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In recent years, the Japanese entertainment industry has struggled to nurture domestically produced musicals and elevate them to bigger and better platforms.
“It has been believed that Japanese musicals created by Japanese people are low quality and simply boring,” says Yoshitaka Hori, CEO and chairman of talent agency and production company HoriPro Inc.
First founded in 1960 by Takeo Hori, Yoshitaka’s father, and marking its 60th anniversary this year, HoriPro has been a pioneer of Japanese entertainment ever since, representing some of the most eminent celebrities and household names in the industry and producing countless films and television programs.
Its theatrical production department has a long history of producing original and licensed stage works, with many of its musical works — “Peter Pan” (1986), “Mary Poppins” (2018) and “Billy Elliot” (2017, 2020) — having been imported from West End and Broadway musicals.
However, Hori, 53, says it is now time to begin properly exporting Japanese musicals overseas.
“There is a clear imbalance in trade,” he says, “and it is now time for us to make theatrical works for which global productions pay us performing rights royalties, just like we have been doing for more than 30 years.”
Hori says that Japan’s declining birthrate and aging population are also major reasons for HoriPro’s decision to redirect its attention toward international audiences.
“If the Japanese government takes no action and our population ends up dropping below 100 million in the 2030s, there will be fewer and fewer people who produce, act and watch the entertainment we provide,” Hori says. “Even if we were to make something that was high quality, it wouldn’t increase business if audience numbers continue to decrease. That being said, if we only focus on Japan our business will inevitably shrink.”
One of the company’s goals is to turn Japan-made theatrical productions into a world-class business that can rank alongside American and European theater.
“In Japan, theater is not considered to be a profitable business for actors and producers,” Hori says. “However, in other countries, it is not only seen as an investment opportunity, but some long-running musicals such as ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘The Lion King’ have made around ¥500 billion to ¥700 billion in revenue. Theater is a big business overseas.
“Unfortunately, here in Japan, it is hard to find a platform in which we can create large-scale theatrical productions like the ones produced abroad.”
First performed in 2015, “Death Note: The Musical,” a stage adaptation of the “Death Note” manga, anime and film franchise, became HoriPro’s first musical production specifically designed for a non-Japanese audience.
“It was meant to be our first global musical production to promote our international strategies,” Hori says. “The original manga had already left a strong impression around the world, so when our producer suggested it, it felt like I had found the missing piece of the puzzle.”
On one hand, “Death Note: The Musical” successfully became HoriPro’s first musical production for which the company was given rights to license elsewhere. On the other hand, however, actually bringing the world portrayed in the original “Death Note” manga on stage was far from plain sailing.
“We received a lot of negative responses when we first announced we were turning ‘Death Note’ into a musical piece,” Hori says. “(We were) getting harsh comments … people didn’t believe it would work for the stage.”
Despite the fact that some people in Japan already considered the original “Death Note” works to be classics, barely 10 years after the first movie came out in 2006, Hori still found it to be the perfect choice for his company’s first global musical project, saying that “when something is meant to happen, everything else falls into place.”
Hori says he feels it is important to experience the needs and demands of international audiences first-hand, especially when taking Japanese productions to other countries.
“When Japanese people try to export made-in-Japan products overseas, they often forget to consider what exactly people are looking for and instead show off how great the product they are trying to sell is, adding that in no way foreigners can copy their craftsmanship,” he says. “You cannot just force your way through things; it does not work that way.”
He adds that he sees no real need to prove that something is valid or worth watching, and that if the work is indeed good, it will speak for itself.
“The idea of ‘Cool Japan’ sometimes confuses me,” Hori says, referring to the Japanese government’s cultural promotion initiative. “I don’t think it should be all about showing off how great Japanese people are to the rest of the world, but should rather be about how much profit it will bring back to our country.”
Hori believes that another important facet in taking Japanese theatrical productions overseas is to start appreciating diversity.
“When we first introduced our ‘Death Note’ production team back in 2015, there were some purists who said it was not ‘made in Japan’ because the team included non-Japanese creators,” Hori says. “That is the equivalent of saying that sushi made by a Vietnamese or Chinese cook wearing plastic gloves is not sushi; not to mention, no one really realizes that the back of their Panasonic television at home actually says ‘Made in China.'”
Hori says that, to survive in a globalized world, people should not continue to obsess over how purely something has been made or where something or someone is from.
To illustrate his point, Hori points to the successes of a number of Japan’s international sports stars — baseball player Yu Darvish, sprinter Abdul Hakim Sani Brown, tennis player Naomi Osaka and a number of the players on the Japanese national rugby team — who are mixed-race or were born overseas.
“Similarly, there is no Broadway musical where all of its actors and staff members are born and bred in the United States,” Hori says. “There are Indian Americans and Chinese Americans performing on the same stage — everything is becoming blended.
“Needless to say, our productions will also continue to become more and more blended in the future.”
Despite having the ability to produce a musical with a cast of only HoriPro actors, most of the company’s theatrical works consist of a mixture of performers from both HoriPro and other entertainment agencies.
“The ideal would be to do it with all HoriPro actors,” Hori says, “but things don’t always fall into place, so we invite actors from outside to fill in the roles. The more actors from different backgrounds mix, the higher the quality of the production becomes.
“But the most important element for us is for the work itself to be valued by our audiences.”
“Death Note: The Musical” was specifically targeted at audiences in the United Kingdom and the United States. However, Hori suggests that there is a chance his next global production might target Asia — and only Asia.
Whoever the target audience may be, and without giving away any further details, Hori says it is important to believe in the opportunities Japanese musicals hold for a larger-scale international platform.
“It is time for major theaters like those on Broadway to have productions like ‘Death Note: The Musical’ on their lists,” he says. “A musical production that will leave the audiences with a good and a bad aftertaste, theater that brings the world of musicals to a whole new level and provides new experiences where Broadway and West End fans perhaps have never encountered before.”
By Yukari Tanaka, The Japan Times