While the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey was busy destroying the competition at cinemas around the world, in Japan people were watching Big Hero 6, Disney’s film about an oversized inflatable robot and the top film of the weekend: Terrace House: Closing Door. The latter is based on a popular Fuji Television reality show in which six men and women shared a house. Fellow debutant, Fifty Shades of Grey, meanwhile came in at a modest number five.
The conventional wisdom is that a film needs to do well in Japan – the third-biggest cinema market in the world – to make it into the all-time big leagues. The success of films like Titanic and Frozen proves the point. Frozen, which now ranks as the most successful animated film in history, took a quarter of a billion dollars in Japan last year. In the case of Fifty Shades of Grey it looks like it will have to manage without relying on bumper ticket sales in Japan and indeed other countries in Asia. The film has already been banned in Malaysia and Indonesia and there are no plans for a general release in China, the world’s second-biggest cinema market, where it would be unlikely to get past government censors.
The Fifty Shades of Grey books were not bestsellers in Japan, which has no doubt contributed to the film’s muted reception even though it was released at the same time in Japan as it was in the US. This is unusual: standard practice is to hold back the Japan release. Films that are already being shown on flights everywhere else make their debut here months later as filmmakers plan heavy promotions targeted specifically at the Japanese audience.
In the interests of journalistic research I went along to one of the opening Fifty Shades of Grey screenings at a busy multiplex in Roppongi where the audience was not all female, as many had predicted, but mostly couples. It was busy if not quite full. Maybe there is hope for a slow burn and that kuchikomi (word-of-mouth) will bring out more Japanese cinemagoers. Anyone expecting a nudity free-for-all though will be disappointed since the most revealing angles have been obscured by a clumsy black blob.
This curious prudery is not the result of draconian regulations but an act of self-censorship on the part of the distribution company Toho-Towa, who judged that a 15 rating would make Fifty Shades more successful than an adult-only 18.
DVD sales might tell another story further down the road but for now Fifty Shades of Grey is a reminder that the lucrative Japanese market has its own particular tastes.
Fiona Wilson is Monocle's Asia bureau chief based in Tokyo.