summer release about a man returning from a failed attempt to make it in New York who discovers pleasures -- and presumably the metaphor -- in the simplicity of a perfect bowl of udon noodles.


U.S. blockbusters still strong

NO ONE is suggesting Hollywood's footprint is about to disappear. The big American blockbuster remains safe in Japan, where Johnny Depp and his band of bandanas have been the year's biggest hit, just ahead of "The Da Vinci Code's" big box office take. For one thing, blockbusters still get the benefit of being shown on far more screens than any Japanese movie not made by a Miyazaki.

It's the middle market where Hollywood is being squeezed by this rediscovered interest in domestic live-action fare. With overall ticket sales flat -- stuck around 160 million a year in a country of 126 million -- competition is a zero-sum game.

And the losers have been American films like "Syriana," "The Omen" and "Eight Below," all of which swiftly came and went from the top 10, chased out by Japanese movies.

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