Sunday, February 25

From Shohei to ‘Zelda’, Japan’s big soft-power year

In a year in which Walt Disney Co struggled with expensive flops and audiences finally fell out of love with superhero movies, Japan scored a best-ever series of soft-power hits.

Little by little, the country is getting better at pitching its copious wares overseas, and 2023 proved that. From Super Mario’s domination at the theatre to Netflix Inc’s adaptation of best-selling manga “One Piece”, it was a year when audiences demonstrated their increasing fondness for the soft-power super-power.

With “The Super Mario Bros Movie”, Nintendo Co’s tie-up with “Minions” creator Illumination Entertainment Inc, the Kyoto-based video game maker scored the second-highest grossing movie of the year worldwide, beaten only by Warner Bros Discovery Inc’s “Barbie”. Nintendo is the prime example of a Japanese company with a world-class library of intellectual properties that it has, until now, been content not to exploit. That’s starting to change: The Mario film ties in to “Donkey Kong”, the ape who’ll be at the centre of the expanded area opening in Osaka’s Universal Studios Japan theme park early this year.

Nintendo also scored a hit with its “Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom” video game on Switch, which has sold 20 million copies. Zelda will also be the next of Nintendo’s properties to get the silver-screen treatment, with the company’s shares soaring after announcing a live-action adaptation. With Illumination, Nintendo’s choice of partner for Mario was inspired. It remains to be seen whether director Wes Ball, who’s helming 2024’s “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes”, will prove as on-point a choice.

Nintendo is far from the only Japanese firm getting more bang for their bucks overseas, however. With “Godzilla Minus One”, Toho Co hasn’t only had the most success ever with one of its Godzilla films overseas — it’s produced the highest-grossing live-action Japanese movie at the US box office ever, as well as one of 2023’s most critically acclaimed blockbusters.

Elsewhere, legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki’s magnum opus “The Boy and the Heron” was the first of his films to open at top of the US box office. The movie, along with Mario and Makoto Shinkai’s “Suzume”, has been nominated for best-animated feature at the Golden Globes — meaning the Japanese properties make up fully half of the nominations.

Previously, I wrote about how Japan is falling out of love with Hollywood, a trend that was only accelerated in 2023. Much of the rest of the world often seems to be following suit. “Suzume” was a smash hit in South Korea, the highest-grossing foreign movie of 2023. Its success in Asia was overshadowed by another property perhaps less familiar to English-language readers: “The First Slam Dunk”, based on the 1990s basketball manga. Much of its box office of US$280 million (RM1.31 billion) was earned overseas, with the movie particularly popular with Chinese audiences. Its success is perhaps the most illustrative example yet of how Japan is getting better at exploiting its massive library of intellectual property and generating revenue overseas.

On the small screen too, Netflix finally broke its streak of live-action animation duds with “One Piece”, the most-watched show worldwide upon its release. While I wasn’t a fan, I’m hardly the target audience: The series has been so successful that Netflix is doubling down, not only greenlighting a second season, but commissioning a brand-new animated adaptation of the comic by WIT Studios.

Adaptations of Japanese comic books are a core part of the streaming giant’s strategy, with “One Piece” joined by the recently released “Yu Yu Hakusho”. Next up, the streaming platform is planning an adaptation of superhero manga “My Hero Academia”, helmed by the director of “Alice in Borderland”, itself an unusual Japanese-language live-action success exclusive to the platform.

Sales of Japanese comics have long since passed those of Marvel or DC in US stores. But from the success of Sony Group Corp’s dedicated streaming site Crunchyroll, to the sight of rapper Megan Thee Stallion’s viral cosplay (a word that itself is Japanese) of “Jujutsu Kaisen” characters, the influence of Japanese animation on Gen Z is increasingly evident — and in a world where streamers are hungry for more, the country’s content farms are stepping up. The anime market has more than doubled in size in the 10 years to 2021 to ¥2.74 trillion yen (RM89.73 billion), driven by a four-fold increase from outside Japan.

For a nation that is often said to be staid and unable to innovate, I often contrast the constant string of new franchises that manga and animation churn out against the endless recycling of US comics’ same handful of big hits. The most anticipated comic projects in Hollywood are James Gunn’s “Superman: Legacy” (the fourth iteration of the Man of Steel on the silver screen), and yet another adaptation of “X-Men” that will integrate the mutants into Marvel’s cinematic universe. Is it little wonder that audiences are tiring and turning to something new?

It was a more mixed year for Japan’s music industry, which has struggled for decades to sell itself overseas — and has been long since left in the dust by K-pop’s far more savvy management. In one bright spot, Yoasobi became the first Japanese act to score a No 1 on the Billboard Global ex-US chart.

But the year was blighted by the downfall of J-pop agency Johnny & Associates Inc, after revelations of sexual abuse committed by deceased founder Johnny Kitagawa came to light after an investigation by the BBC.

Finally, one other notable soft-power success for Japan last year was in the world of sports, particularly baseball: It defeated the US in the World Baseball Classic, while Shohei Ohtani became the world’s highest-paid athlete with his deferred US$700 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. And soon he’ll be joined by the hottest property playing in Japan, star pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto.

Millions will be watching their endeavours back home in Japan. Similarly, the Internet, smartphones and translation tools continue to make accessible all kinds of content that would have been considered incredibly niche even a decade ago. Audience tastes are changing, and 2023 showed they’re skewing further east. — Bloomberg

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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