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Let’s All Go To The Movies

Why is Japan last to get many Hollywood movies?

By 4 min read 5

As any of my friends will tell you, in addition to being an avid sports fan, lover of Japanese language and culture, and avid traveller, I am also a major movie buff. 2015 promises to be a great year in cinema with the Avengers making their second ensemble appearance, followed by the long-awaited Jurassic World (a reinvigorating of the Jurassic Park franchise) before the greatest story ever told in cinema finally makes its triumphant return at the end of the year. Yes, 2015 is the year when we will finally get to see Star Wars: Episode VII.

However, for foreign moviegoers in Japan, going to the cinema can often be a frustrating experience. Japan’s cinemas are first rate, with facilities, sound and visual quality that often exceed that of other countries. And yet the biggest frustration is the release schedule. Often movies come to Japan weeks, months and sometimes even years after they are released in the rest of the world.

I have experienced this unfortunate phenomena a number of times in recent years.

First there was the hit comedy movie Ted. Seth McFarlane’s foul-mouthed teddy bear was a world-wide hit in the summer of 2012. However, it wasn’t until January 2013 that he finally found his way to Japan. Later that year, my two most anticipated movies of the summer, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and the long-awaited Superman reboot Man of Steel, were both similarly delayed.

Despite having a May release date across most of the world, Star Trek: Into Darkness did not arrive in Japan until September of 2013. Likewise, Man of Steel debuted in rest of the world in June 2013, however Japan had to wait until August 30th to finally see Superman take down General Zod, and most of the city of Metropolis with him.

So the question is: why? Why is it that Japan has to wait so much longer than other territories to see these great movies?


There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, there is the issue of localization. Whilst translating a movie from one language to another can be done in a few days with a team of professional translators, localization just isn’t that simple.

Movies don’t just need to be understood in a foreign language, they need to make sense, and be entertaining for the moviegoers in that country.

American movies in particular often suffer from an over-abundance of references, in-jokes and banter that is mostly targeted at a primarily American audience. Given that most US blockbusters still make the bulk of their profits in the continent of North America, this is understandable. However, it does present a problem when they try to release these movies in Japan and other territories that don’t speak English.

As such, not only must the movie be translated, it must also be subtly reinterpreted. I recall watching Man of Steel with a couple of Japanese friends, and it was amazing how some of the key plot points were interpreted completely differently in the Japanese language version than they were in the US English version.

Ted was another movie that had to be quite drastically altered for Japanese audiences as so many of the jokes centred around American pop-culture that they simply couldn’t be understood by most moviegoers here in Japan.

Secondly, there is the issue of marketing. Different territories have different priorities when it comes to marketing and also studios are careful to avoid releasing movies that may conflict with each other. For example, if a studio has a popular Japanese language movie they want to release, it is likely they will push back the release of their English language movie, so as not to hurt the potential box office of the Japanese movie.

Hence why in the first few weeks of Japanese kids’ summer vacation, you are far more likely to see the latest Doraemon or Kamen Rider movie at the cinema than you are the most recent Expendables.

Finally, there is the issue of scheduling. With literally hundreds of movies vying for the attention of the general public every year, some just can’t find their way into the schedule and may have to be relegated to a much later release date, if indeed they are released at all. In this respect foreign movies are often pushed back in favour of local productions.

I’m still waiting for Anchorman 2 to get a cinematic release in Japan. Although according to what some of my American friends say, I’m not missing much.

So there you have it, whilst not all of our favourite movies from back home will make it to cinemas in Japan, most of the good ones do eventually. You may just have to wait a while.

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  • Mikey says:

    I understand all the points, but… movies are localized in many countries. Especially animated features. They get local dubbing but also local references. This is true for my country – Poland. Yet Frozen premiered the same weekend as in the US, and last weekend so did Moana (vel Vaiana in parts of Europe). And the localizing/dubbing team of Disney Poland is very small, yet they manage. So I think the other reasons are better. Especially just the choice of the distributors. They get bold with pushing back premiers in some countries and it’s always the same ones. Poland used to be one of them, but pressure from audiences made the, abandon this for Hollywood movies years ago. But France seems to always be a week late. And Germany often a month. Italy and some Scandinavian countries can be even more extreme on some titles. It’s always the same countries. Spain, The Netherlands, Serbia or Russia won’t be on the list, Germany almost always will etc. And Germany may be a fine example of why they do it. Because they can. Germany has weird laws and nobody protests. They can’t see most music videos on YouTube… they don’t have StreetView, while even Eastern Europe is almost fully covered (with some Siberian outposts probably still missing, but even there most actually covered). And they don’t object to this digital stone-age. Maybe it’s the fact that the country is rich and modern in many other ways (like Japan) so they don’t care. Still, I would care, they have all these Polish jokes and look down on Poland or the Czech Republic as the poor nighbors, yet in the digital world, Germany is the black hole and Poland and Czech Rep are like every other western country 😀

  • Ian-John Coughlan says:

    Heh. ‘Man of Steel’ and ‘plot points’. As if.

  • Manuel says:

    I also think the problem relies on the marketing / distribution of the movies. Localization shouldn’t be a problem at all… I mean, there are many Asian countries whose culture is also completely different, and they get the films on time.

  • maulinator says:

    Just an FYI Anchorman 2 is ALREADY OUT on cable. Has been for a while now. And your friends are correct, you are not missing much.
    For some releases there is a re-engineering of the film. A good example is Star Wars RoTS. The movie premiered in Japan was the first all digital viewing of the film. Japanese theaters had the digital capabilit first and the digital print was first shown in Japan.
    Of the reasons the author reveals for slowness of releases in Japan, the biggest is the marketing. The fioms do compete with the local films which vie for movie audiences. YOu do not want to overlap big releases. However, he is forgetting another big reason related to marketing. Many movies have to be bought by an importer and get local distribution. Gaga humax would be an example of such company. The big US studios can release a film on their own, like Disney or Sony, but other films need a distributor and local partner.
    If the film is deemed unmarketable, a movie that would not appeal to the local audience then distributors will be less likely to pick it up. And the film will not get a local release at all! A lot of US comedies fall into that category. Some pictures are picked up as an afterthought and the disitribution rights are gotten for cheaper, whichresults in the slower release date as well.
    But with the internet and Apple TV, Hulu and Netflix, the delay in watching movies in Japan is lessened if you dont have to rely on Japanese subtitles, so the pain should be less.

  • Jinx15 says:

    I just wish Japan would make another Mario movie! Onegeaaai! I’m a huge fan and I’m thinking a Mario Kart movie could smash it outta the park!

    Enjoyed the article. Late releases can be so frustrating at times.Almost impossible to avoid spoilers these days or hear pretty much the whole storyline from social network raves.



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