How Popular Are American Movies In Japan?

by Justin Sevakis,

Cordelia asks:

I noticed that in Japan, American movies are highly popular such as Titanic and Frozen for examples. I even heard Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean are really popular and are some of the top grossing movies there. Are American films released there just as popular as Japan's own cinema in theaters?

Japan has always had a very robust film industry of its own, with local productions dating back well into the silent era. However, Western and American films have always had an outsized influence on the local box office, and the tastes of the local population.

Films like Star Wars, Streets of Fire, The Road Warrior and especially Blade Runner were all hugely influential to anime for many years, with direct homages and more subtle influences popping up in a huge percentage of anime of the 80s and 90s. More recently Harry Potter, Pixar films, and even the occasional superhero movie does big business in Japan, although those films are far less stylistically distinctive, so any influence on anime is hard to pick out. (I'm sure Harry Potter is at least partly responsible for our drowning in magical school series currently.)

Japan had a lot of great live action films coming out of it in the 80s and 90s, but they were predominantly art house dramas and cult films. The budgets given to those films could never compete with Hollywood for spectacle, and so directors of that era strived to be more artistically inclined, so as to make a splash on the international film festival stage, and perhaps someday get an Oscar nomination.

Maybe it was the lowering cost of digital production, or maybe it was all the attention Japan's eternal rival South Korea was getting for its films in the international film scene, or maybe the influence of American studios such as Warner Bros. and Universal establishing themselves in Japan. But regardless, in the mid-2000s Japan's film industry turned a corner, and started making much more populist films. Many were "sequel" movies to popular TV drama series. Others were adaptations of manga series or books. Few were original. These new films usually weren't artistically significant -- few among them got much attention around the world. But they did much, much better business, especially in Japan.

Nowadays, if you look at the annual top box office lists for Japan, they're about 70% local films. In 2014, for example, Frozen blew away every other movie for first place, but only 7 of the top 25 films were, in fact, Hollywood product. Compare that to 2002, in which only a single Japanese film -- The Cat Returns -- even cracked the top 10.

As an unfortunate side-effect, Japan's art house filmmaking has mostly stagnated. While not everyone is into Art House Films, this is a problem that affects the whole filmmaking world: these films often provide the artistic fodder for much more mainstream, populist creators in Hollywood and elsewhere. In the late 90s and early 2000s the country was producing at least 2 or 3 truly interesting, bizarre or moving films every year that travelled to all the major film festivals and made huge impressions with more obsessed cinema fans around the world. Now we're lucky to get one every year or two. So in a way, Japan has traded its place as one of the world's foremost producers of important art cinema into just another film business. But at least it makes a hell of a lot more money.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

discuss this in the forum (42 posts) |
bookmark/share with: short url

Answerman homepage / archives