The Japanese animated film The First Slam Dunk was a huge box office success in Japan after its release last year, and is expected to become the highest-grossing Japanese film in Chinese history after achieving outstanding box office results in China last month. What’s the secret behind the film’s stellar performance?
Nostalgia for 1980s and 1990s kids
According to public information, Slam Dunk was created by Japanese artist Takehiko Inoue in 1990 as a manga series about high school basketball, and the anime series was broadcast from 1993 until June 1996.
The First Slam Dunk film was released at the end of last year, more than 20 years after the anime series concluded. Directed by Inoue, the film is an adaptation of the final chapter of the original manga series, featuring the inspirational story arc of the national basketball championship match between Shohoku and Sannoh high schools.
Mainland China was one of the last places in Asia to show The First Slam Dunk — the film was already released in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Nonetheless, many Chinese audiences still had high expectations for the movie despite the delay.
The Slam Dunk anime series aired on mainland Chinese television during the 1990s, and became a childhood memory for many people born in the 1980s and 1990s. Some netizens have said that many elementary and middle school students fell in love with basketball because of the series.
Figures from Chinese movie data analysis software Lighthouse Professional Edition show that The First Slam Dunk broke 100 million RMB (about US$14.46 million) in box office presales 13 hours and 16 minutes before its release in China. It ultimately raked in a box office presale of 115 million RMB and attendance of 2.86 million people, breaking the record for the highest presale box office for an imported animation in Chinese film history.
As of 26 April, The First Slam Dunk earned 400 million RMB in the week after its release.
Along with impressive box office results, audiences also recognise the quality of the movie. As of 18 May, The First Slam Dunk received a high score of 8.9 out of 10 on Douban, with more than 250,000 ratings and 59% five-star reviews.
A netizen posted on Douban, “I was stunned by Takehiko Inoue’s film techniques and the audiovisual effects. The cheers of the arena stirred me, and I even got teary-eyed with memories of my youth.”
Another commented, “To be honest, I didn’t have high expectations before watching the movie, as I thought the art style was not quite the same as it was before. But Slam Dunk is still Slam Dunk! The passion and enthusiasm are no less than before!”
“... this shared memory can be said to be the fruit of cultural exchanges between China and Japan during the ‘honeymoon period’ in the mid-1900s.” — Wang Pengfei, lecturer, History and Culture Department, Tianjin Normal University
Besides The First Slam Dunk, the film Suzume, written and directed by Makoto Shinkai, also saw a wave of popularity in China following its release at the end of March. The movie tells the adventure of a girl and a mysterious man who set out together to close a portal to evil and disaster.
Figures show that after over 30 days since its release, Suzume has grossed over 750 million RMB at the box office in mainland China. If it is not overtaken by The First Slam Dunk, it will be the most successful Japanese film in Chinese box office history.
Over 40 years of Japanese anime in China
In his article published in The Paper, Wang Pengfei, lecturer at the History and Culture Department at Tianjin Normal University, wrote that the popularity of The First Slam Dunk was due to the fact that not only is it an animated movie, but also a shared memory of youth in the 1980s and 1990s.
Wang assessed, “If we trace its origins, this shared memory can be said to be the fruit of cultural exchanges between China and Japan during the ‘honeymoon period’ in the mid-1900s.”
China and Japan established diplomatic relations in 1972. Six years later, their foreign ministers signed the Sino-Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship in Beijing and the relationship between the two countries entered a “honeymoon period” over the next ten years.
In this context, Chinese television introduced and aired Japanese animation in 1979 to enhance people-to-people cultural exchanges. The first animated series to land was Taro the Dragon Boy by Japanese children’s book writer Miyoko Matsutani.
Subsequently, Astro Boy by Japanese anime master Osamu Tezuka was introduced to China, and the streets were left bare as enthusiastic viewers were glued to their screens at home. The science fiction work also opened the door for Chinese people to learn about Japan through animated works.
Wang said, “Audiences have since seen many classic Mandarin-dubbed Japanese anime, such as Slam Dunk, Captain Tsubasa, Doraemon, Saint Seiya and Sailor Moon. While these works are of different eras and themes, they form the childhood memories and impressions of Japan for countless Chinese people born in the 1980s and 1990s.”
... the influence of adult themes in Japanese anime on Chinese youth became a hot topic.
Clampdown on Japanese anime broadcast
However, around 1995, with the rise of satellite television, cable television and educational television stations, there was a flood of imported animated films in China.
In December 2016, an article titled “Over 30 Years of Japanese Anime ‘Invading’ China: Why the Love-Hate Relationship?” was published on jiemian.com by the news outlet’s official financial account Cultural Information (文创资讯). The article mentioned that as imported anime was not subject to review or quota restrictions, some blatantly violent Japanese anime often appeared on Chinese television screens.
The article pointed out that the most influential one, Fist of the North Star — which tells the story of humanity fighting for resources after the world is devastated by a massive nuclear war — shocked many people with its scenes of “flying flesh and blood, and exaggerated facial features during fight scenes” after being broadcast on various local television stations. The series was subsequently pulled, but the influence of adult themes in Japanese anime on Chinese youth became a hot topic.
Amid rampant piracy and ineffective regulation, China’s National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) issued a notice in March 2000 on strengthening the management of importing and broadcasting animated films, signalling a “clampdown on Japanese anime”.
According to the Chinese government website, the notice requires television stations at all levels to limit the broadcast time and proportion of imported animated films to no more than 25% of the daily total broadcast time for children’s programmes and 40% of the total broadcast of animated films respectively.
The jiemian.com article said this was the first time the NRTA had made specific regulations on importing and broadcasting animated films. However, the worst was yet to come for Japanese anime in China.
... the national animation industry had grievances against Japanese anime, as some Japanese anime provided films to Chinese television stations for free or at very low prices to promote their animation brands.
Prime-time ban on Chinese television
In April 2015, “Ah Fu from Guanzhong” (关中阿福) wrote a commentary for ifeng.com noting that around 2006, there was a resurgence of negative opinions about imported animated films, especially Japanese anime. In particular, the national animation industry had grievances against Japanese anime, as some Japanese anime provided films to Chinese television stations for free or at very low prices to promote their animation brands. This made it difficult for some domestic animation companies to survive.
The article said that the NRTA issued two bans for all television stations on broadcasting imported animated films during evening prime time.
In August 2006, the NRTA issued another notice on further regulations in broadcasting animated films, where all television channels in China are prohibited from broadcasting foreign animated films between 5pm and 8pm every day.
Subsequently, in February 2008, the NRTA released another notice stipulating that the restriction on foreign animations and informative programmes on foreign animations will be extended from 8pm to 9pm with effect from 1 May 2008, so Chinese people are not able to watch any foreign animations during prime time.
However, following the advent of the internet era around 2008, the avenues by which people watched imported animations were no longer limited to television stations. Thus, the relevant measures no longer prevented most Chinese from watching Japanese anime.
The first signs of Japanese anime’s true revival in China were in fact seen on the big screen.
In 2010, following the opening up of China’s film market, Japanese anime films were shown on China’s big screen again, with Detective Conan: The Raven Chaser the first to land in the country. A year later, Detective Conan: Quarter Of Silence, another theatrical film in the franchise, premiered and performed relatively well at the box office.
But good things don’t last forever. China-Japan relations deteriorated because of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, and China did not import any Japanese films in 2013 and 2014. The situation only returned to normal after 2015.
... the fact that Japanese anime is well-loved among adults, especially the younger generation, reflects the similarities between Chinese and Japanese culture and society. — Baba Kimihiko, professor at Peking University’s School of Foreign Languages
Japanese anime’s unwavering popularity in China
According to various Chinese media reports and analyses, there are two main reasons for Japanese anime’s popularity in China. One, China and Japan share similar cultural backgrounds, making Japanese anime more relatable to the Chinese audience. Two, Japanese animation is innovative, fresh and of high quality.
Last June, the China News Service quoted Baba Kimihiko, professor at Peking University’s School of Foreign Languages and former editor of Iwanami Shoten, as saying that Japanese anime is more popular in China than in places such as Europe or the US because China and Japan have a long history of interaction and share similar cultural values and social environments, unlike Europe and the US, which have vastly different lifestyles from East Asia.
He said that for people of his generation, Japanese anime is like a “3 o’clock snack”: when Japanese primary school students returned home from school at 3pm, they would watch anime while eating snacks. This “taste of childhood” evokes happy memories, and the same experience is shared by Chinese students as well. At the same time, the fact that Japanese anime is well-loved among adults, especially the younger generation, reflects the similarities between Chinese and Japanese culture and society.
Japan’s anime industry is filled with talented artists who are able to keep up with the times in their creations.
Kimihiko observed that the urban middle class who support cultural consumption in China and Japan also share similar lifestyles and consumer behaviours. Both countries also have similar social backgrounds characterised by late marriage, singleness, DINK (dual income, no kids) households, and an ageing population. He noted that these similarities made it easier for youths from both countries to develop a common anime “language”.
According to the article by Cultural Information on jiemian.com, an animation is an amalgamation of scenes, plot, script, dubbing and background music, and Japanese anime has achieved extremely high standards in all these aspects. Japan’s anime industry is filled with talented artists who are able to keep up with the times in their creations, and their innovative spirit is reflected in the anime's unique art styles, character designs and camera angles.
In sum, many of China’s post-1980s, 1990s and 2000s generations grew up watching Japanese anime, which also helped to lessen the stereotypical view of Japan as an invader. To a certain extent, anime has been a bridge between China and Japan. But with the worsening geopolitical situation in East Asia and the rise of nationalism, the soft power that is Japanese anime can no longer serve as a buffer in China-Japan relations, not to mention the complex historical sentiments and ongoing territorial disputes between both countries.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “日漫在中国火爆的玄机”.
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