How Japan Missed Wonder Woman–The Reason Why Female-Led Action Movies Are Not Popular Domestically


As soon as it was published in June 2017, “Wonder Woman” became an immediate hit. DC’s first female superhero, the first female director, starring the former Miss Israel Gal Gadot (beautiful!)–the movie’s newsworthiness was further helped by the North American box office recording a mega-hit of $410 million (about ¥41 billion). It proved the common wisdom of Hollywood wrong– “female-led action movies don’t sell”. Later on, until winter, controversy about “images of strong females” and the expression thereof arose, involving critics, film directors, and UN staff; this was truly a work which “conquered all of America”. But what about Japan?

Wonder Woman ©Warner Bros.

Unfortunately, the domestic box office did not reach ¥1.34 billion, taking the 45th place in domestic income rankings. The domestic box office figures of American superhero movies in the last several years were around ¥3 billion, making this a rather low figure. It is a fact that domestic promotional copies and supporting songs failed to capture the charm of “Wonder Woman” and drew criticism on twitter, and although it does happen that, due to differences in culture and societal background, works related to American comics do not become a big hit, but even then, is it not uncommon for works to have such intense differences in reception between domestic and overseas markets?

Why did such a thing happen?

■Popular brand leading the trend of the increasing number of female leads in Hollywood

Now, in Hollywood, the number of works with a female protagonist is increasing. First, let us take a look at the highest-grossing works in North America. The following is a classification of the top ten highest grossing works regarding the sex of their protagonist for the past ten years (divided into two five-year halves) in North America.


Source:Box Office Mojo

After 2013, female protagonists stand out in the top works indeed. I would like to draw attention to the “Star Wars” series or PIXAR’s works, which are popular brands that have not depicted many female protagonists so far. For example, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is a spin-off of the series, but it greatly surpassed the box office revenue ($3.8 billion) of “Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith”, the part of the original story released in 2005. The spin-off has earned 1.5 times the revenue of the original story. At any rate, female leads are seen very favorably in Hollywood.

■Is a “The Hunger Games” phenomenon occurring in “Wonder Woman”?

There are also social conditions such as political correctness in the background of such an increase of female protagonists, but the existence of success stories is also a major factor. In particular, the 2012 hit “The Hunger Games” greatly expanded the possibilities for female-led action works in Hollywood. Until now, when it came to film adaptations of young adult novels, the focus was on romance, and it can be said that battle and action scenes were there to stir up love. “The Hunger Games” not only turned this value system upside down, but also proved that women’s approval can be obtained even if romance takes the backseat and action scenes are emphasized. However, this work did not become a hit in Japan either. “Wonder Woman” can also be said to be a phenomenon somewhat similar to “The Hunger Games”.

■The three reasons why foreign female-led action movies are not becoming a hit domestically

What is the reason for foreign female-led action movies not becoming a hit in Japan, as learned from the “The Hunger Games” phenomenon?

1. The domestic young adult market is a “Red oceans”
First of all, there are many rivals. In recent years, the live-action adaptations of original manga works became popular, mainly due to the segment spanning from teenagers to those in their thirties. Starting with “Rurouni Kenshin”, popular manga works such as “Attack on Titan”、” Gin Tama”、” Ajin: Demi-Human” are being made into live-action movies one after another. For reference, let us take a look at the box office ranking of Japanese movies for 2012, when “The Hunger Games” was released.




Source: Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan

More than half of the top works are original manga or anime works. It is truly a red oceans. For foreign films directed at young adults, with such a large number of competing movies, it can be said that making a big hit is a difficult undertaking. The second reason is also related to this.2. The high context Japanese Pop-culture
Moreover, people are seeking novelty in foreign movies. In Japan, pop culture such as manga, anime, and light novels (young adult fiction) are thriving.

In the world of anime, female characters are constantly fighting, but at any rate, there is a lot of variation–including human bullets, sorcery, robots, gambling, sports, imaginary weapons and rules. Because the fans are not surprised by sparse and reserved fighting, Japanese creators seem to be always thinking about unique fighting methods and reasons for fighting. Domestically, there is a tendency (“template consumption”) to like similar stories and characters (templates), but when it comes to overseas works, I think that a sense of scale and novelty is sought after that is not found in domestic ones. Although “The Hunger Games” and “Wonder Woman” are both great movies, but looking at them superficially, their setting is not novel for the youth of Japan.




3. The gender gap in the world and in Japan
Finally, the current situation regarding the gender gap in Japan and the awareness about this problem are different domestically and overseas. This might be a major factor in causing the difference in the receptions in Japan and abroad. Although in recent years Japanese entertainment is becoming enjoyable by both sexes, in general for a long time now it had an image of being divided into the categories “for men” and “for women”.
Further, compared to other countries, it might also be true that individual people are not sensitive to sexism in society.This trend is also obvious from ‘the Global Gender Gap Index (GGIG)’ by country, which the World Economic Forum presents yearly. The GGIG contains the scores of 144 countries, calculated based on economics, education, politics, and health, ranked by score. According to this, in 2017 Japan is ranked as the 114th among 144 countries; the lowest rank in history. Incidentally, northern European countries hold the top ranks, with Iceland being first and Norway second; the US is ranked 49th.

Reference:The Global Gender Gap Report 2017

For Japan, it is characteristic that the ranking of “education” is high, “health” is average, and the rankings of “political participation” and “economic participation” are always low. In other words, it is a country where both men and women are healthy and have high education standards, but female National Diet members and corporate executives are extremely rare.

With “Wonder Woman” having been a huge hit in all of America, it is said that not only people who were already fans of American comics (male fans) have been convinced by it, but female fans as well. Further, according to some critics, there seems to be a view that it is a work that allowed the venting of anger after the dream of the US having its first female president did not come true. Apart from whether this is correct, in the context where this controversy broke out, it seems to be true that many individuals are interested in politics and the economy regardless of their sex. When we end up explaining things with the national character that is the end of it, but when we look at the previously mentioned rankings of the GGIG, one feels somewhat disappointed about Japan missing out on the “Wonder Woman” controversy

There seem to be a lot of women who are healed by romantic movies or films chock full of handsome men. There are various ways to heal and refresh, but occasionally it might be good to recharge by watching a strong female hero send her surroundings flying.

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(Article by: Nanae Kan)



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