imomus (imomus) wrote,
imomus
imomus

Let's watch Japan's hoga bubble fly!

According to Michi Kaifu, editor of Hoga Central, "Hoga means 'domestic movie' in Japanese. I picked this name not only because the word is much shorter than 'Japanese Movie', but also because it implies 'the opinions/viewpoint of Japanese fans' about their own domestic movie".

Okay, so hoga is a film made in Japan, but also the feelings Japanese have towards their own domestic productions. Those feelings, as I learned yesterday from a comment here by Jason Gray, the Japanese correspondent of Screen International, are currently very warm indeed.



Jason wanted to correct a gloomy extrapolation I'd made from figures I'd found from the turn of the century. I'd extrapolated the kind of decline scenario you see in the (hypothetical) chart above, with American imports forcing Japanese film productions into the ground within a few decades. (Of course, this assumes the continuation of films as we know them, cinemas as we currently have them, and so on.) I lumped this "decline scenario" in with other hub and spoke phenomena. "If current trends continue (and I doubt they will, but that's for another day), by about 2040 no Japanese films will be watched in Japan; they'll all be American."

Okay, that more optimistic "other day" is today. Jason Gray told me yesterday: "Your assessment for the "future" of viewership here is based on figures from 7 years ago (!) and is completely the opposite of what's happening recently. Japanese films gained a majority share (53.2%) of the market in 2006, for the first time in over two decades. This is after year-on-year increases since the all-time low of '02. Most believe it's a bubble that may burst as soon as this year and that the high number of productions is causing a glut. Nonetheless, Japanese people are loving Japanese films more than any time in recent memory, aided by major synergy between different media (especially TV/film/publishing)."

So, for the last five years there's been this thing -- an amazing renaissance -- going on in Japanese film. They're calling it the "hoga bubble". The word "bubble", of course, is a metaphor which suggests that it's not particularly sustainable. Maybe it's a boom, but that still implies a bust somewhere down the line. Or is it a tipping point, a corner which has been definitively turned? Does it represent the end of the dominance of Hollywood in foreign markets? Will other countries follow Japan's example, and see their own domestic film productions take more than 50% of all box office? India's already there, of course, but you'd have to go back to the 1960s (and all those wonderful, smutty Carry On films starring Kenneth Williams and Sid James) to see a similar market share for British films in the British market, for instance. But if the bubble did turn out to be a corner, we might see our chart looking something like this:



A quick sketch of what caused the "hoga bubble". It's a lot to do with tying film production in to publishing and television successes. According to Michi Kaifu "Fuji TV started current "hoga bubble" by backing up Bayside Shakedown series, a detective-action story, based on its own TV-drama series. Its second feature film Bayside Shakedown 2 earned 17 billion yen, the historical highest gross among live action J-movies, in 2003." It's also a lot to do with animation (the only exportable element here), and specifically the huge success, in 2004, of "Howl's Moving Castle" by Miyazaki. (Even I went to see it, and I hardly ever go to the cinema!)

The best general survey of the hoga bubble I can find online is this one on the Cinemasie site (in French only). It says that for the first time for more than twenty years, local productions in 2006 took 53% of box office, overtaking foreign films (and 95% of those are American). That was up from 43% in 2005. Films produced per year are also up, to about 500 last year, from about 250 in 2002. The number of cinema seats is also increasing, as is the size of the domestic film market itself. Cinemasie notes the market domination of Toho, far ahead of domestic rivals Shochiku and Toei. It notes the tendency for co-production by television companies. And it notes the end of the Korea boom.

Michi Kaifu adds an interesting development -- an increase in the number of female directors. She mentions Miwa Nishikawa (Sway) and Naoko Ogiwara (Kamome Diner) as well as Mana Yasuda, Aya Watanabe and Mika Ninagawa, whose "Sakuran" was one of the buzz hits of the recent Berlinale film festival. This "breath of fresh air" is a trend I feel particularly close to, and somewhat involved in: Mika Ninagawa used one of my songs in her first short, Cheap Trip, and Emi Necozawa and I did soundtrack music for Noriko Shibutani's "Bambi (Heart) Bone".

I'm particularly interested in the larger cultural context in which this is happening. Jason Gray says "the Hollywood imports are appealing less and less to locals. Johnny Depp is a veritable God here, but #1-ranked Pirates (and #2 ranked Da Vinci Code) excepted, this year was unimpressive. Aside from Spider Man, Japanese audiences have limited interest in American superheroes like Superman and X-Men. M:i:III only made half of what the second film did. And when an animation style doesn't appeal, as in the case of Cars, it tanks no matter how huge the P&A budget is".

The hoga bubble trend certainly fits a picture of American cultural dominance receding, or at least allowing local expression to re-emerge, after a period of near-eclipse. It also fits a picture of a new mood I noticed emerging in Japan when I worked there two years ago at Future University in Hokkaido -- a "new mood of national narcissism", I called it at the time.

"This year I've been very aware of a surprising new mood in Japan, an intensely inward-looking mood akin to narcissism. Japan, increasingly, performs itself to itself as 'the other', as an exotic tourist destination primped for internal consumption. TV here in Hokkaido is an endless advertorial presentation of winter resorts where Japanese families go to marvel at intensely, even stereotypically, Japanese wonders; to bathe in hot springs, to sit on tatami mats in ryokan hotels, to sample inevitably delicious food. It's what deconstructionists would call 'the staging of difference against the scenery of standardisation and globalisation'."

Marxy also noticed the change in mood, although, typically, he saw it as less benign. In September 2005, noting the decline of the kind of Japanese TV ad featuring b-list American celebrities (the kind "Lost in Translation" celebrates), he called the new mood "neo-nationalistic navel-gazing". For him, a decline of Japanese interest in America was the result of less disposable income in Japan and less cosmopolitanism; an "unlucky generation" was "pushing towards a monotonous local orientation".

A boom, a bubble, a corner or a tipping point? Who knows. But now we have a term for it, let's watch Japan's hoga bubble fly!
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