As I write this month’s column, Tokyo is in the midst of another state of emergency in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19. Obviously this presents all kinds of serious problems for all kinds of people, from the life-and-death effects of the virus itself to the difficulties of running a public-facing business during a period of self-restraint, and much more.
For us at IGN Japan, which is a site that focuses on videogame and movie news, it is a double-edged sword. While the game industry is facing its own challenges in terms of maintaining production, sales of the games that are able to be released are at an all-time high, as people spend more time indoors.
But movies? Movies are in yet another slump.
During this latest state of emergency (or SoE), movie theaters in Tokyo and some other areas have been closed altogether. And while some movie fans in the major cities have been desperate enough to travel to neighboring prefectures to hit the cinema, film distributors have been understandably reluctant to release their latest movies until audiences in the capital and other cities are actually able to go watch them. So, no new movies.
After a year of endless delays, we had only just started to see a small trickle of large-ish Hollywood movies finally reach Japan. The most notable of these was Godzilla vs Kong – a throw-down between two of cinema’s biggest beasts, one of which is of course a Japanese icon, in a movie that was actually fairly well received when it opened in the West.
With the exception of maybe Monster Hunter, a (terrible) U.S. movie adaptation of a beloved Japanese game that performed well here when it opened in March, Godzilla vs Kong would have been the biggest Hollywood release here since 2020’s disappointing Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984. But as its planned May 14 release was swallowed up by the SoE, the movie was placed on an indefinite hiatus.
It’s not only Hollywood movies that are affected, of course. Japan has a very strong domestic film industry, and perhaps the highest-profile delay was the latest Crayon Shin-chan animated movie, which looked set to clean up during the Golden Week holidays until it, too, was postponed indefinitely. This was an especially crushing turn of events in my home, as my daughter was desperate to see Shin-chan’s latest adventure, which this time features her favorite YouTuber and actress Riisa Naka on its voice cast.
Before the SoE, we did get Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon A Time, the final feature-length release in that hugely popular long-running anime series, and the resulting discussion on Ginmaku became one of our most-viewed episodes of all time. And Hanataba Mitaina Koi Wo Shita (I Fell in Love Like a Flower Bouquet), a romantic drama that topped Japan’s box-office charts for several weeks – a movie that was miles outside of our usual remit but somehow our viewers actually tuned in to hear our impressions.
Personally, I made my first visit to a public movie theater in just over a year when I went to see the fun body-swap horror-comedy Freaky in April. We were planning to cover the movie on our weekly video show Ginmaku Ni Popcorn (Popcorn & The Silver Screen), and had missed all the private media screenings, so I toddled along to the Toho Cinema in Ikebukuro. Obviously with it being a weekday morning, I wasn’t expecting a full house – but it was no less of a bummer to sit in a 121-seater room with only maybe 15 other cinemagoers. Freaky is a deliberately OTT slasher movie, and its outrageous murder scenes would have felt all the more gruesome, its gags more hilarious, in a packed house. The world has bigger problems right now, I know, but I really miss the thrill of catching a movie surrounded by hundreds of excited film fans.
Anyway, back to Godzilla vs Kong. We had been planning to cover this on Ginmaku Ni Popcorn, too – but of course, we had to put it on hold.
Ginmaku is a weekly show where two or three hosts give our impressions of a new-release movie, first without spoilers for viewers who want a quick idea of whether it’s worth going to see it, and then with full spoilers for those who have seen the movie and want to hear more. We used to struggle sometimes to decide between which movie releases to cover because there were too many. This past year has been the opposite – with most movie releases on hold, and with movie theaters temporarily closed, what on Earth do we talk about?
Thank goodness for streaming services. While our show’s title does refer to “the silver screen”, Ginmaku has always dipped into the world of streaming video, especially to cover TV series such as Game of Thrones and Stranger Things.
During the pandemic, of course, many films have debuted on Netflix, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime and so on, and this has kept us endowed with a fresh supply of new releases. The week that we would have covered Godzilla vs Kong, we instead discussed The Mitchells vs The Machines, a delightful animated movie that follows a dysfunctional family on an adventure to save the world from killer robots. Both movies have the word “vs” in their titles, so maybe this switch was fate?
All of this comes with its own set of challenges. Having to change our schedule at the last minute was not such a biggie. But convincing our audience to watch that video is a tougher one. Our audience is always hungry for anything related to Godzilla, whereas a review of a brand-new movie that had very little prior marketing cannot quite compete.
We consider many factors when we choose which releases to cover on Ginmaku, most notably whether that movie or series will appeal to our audience – even if they have never heard of it. We will often cover releases that are outside of our usual focus of superheroes, sci-fi and action if we think they will resonate, or simply because we enjoyed them. But we do of course want as many people as possible to watch these videos.
Streaming services are wonderful, but with so much choice available and so few releases that have the same high-profile marketing as a theatrical release, there are fewer obvious big hits, and choosing the right content to introduce on our show has been quite the challenge. Even a show that seems like a no-brainer might turn out different than we had expected. Our audience loves Marvel movies, yet when the MCU spinoff series’ WandaVision and The Falcon And The Winter Soldier were released this year, our review shows had mixed results. That’s not to say anything of the quality of these shows, but with them being available only to subscribers of Disney Plus and bereft of the massive domestic marketing budget of a mainline MCU movie, some of our audience may not have been able to watch them.
It has also been a welcome opportunity to revisit hits from the past. On one recent episode, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of classic anime Black Lagoon with an in-depth discussion, while we reappraised the Star Wars spinoff movie Solo to coincide with its first broadcast on Japanese public TV.
Meanwhile, the approach of the Academy Awards allowed us to catch up on nominated films, such as the excellent Sound Of Metal, as well as inviting our audience to help us pick our own Oscar nominees, which was a thinly veiled excuse to share the recommendations of our hosts and our viewers and find some new favorites. And we also dedicated one emotional episode to say farewell to Yuriko Hijikata, our entertainment editor who was leaving us after nearly four years of hosting Ginmaku Ni Popcorn.
There is a projector light at the end of the tunnel. Now that the Western world is starting to get into better shape, we have new release dates for Marvel’s Phase 4 MCU movies, beginning with Black Widow in July – and that film will be released simultaneously on Disney Plus, which means that even if theaters here are still closed, we can at least watch it and review it.
Too, the year end calendar is likely to be bustling with hits as studios work through their pent-up productions that have been delayed this past year. Personally I can’t wait for Ghostbusters Afterlife and Dune. And of course, Godzilla vs Kong and Crayon Shin-chan will eventually get their day in theatres here, too. We’ll be back to the old problem of being spoiled for choice, picking and choosing between high-profile movies to review, as audiences experience the unparalleled joy of gathering in front of a big screen to watch them together again.
Author: Daniel Robson