In the span of a few short months, Makoto Shinkai’s latest anime film, your name., has become one of the top-grossing films in Japan of all time, surpassing even Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle. The film is nothing less than a cultural phenomenon at this point, tapping deep into the anxieties of a post-Fukushima Japan while telling an emotional love story. Personally, I think it’s great, but I won’t be talking about the film itself in this article. The question I’m interested in here is one that interests many of us and yet involves no spoilers—how does your name. fare overseas?
The Chinese poster for your name.
Let’s start with the first and most obvious form of international recognition for animated films: awards. your name. had a short theatrical run in Los Angeles last week in order to qualify for the Oscar nominations, and also received the Best Animation award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Associations while it was at it. Yet for all the talk among journalists about Shinkai being the next Miyazaki, the comparison is ill-fitting. The styles of the two directors could not be more different, and, more importantly, Shinkai lacks the brand recognition of Studio Ghibli or the international backing of Disney. In the US-centric world of the Oscar awards, your name. doesn’t seem likely to hit jackpot, although it would be a very pleasant surprise if it did.
Yet success at the Oscars isn’t the only avenue for international success for anime films. The more interesting story about your name.’s international reception last week came from a land much closer to the film's home. your name. made over $41 million in the Chinese box office in its debut weekend, which is the country’s highest-grossing debut for an anime title. The film beat Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and also vastly outperformed Disney’s Moana, showing that Hollywood titles aren’t always the biggest money makers in China, and that hand-drawn animation can be lucrative too.
This result is especially amazing when you consider how infrequently Japanese films are screened in China. The Stand by Me Doraemon film was the first Japanese film in about three years whose screening was approved by Chinese authorities, and that film earned a box office revenue of about $70 million. By its second week, the film has already beaten out Doraemon to become the highest grossing Japanese film. your name. has already broken a record by achieving higher first-day earnings in China than any non-Hollywood film. Anime films may not find their way to Chinese shores often, but when they do, people lap them up with gusto.
From an outsider’s perspective, it may be easy to explain an anime’s success in China as the result of shared cultural values and geographical closeness, but this would be a massive oversimplification. In fact, Japanese anime was not readily accessible or regarded as legitimate entertainment within China for many years. Anime titles are routinely banned for their nudity and violence, and whenever political tensions flare up between China and Japan, calls for boycotts and import restrictions tend to follow. It is in spite of cultural and political differences that Japanese pop culture has taken off in China—by no means should this market be taken for granted.
Bilibili, China’s largest anime streaming website, has over 100 million active users per month. That’s nothing to sneeze at!
No one is more conscious of anime’s seemingly inexplicable popularity than the Chinese state media. It is for this reason that an anime success story in China has a different kind of significance than it would in the West. In China, the origins of Japanese anime are heavily politicized, even when the contents of the anime are apolitical, or at least contain nothing that could be seen as offensive to Japan’s neighbors. After the success of your name., an opinion piece in the state-owned newspaper China Daily stated: "Although people in the two countries may feel ill will toward one another, as the shared enthusiasm for your name. shows, they are also culturally bound to one another in many ways." (via CNBC)
One sees very little of this type of rhetoric in English-language journalism about anime, as if Japanese pop culture is some kind of Band-Aid that can help soothe the long-standing grudges between nations. This doesn’t mean that anime actually possesses such awesome power; it’s really more a case of the media using catchy pop culture references while making a largely unrelated political point. (Remember that time when Japan and China compared each other to Lord Voldemort while bickering over the South China Sea?) Yet beneath all this exaggerated rhetoric lies the assumption that anime has entered the national consciousness. No one would be name-dropping anime if it were unfamiliar to most people.
What’s particularly notable about your name.’s hype in China is that relatively little of it was the result of a Japan-led marketing campaign. The film drew attention from Chinese anime fans even during the early stages of development, and it even became a top trending topic for at least a week on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. Of course, the Japanese PR crew didn’t slouch around either—Makoto Shinkai personally attended the Chinese premiere in Beijing and spoke to the fans. And yet even in this case, the Japanese rights holders may have underestimated the spending power of the Chinese fans. The Chinese distributor, Enlight Media, reportedly bought the release rights of your name. for just $2.8 million.
The producers’ faces when they realized.
For a country with a state policy that reflects deep ambivalence and occasional hostility toward Japanese cultural products, anime is astoundingly popular, mostly thanks to word of mouth. Legal options for online anime streaming didn’t even exist a few years ago, but the viewing numbers have already exploded, with last season’s Re:ZERO racking up over 100 million views on Bilibili. There’s a strong awareness inside Japan that China is the biggest growing market of anime consumers in the Asian region, especially as China opens up further to foreign investors. All things said and done, the Chinese market is probably of higher importance to anime producers than the North American one.
The takeaway message from your name.’s international success is clear: don’t underestimate Chinese anime fans.