The massive success of anime films is putting Japan’s live actors out of work

The new Miyazaki.
The new Miyazaki.
Image: Reuters/Toru Hanai
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The Japanese animated feature film Your Name continues to bring in big bucks, but its success highlights the sad plight of human actors.

The movie, called Kimi No Na Wa in Japanese, is about two Japanese teenagers, a boy living a hectic Tokyo life and a girl wanting to escape her countryside life, who switch bodies on multiple occasions and eventually try to meet. The film is scheduled for wider release in Europe and the US in 2017.

The movie has become a cultural phenomenon in Japan, and has created a legion of fans who attend multiple viewings and make pilgrimages to some of the landmarks made famous in the film. Your Name has grossed $197.5 million domestically since debuting in August 2016, becoming Japan’s second-highest-grossing film of all time. Fans are already calling Makoto Shinkai, the movie’s director, the successor of Hayao Miyazaki, whose Studio Ghibli created My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, the highest-grossing movie in Japan’s history.

(“I cried the five times I saw it. I need to toughen up.”)

But anime’s continuing wild success also points to how dependent on the genre Japan’s movie theaters have become. Since 2011, the country’s moviegoers have increasingly chosen animation over live action on a scale that far outstrips similarly sized markets.

In two of the past three years, 75% of the revenue generated by the top 10 films in Japan have come from animated features. The country that enjoyed a post-war cinematic golden age with Akira Kurosawa and other directors seems to have turned its back on flesh-and-blood star power, and is now more interested in forums discussing voice actors (link in Japanese) and ranking them by order of annual salary (link in Japanese).

Animated films, both domestic and foreign, make up five of Japan’s 10 highest-grossing films of all time. In the US, there’s only one—Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, released in 1937—in the same list. France has three in its top 10, but of those—Snow White, The Jungle Book and 101 Dalmatians—the most recent was released in 1967.

The increasingly lopsided nature of Japanese cinema is having an effect on its acting community. Nearly three-quarters of Japan’s Actors’ Union are voice actors, up from 60% 10 years ago, according to union representative Michihiro Ikeumizu.

“It’s ranked at the top of the most desired professions,” said Ikeumizu. “Especially voice actors who focus on voicing anime. Recently, the marketing of voice actors with proven ability and voice acting talent agencies have increased a lot.”

Part of the reason anime has grown in dominance in Japan is pure financials. Many of the characters and stories start life in cheaply printed manga novels. As Western studios are discovering with the recent spate of superhero movies, marketing a movie is much easier when the comic book industry has already tested the waters for popularity.

Anime may also make it easier to deal with social issues in a culture that eschews directness. An important scene in Your Name relates to the March 2011 devastation resulting from the meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunamis.

“The connection with Fukushima is important,” said Jason Douglass, a Yale scholar who is researching gender themes associated with the film. “That is one of the major parts of the film, but it’s not related to the developing romance of the characters. So many documentaries of Fukushima are so hard to watch. It may just be being able to revisit that point in Japanese history in a visual way in a story that is not trying to evoke those shocking images in a straightforward way.”