Can Japanese films improve ties between Tokyo and Beijing in 2017?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 December, 2016, 7:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 December, 2016, 7:00am

Japanese films have the potential to give fresh impetus to efforts by Tokyo and Beijing to warm political relations in 2017, as evidenced by the recent smash-hit animation Your Name in China.

Yoji Yamada, a prominent Japanese film director whose latest comedy’s remake is to be premiered in China next spring, is one of many who imagine that could be the case.

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“Following the blockbuster success of the animation, I strongly hope that many other Japanese movies will be available in China, and more and more Chinese films will be shown in Japan,” Yamada said. “With such developments, I believe we Japanese will be able to get friendlier with Chinese people.”

“After all, it is our neighbouring country. It is very important for our country to get along with China,” he said.

“To that end, I wish that my kind of work could be of assistance, even if only slightly,” the 85-year-old veteran director said after attending the last day of filming the Chinese version of What a Wonderful Family! in Beijing in mid-December.

The comedy drama, centering on an ordinary middle-class family rocked by a sudden divorce requested by the wife of an elderly couple, drew loud laughter at the Shanghai International Film Festival in June.

In the confident belief that it would also be popular in China, a Shanghai-based studio quickly signed a remake agreement with Shochiku, which distributed the original version in Japan in March.

The drama, whose Japanese title literally means “it’s tough being a family”, is scheduled to hit some 5,000 Chinese screens in late April. It is just one of a handful of cases that reflect active collaboration between Asia’s two biggest film industries, despite lingering tensions over territorial and wartime issues.

I believe we Japanese will be able to get friendlier with Chinese people
Film director Yoji Yamada

Japan and China will celebrate the 45th anniversary of the normalisation of diplomatic ties in 2017 and the 40th anniversary of their treaty of friendship and peace in the following year.

Japanese government officials have especially expressed hope to capitalise on the two anniversaries to achieve a real breakthrough in diplomatic ties with China.

Nevertheless, the Chinese government is highly unlikely to soften its posture toward Japan across the board anytime soon, partly because it will enter again into a politically sensitive time before the Communist Party’s congress to be held in the second half of 2017.

However, there may be an exception: the cultural scene.

It was a symbolic sign in 2016 that China, which still keeps a tight grip on inflow of foreign entertainment programmes, approved the release of a total of 11 Japanese films, among which was Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name.

The love story became the highest-grossing Japanese movie of all time in China since it opened in early December, topping box office sales of the previous record set in 2015 by Stand By Me Doraemon, a 3-D animated film featuring a robotic cat character from a famous Japanese manga series.

The Doraemon film, which raked in about 530 million yuan (US$76 million) in China, was the first Japanese motion picture in nearly three years to go on general release in the world’s second-largest cinema market.

Koichiro Takahashi, who heads the Japan Foundation’s operations in China, feels that public sentiment toward Japan is much better than it was about four years ago.

“The situation has been that Chinese people can more openly enjoy [Japanese culture],” he said at the organisation’s Beijing office.

Takahashi said the foundation, a government-affiliated cultural promotion body, has begun to expand efforts to win the hearts and minds of younger people and intellectuals with almost no prior connections with Japan.

Citing a steady increase in the number of Chinese tourists to Japan, estimated to have surpassed the 6 million mark for the first time in 2016, he said it has become imperative to target those people.

For Fan Suning, an 18-year-old university student in China’s eastern city of Nanjing, Japan’s pop culture, such as anime and manga, has been around for as long as she can remember.

Fan said she finds herself these days hooked on participating in “cosplay” events, or those that involve dressing up as characters from comics, television shows and video games.

“The pictures were beautiful and I loved it so much,” she said regarding Shinkai’s blockbuster. “I’ve never been to Japan, but I always wanted to go. After watching that film at a theater, my desire to visit there has become even stronger.”

In terms of business, Japanese studios are also unable to disregard China, which could overtake the United States as the world’s number one cinema market in the not-so-distant future.

While the Japanese audience is shrinking and aging, Tadashi Osumi, an executive managing director of Shochiku, thinks the Chinese market provides a golden opportunity, although there are numerous challenges, including censorship and piracy.

Most of the foreign films that have had access to the fast-growing market are mainstream Hollywood hits and, when it comes to movies from Japan, they are almost all animations.

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“I’d like to show films for grown-ups in China,” said Osumi, who believes the Chinese audience is becoming ripe and craving a wider genre of films.

“I’ve heard that Chinese people love comedy and they now really want to laugh,” he said.

Yamada, who has earned enduring fame for his It’s Tough Being a Man, or Tora-san, series, said he learned anew how vibrant the Chinese movie industry is during his latest brief visit.

Perhaps “it’s tough being a neighbour” too.

But Yamada believes Japanese and Chinese people may have far more in common than they realise, sharing values and facing similar problems, whether as married couples, parents or children.