Studio Ghibli film My Neighbor Totoro’s China release is a box office hit 30 years on

  • Screening of Japanese anime classic, three decades after its initial worldwide release, ranks second for cinema takings in China over the weekend
  • The Hayao Miyazaki film from Studio Ghibli earned more than US$418,000 in three days
PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 December, 2018, 1:57pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2018, 11:49am

For a movie which was first released 30 years ago, My Neighbor Totoro’s rescreening in China racked up big box office returns over the weekend.

Released on Friday, the classic film by Japanese anime maestro Hayao Miyazaki ranked second for box office takings in China after Aquaman, the live-action DC Comics gigantic hit.

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Depicting the magical encounters between two female siblings and wood spirits resembling giant chinchillas in post-war rural Japan, My Neighbor Totoro had taken more than 93.6 million yuan (US$418,000) by the end of Sunday. The heart-warming film sold more tickets than four new offerings – The Grinch, Searching, Running to the Spring and Padman.

My Neighbor Totoro is the first of Miyazaki’s film to receive a wide public release in China – it is showing in 6,000 cinemas. While Miyazaki’s films and his whimsical cinematic characters have regaled worldwide audiences for decades, the films have never had a widespread public release in China. A public relations executive for China Jash Film, the promoter of the film, told the Post they were only screened as academic releases before.

“Academic releases means the films are screened in a small number of theatres for cultural exchange [purposes],” she said.

While the executive declined to explain why Miyazaki’s films have never enjoyed a wide public release in China, online pundits attribute it to the vagaries of Sino-Japanese relations, the director’s reluctance to release his films in the country because of widespread piracy, tight Chinese quotas on foreign film imports, and Chinese officials limiting overseas animation releases to support local productions.

Chinese fans who until now have only been able to enjoy Miyazaki’s films through pirated DVDs and online streaming expressed huge enthusiasm at finally being able to view one on the big screen.

One internet user wrote: “I have waited for 30 years for this. I grew up with Miyazaki’s films including Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Porco Rosso. My Neighbor Totoro is my favourite of all his films. I love its themes about childhood innocence and unlimited child imagination.”

The film shown in China is a digitised version of the original that was shown in North America in 2014, in the UK and South Korea in 2015, and in France this year. In China, two versions, one in the original Japanese and one dubbed into Mandarin, are available. Voicing the ailing mother of the two girls in the film is Chinese actress Qin Lan, who played the Qianlong emperor’s wife in the hugely popular series Story of Yanxi Palace.

As an ambassador to promote the film’s Chinese release, she recently went to Japan to interview Miyazaki, who rarely gives interviews since he officially announced his retirement in 2013 (he has since come out of retirement several times to work on new films).

In an article released this month by Sina Entertainment, which reported on the encounter between Miyazaki and the actress, the director showed his concern for environmental protection.

“In the past when I made my creations, there were many varieties of plants [in the real world] for me to observe and take inspiration from. However, now, due to the human impact on nature, I can’t make my past creations even if I want to. Humans can protect the environment. [We should try our best to do so.],” he said.

The decision to give a wide release to Miyazaki’s film in China followed the spectacular performance of recent Japanese animated films at the Chinese box office.

Released in November, Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer, about the crime-solving exploits of a primary school detective, chalked up over 120 million yuan in ticket sales. Released in China in 2016, Your Name, a touching fantasy-romance set around the lives of two high school students who swap bodies when they dream, and who try to alter history, had ticket sales of 576 million yuan.

Rescreening masterpieces to tap into the public’s nostalgia for past cinematic gems, is a tried-and-tested formula in the Chinese cinema industry. First released in 1998, a 3D-enhanced version of the worldwide mega hit Titanic was rescreened in China in 2012, and took 948 million yuan at the box office.

First released in 1995, a lengthened version of Stephen Chow’s vehicle A Chinese Odyssey Part One – Pandora's Box was rescreened in 2014, and had 200 million yuan in ticket sales.

Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time and Days of Being Wild, both starring the late Leslie Cheung, and John Woo’s action classic A Better Tomorrow, have also benefited from rescreenings.

With only limited outlays for copyright, film retouching and promotion, rescreenings of classics can break even if they take 10 million yuan at the box office.

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Given the spectacular weekend performance of My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki’s Chinese fans should not need to wait long to see some of his other films, such as Spirited Away and The Wind Rises, also enjoy a wide release.