Getting more animated

What does a hit Japanese anime say about improving ties with Tokyo?

Zhou Dongyu-w

Zhou Dongyu: lends her voice

After Miyazaki Hayao released Spirited Away back in 2001, the film went on to win an Academy Award for best animated film. Miyazaki later admitted to being “constantly baffled by the popularity of my work in America”.

Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro, an unhappy girl who wanders into an abandoned amusement park, where she discovers that her parents have been turned into pigs and that the park is inhabited by demons and spirits. Steeped as it is in Japanese mythology, some film critics have claimed it is hard for non-Japanese to appreciate Spirited Away in all of its nuances. But perhaps the most striking thing about Miyazaki’s animation is its staying power. That became evident when the 18 year-old film was released in China for the first time last week and proved vastly more popular than Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story 4. It raked in Rmb300 million ($43.6 million) during its first week, more than double Toy Story 4’s take.

The lukewarm response to Buzz Lightyear’s latest outing was perhaps more of a surprise, as Toy Story 4 had proven a much bigger draw in other parts of the world. Conversely, it was thought that Miyazaki’s film might struggle in China where the animator’s fans have had plenty of opportunity to see the film on pirated DVDs or illegal downloads.

“A lot of fans of Miyazaki came to watch the film, even though they had all seen Spirited Away many times, because the experience of watching it on the big screen is different,” Bao Bin, manager of a cinema chain in Hangzhou, told TMT Post. “Fans say the second time of watching the film has given them a new perspective too, because they have grown up. This is why Spirited Away has become so popular both with the young and the old.”

“In an era when we only know to look ahead, isn’t it time to take a step back to look inward and revisit the past? A film like Spirited Away is exactly the comfort we need in this impetuous era,” another fan gushed on weibo.

That’s not to say that Toy Story 4 doesn’t have its supporters. It received a rating of 8.9 out of 10 on Douban, the TV series and film review site, and critics reckoned that it appeals to a combination of younger children and adults in a similar way to the Japanese cartoon.

“In many ways, Spirited Away and Toy Story 4 are not very different in the sense that they are both targeted at older audiences: those who are grown-up but still reminisce about the past,” one critic added.

Local movie executives suspect another reason that Spirited Away performed so well is that it is a standalone film rather than a sequel. Audiences didn’t have the same view of the latest in the Toy Story series. “In the eyes of audiences unfamiliar with the franchise, the fact that the film is the fourth instalment creates something of a mental barrier; it becomes a big turn off for them,” one commented.

Spirited Away’s distributor, Enlight Media, added some star power to the film by hiring a group of young celebrities to do the Chinese voiceovers, like actress Zhou Dongyu and heartthrob Jing Boran.

“The support of the stars expanded the appeal of the film from just nostalgia fans to fans of the stars. The stars also improved the publicity for the film, which brought more traffic to the cinema,” observed TMT Post. “On the other hand, publicity for Toy Story 4 was virtually nonexistent. A lot of audiences complained that they didn’t even know it had already come out.”

But why had it taken so long for the Japanese anime to reach China’s cinema screens? Political disputes with Tokyo over everything from wartime guilt to maritime territory have meant that film offerings from Japan have historically faced more obstacles in China. But the mood has improved in the last few years. One of the consequences of the Sino-US trade war has been more of an effort from Beijing to improve its ties with its Asian neighbours. As we pointed out in WiC457, this partly explained why a locally made blockbuster about a 1937 battle with the Japanese was pulled from cinemas at the last minute. The decision to then show Miyazaki’s film – even though censors would normally look unfavourably on the plot’s assimilation of Japan’s Shinto religion – might be taken as another sign of warming relations. In fact, President Xi Jinping was in Japan last week for the G20 summit and in a significant development was invited by Japanese leader Abe Shinzo to make a state visit – a Tokyo trip that is likely to occur next spring. Based on that timetable and the box office success of Spirited Away, film distributors will be weighing up which of Miyazaki’s other feature-length animes to screen in China.

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