When China’s film industry partnered with Hollywood in 2011 to produce The Flowers of War starring Christian Bale, the setting for the unflinching and at times brutal tale was the Japanese invasion of Nanking. That was no surprise. On-screen portrayals of the second Sino-Japanese War, which took place from 1937–1945 and ended with Japan’s unconditional surrender and as many as 35 million Chinese casualties, have long served as a winning formula for Chinese filmmakers. But now, a new route to success is emerging for Chinese films — an unlikely partnership with the historic enemy, Japan.
Asia’s two largest economies, China and Japan have renewed their rivalry politically and militarily in recent years, as they tussle over everything from claims of intellectual property theft to tensions over a swath of the East China Sea both claim. But away from those battles, an alliance is emerging that could end the near-unidimensional — and unflattering — portrayal of the Japanese that has dominated China’s films for decades. The increasingly copacetic relationship in the film world between the two powers is also promising some of the world’s most dynamic and epic films.
There’s 2017’s Legend of the Demon Cat, a sweeping fantasy epic co-produced by China and Japan, helmed by Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige and based on a novel penned by Japanese writer Baku Yumemakura. The $ 170 million production is the biggest film collaboration to date between the two countries. Also last year, Hong Kong’s Emperor Motion Pictures and China’s Wanda Media completed a film based on Miracles of the Namiya General Store, a novel by Keigo Higashino, one of Japan’s most celebrated mystery authors.
There will be more movies to be adapted from Japanese novels.
Debbie Leung, Emperor Motion Pictures, Hong Kong
Manhunt, the 2017 release from legendary Chinese filmmaker John Woo, is a remake of a Japanese film based on a Japanese novel that found an unlikely audience in China when it was originally released in 1976. Chinese production company Zhejiang Jinke Entertainment revealed at last year’s Cannes Film Festival that it would be producing almost all of the unfinished works of legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa.
And earlier this year, the two countries signed a landmark co-production treaty bringing the Chinese and Japanese film industries — which rank second and third, respectively, in domestic box office revenue behind only the U.S. — even closer together.
“There will be more movies to be adapted from Japanese novels, especially Keigo Higashino,” says Debbie Leung, the director of strategic partnership at Emperor Motion Pictures. There may also be more adaptations, she adds, from Japanese animated movies like Flavors of Youth.
Hard economics is the reason driving this shift toward a partnership with Japan, suggests Michael Berry, a professor of contemporary Chinese cultural studies in UCLA’s Department of Asian Languages & Cultures.
“The last decade at least, Hollywood has been a key market for the Chinese industry in terms of co-productions, collaborations, hiring Hollywood actors,” says Berry.
That changed in 2017, with many Chinese companies pulling out from Hollywood or cutting back dramatically. That dramatic shift came after some considerable box office flops, most notably the 2016 Matt Damon film The Great Wall. At the same time, China had clamped down on Korean pop culture for its domestic audience largely in response to South Korea’s announcement last year that it would partner with the United States on the THAAD missile defense system. “So, if you take Hollywood out of the equation and take Korea out of the equation, Japan looks like a good next bet,” says Berry.
The partnership in the world of movies between China and Japan isn’t necessarily surprising, he adds. “I think there are more commonalities in terms of East Asian aesthetics, genres,” says Berry. “Just look at the samurai genre. Those translate back and forth much easier than, say, a Western.”
Nor is the partnership entirely unprecedented. China’s early reforms era of the 1980s saw some high-profile Japan-China film collaborations. Over the years, China’s samurai films have proven popular in Japan, as have Japan’s iconic anime films in China, which in recent years has launched its own growing anime industry. But collaborations between the two countries had been sparse until 2017. Now, Japanese filmmakers and producers aren’t relying only on the organic success of some films in both countries; they’re actively and aggressively seeking out the Chinese market.
“Lots of Japanese companies are actually going there [to China] to make films or TV shows,” says Chikako Suzuki, an Emmy Award–winning art director who is also a producer of Japan Film Festival L.A. “That would never happen before.”
Challenges persist for this blossoming romance. How far the China-Japan film collaboration goes will hinge largely on China’s “policy on the ban on South Korean [content] and simmering political tensions over the East China Sea,” says Leung.
But the growing partnership already is making a difference. It’s good for the Japanese film industry, says Suzuki, “just to open up their minds and try to get [films] out to somewhere else.” And in China, it’s helping reshape narratives. For decades, Japanese soldiers have been the go-to enemy in Chinese cinema, reviled figures portrayed — and often killed off — in gruesome detail. Now, for China’s film industry, Japan is also the go-to friend.