A still from “Spirited Away.”

Why ‘Spirited Away’ still topped the Chinese box office 18 years late

Jun 26, 2019

The top-performing movie in China this weekend was one that the rest of the world already saw 18 years earlier.

Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning masterpiece Spirited Away never received an official opening in Chinese theaters—until this weekend, when it was the runaway hit, beating out Pixar’s Toy Story 4 to become the top earner.

Spirited Away made over $18 million during opening weekend, more than double the amount earned by Toy Story 4, which came in a distant second.

This chart shows “Spirited Away” (top) made double the earnings of “Toy Story 4” in the Chinese box office from June 21-23.
This chart shows “Spirited Away” (top) made double the earnings of “Toy Story 4” in the Chinese box office from June 21-23. / Photo: Ent Group

While Miyazaki’s whimsical films have enchanted audiences worldwide for decades, none of his films had seen a general release in China until recently.

The first was My Neighbor Totoro, which opened in China last December, 30 years after its initial worldwide release.

That film also did well, ranking second in the box office after a new release, Aquaman.

A still from “My Neighbor Totoro.”
A still from “My Neighbor Totoro.” / Photo: Studio Ghibli

As to why such beloved animated classics never had a wide debut in China, some have attributed it to the vagaries of Sino-Japanese relations, the director’s reluctance to release his films in a country known for widespread piracy, and Chinese officials limiting overseas releases to support local productions.

But that doesn’t mean people here haven’t heard of Miyazaki or his work.

His films have proliferated in China through pirated DVDs, online streaming sites, and academic showings in classrooms. Iconic characters from the films have been turned into toys, dolls, and even restaurant decor.

A “Spirited Away” themed restaurant in Hangzhou.
A “Spirited Away” themed restaurant in Hangzhou. / Photo: Imagine China

This makes the recent box office performance even more impressive.

When My Neighbor Totoro opened in December, fans expressed their eagerness in finally being able to watch the film on the big screen.

Rescreening masterpieces to tap into the public’s nostalgia for past cinematic gems is a tried and true formula in China’s film industry.

First released in 1998, a 3-D version of the mega hit Titanic was screened in China in 2012 and made over $130 million.

Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time and Days of Being Wild have also benefited from rescreenings.

(Read more: Why Wong Kar-wai takes forever to make a movie)

The decision to give a wide release to Miyazaki’s films in China followed the spectacular performance of other Japanese animated films in the Chinese box office.

In November, Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer, about the crime-solving exploits of a primary school detective, made over $17 million.

And the phenomenon Your Name, which was released in China in 2016 and eventually became the highest-grossing anime ever, raked in more than $80 million.

With the success of Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, four other Miyazaki classics—Castle in the Sky, Howl’s Moving Castle, The Wind Rises, and Princess Mononoke—are expected to see a first-time general release in China soon.

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

FilmAnimated filmsInstagram