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Box office bust: ‘The Dark Knight’ dives in Japan

Heath Ledger as the Joker in 'The Dark Knight'
Heath Ledger as the Joker in ‘The Dark Knight’

TOKYO (TR) – Not even the Joker can manage a grin: Japanese audiences have been underwhelmed by Warner Bros.’ worldwide smash “The Dark Knight,” the latest installment in the “Batman” series.

Now in its third week of release in Japan, the Christopher Nolan film, which sees the caped crime-fighter battling underworld figures and crooked cops in Gotham City, grossed a mere $1.6 million in its second weekend in Japan to bring its cumulative total to only $8.7 million. By comparison, it has already accumulated $14.3 million in takings over the same period in the smaller Korean market.

Industry observers believe the picture’s overly lengthy 152-minute running time, lack of the “Batman” name in the title, and dark theme are possible explanations for the disinterest by Japanese film fans.

“The story is very pessimistic,” explains Chika Minagawa, a film critic. “It has a dark and gloomy texture that Japanese movie fans do not find appealing in a ‘comic hero’ film.”

Domestic competition, too, could have played a role. Earlier this month, “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea,” the latest animated feature by director Hayao Miyazaki, eclipsed the 10 billion yen ($93.2 million) in its 31st day of release.

For the weekend ending August 24th, “The Dark Knight” ranked seventh, trailing “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” and “Sex and the City.”

Notoriously selective, Japanese cinemagoers have previously turned away from Hollywood blockbusters – most recently, “King Kong” and “Sin City” – but the disparity with “The Dark Knight” might be unprecedented.

The film, in which Heath Ledger is seen in his final role as Batman’s primary nemesis, the Joker, currently trails only “Titanic” as most successful of all-time in the U.S., where it has racked up $490 million at the box office. As well, it topped the charts in France, Spain, and Russia over opening weekends earlier this month.

From the beginning, “The Dark Knight” struggled in Japan. Over its opening two days, the film brought in $3 million, which was less than that for its predecessor from 2005, “Batman Begins.” The latter film, which included the added attraction for local audiences of Ken Watanabe in a starring role, had total receipts of $14 million. “The Dark Knight” will likely be pressed to match that figure.

Minagawa says that in general comic book character-based films do not perform well in Japan, citing the “Spiderman” series as one exception.

“Japanese movie fans,” the critic says, “expect such films to be fun and action packed, for the hero to be attractive, for the villain to be loud and outrageous, and for the movie itself to be easy to understand and light.”

Addendum: Screen International reports that after three weekends “The Dark Knight” collected $11.1 million in Japan and $18.4 million in Korea.