By Gavin J. Blair
Frozen is now nudging a quarter of a billion dollars at the Japanese box office, with not even the Blu-ray and VOD release here ending its record-breaking 19-week run in theaters.
Although the Academy Award winner was a global smash, no other foreign market has embraced Anna and Elsa quite like Japan.
Released locally on March 14 as Anna to Yuki no Jou (Anna and the Snow Queen), the title of the Hans Christian Andersen story on which the animated film is loosely based, it topped Japan’s box office for 16 straight weeks, until the beginning of July. It has remained in theaters, taking a total of $248 million (￥25.2 billion) to become the third-highest grossing film in Japan behind Titanic and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.
Japan’s love of both animation and Disney is no secret — Tokyo Disney Resort has seen well over 550 million visitors since it opened in 1983, more than four times the population of Japan — so Frozen was expected to do well, though nobody foresaw the social phenomenon it became. Walt Disney Studios Japan scheduled the home entertainment release for July 16, clearly expecting the film to have left cinemas by then.
One factor that helped contribute to the success of Frozen was the local voice and song casting. Anna and Elsa were voiced by Sayaka Kanda and Takako Matsu, two singers and actresses whose performances received almost universal acclaim. Two postings of Matsu’s Japanese version of “Let It Go” have more than 95 million hits on Youtube, and the song has been heard everywhere for months, while the bilingual soundtrack album has been in the top 10 since March, currently sitting at number two.
PHOTOS The Making of ‘Frozen’
Ari no Mama de, which translates roughly as “just as it is” and is the Japanese rendition of the “Let It Go” phrase, worked exceptionally well, and the independent-girl-power theme was a part of the film’s appeal in a conformist society that is beginning to deal with ingrained chauvinism. Disney’s marketing in Japan originally targeted young women and girls with the somewhat unconventional dual-female lead characters and the film’s musical-like qualities. Spreading from that core audience, Frozen began to attract a wide age range, getting occasional cinemagoers into theaters, and a large number of repeaters.
"I went to see it because everyone was talking about it, and the critics were all raving about it in the newspapers," says 83-year-old Tamiko Mizune. "The themes were simple but strong, the animation was stunning and the songs came over well. The Ari no Mama de [Let It Go] phrase really captured people’s imagination. Nearly everyone I know has seen it."
"I hadn’t been to the cinema for about three years until I saw Frozen in March. I’m not even sure what the last film I saw in a theater was,” says Yoshiho Muramatsu, a 19-year-old student of ecology in Kanagawa, south of Tokyo. “I went mainly because my girlfriend wanted to go, but everyone at university has seen it.”
Whether it was fortuitous timing or clever scheduling, the 3D Japanese version came into theaters in time for the Golden Week holidays in May, meaning audiences no longer had to choose between the 3D subtitled or dubbed 2D versions. This helped increase the number of repeaters like Keitaro Saito, a manager at a Tokyo advertising agency, who took his four-year-old son to see the English and Japanese 3D versions.
"My son didn’t understand the subtitles on the English version, so we went to see the Japanese one too," he said. "Though we bought the CDs for him, and now he can sing the English and Japanese versions."
Yosuke, a pharmacy student in Tokyo, went to see Frozen twice, both times to the English 2D version.
"I like Kristen Bell, and it’s like a musical, so I wanted to see it in the theater. I watched it at the TCX cinema in Nihonbashi, which has really good sound," Yosuke said. "It was the fourth time for one of the women from my research lab that I went to see it with; she can sing all the songs."
The success of Frozen comes against a backdrop of Hollywood fare struggling in Japan in recent years. In 2012, imports took only 34.3 percent of the annual box office, the lowest share since 1965. In 2013 that increased to 39.4 percent, but this year is looking far healthier, mainly thanks to Anna and Elsa.
Frozen's huge popularity may benefit Hollywood, and Disney in particular. Frozen was finally knocked off its lofty perch by Maleficent.