A TIFFCOM seminar on Thursday demonstrated both a sense of incredulity that Japanese animation “Suzume” could have enjoyed such wide international success and conveyed the depth of passionate behind-the-scenes strategizing that made it happen.
Since its release in Japan at the end of 2022 and international expansion in spring of 2023, following a Berlin festival competition slot, “Suzume,” a fantasy drama about a girl who helps avert natural disasters, sold more than 47 million tickets worldwide.
“And most of those people don’t even speak Japanese,” said the session’s moderator Sudo Tadashi, journalist and professor at the Japan University of Economics.
Sunami Kazuki, MD of producer CoMix Wave Films and the Takeda Akihiro, an executive attached to the president’s office at the film’s worldwide distributor Toho, said that “Suzumi’s” success was not a foregone conclusion.
Its success was years in the making and based on the growing performance of director Makoto Shinkai’s previous movies as well as growing international understanding of the Japanese anime genre.
At the beginning of their collaboration, Shinkai and CoMix had little expectation that Shinkai’s works could appeal to non-Japanese distributors and audiences. But, within Asia at least, fans are tuned in to certain kinds of content from other countries.
“We also owe this success to the cumulative impact of Studio Ghibli and ‘Demon Slayer 2’,” said Sunami.
Shinkai’s 2013 film “The Garden of Words” was initially a Japan-only theatrical release, but it registered in China after Japanese box office success. “Also, Korea seems to like increasingly Shinkai’s films. India is hard for Japanese animation. ‘Weathering With You’ was our first India release,” said Sunami.
“But in [Indian film conglomerate] PVR we found a similar business mix to Toho, including their events business. So, the affinity was obvious,” said Takeda. “And when Shinkai visited India in person the Indian audience was so passionate that he needed a security detail!”
Stable business partnerships – sometimes with companies which might appear to be business rivals – were crucial to giving the Japanese companies confidence to continue with their international push. “Media Castle is very committed partner in Korea,” said Sunami.
“Anime has a different audience from live action films. Fans may overlap or be completely separate. In China, we had a choice of four partners and used Toei as a broker, due to the knowledge they gained with [the China release of anime title] ‘My Hero Academia’,” said Sunami.
“When we took the film to Cannes we had Eurozoom, Wild Bunch and Sony logos on the PR materials. Wild Bunch (Goodfellas) was particularly helpful. And [Sony-owned] Crunchyroll was also involved,” said Takeda.
With experience comes growing understanding of local audiences’ differences. And their similarities.
“We were worried that the Japanese natural disaster theme would not resonate with overseas audiences. However, the German fans enjoyed it as a fantasy. Maybe COVID was a leveler,” said Sunami. “And in India, we were always told that anime was only for children. But we found it works with adult audiences too.”
“Success has a lot to do with quality. Shinkai’s movies have power to stimulate empathy among international audiences,” said Takeda.