Seven of the top box office hits in Japan during 2013 were animated films. Japan has been a leader in anime at least since the 1960s, but this is a new development that signals a faltering Hollywood grip on a key overseas market.
"The Wind Rises," the story of the designer of the Japanese Zero fighter as told by animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, was the top box office hit in Japan, earning $116 million.
All is not lost for Hollywood. "Monsters University," the well-received sequel to "Monsters Inc.," was No. 2 in Japan with $89 million. Naturally, considering its patriotic theme, "The Wind Rises" appealed directly to Japanese sensibilities, so it would have been tough for any animated film to top it. The "Monsters University" figure was quite respectable and easily could have been the top draw in other years. However, Hollywood live-action films were conspicuous by their near-absence from the list.
Those two animated films were followed at No. 3 by "Ted," which has an animated lead character. Most of the other animated films in the top ten for 2013 were derived from local anime franchises with built-in audiences. The 2012 Disney hit "Wreck-It Ralph," was released in Japan as "Sugar Rush," came in tenth at the 2013 Japanese box office, at $29.3 million.
Surprisingly, "Iron Man 3" did not crack the top ten, earning only $25.3 million and coming in not far ahead of Johnny Depp's "The Lone Ranger," which earned $20 million and was a surprise hit with Japanese audiences.
It is easy to sneer at box office returns, especially foreign ones, as any guide to film quality. However, the success or failure of a film and, indeed, entire film franchises relies more and more on international grosses these days. Domestic US audiences may recoup production costs for a hit film, but the profits flow in from overseas. Failure of Hollywood films overseas would lead to lower film budgets and, thus, likely lower grosses both domestically and abroad in a vicious downward cycle. At a bare minimum, it would cut into actor/film executive salaries and studio profits.
In live-action films, Hollywood needs to crank out better product for Japan or it will continue falling behind.