Big in Japan: Frozen's Feminist Rallying Cry

The film's popularity has coincided with public outcry over sexism in Japan, where unlike in America, Disney marketing played up the movie's empowerment message.
AP Photo/Disney

Frozen, the Disney cartoon-musical that swept the US in late 2013 and early 2014, only arrived in Japan in mid-March. And since then, it’s completely taken over the country. It’s the No. 1 movie in Japanese box offices for the 15th straight week. Among its other accolades in Japan (where it was released under the name Ana and the Snow Queen):

  • The movie’s made $231.8 million in Japan so far, more than any movie in Japan’s history except Spirited Away in 2001 and Titanic in 1997—and it’s within striking distance of the latter.
  • It blew past Avatar in early May to become the most successful 3D film in Japan ever.
  • The soundtrack’s done solid business as well, topping Billboard Japan’s “Top Albums” rankings for Nov. 2013-Jun. 2014 (link in Japanese).
  • Japan’s Frozen box-office receipts have contributed 19% of worldwide earnings, second in the world behind the US’s 32%, even though Japan has less than half the population of the US.

So, what’s behind Japan’s Frozen craze?

Undoubtedly, Japanese audiences are responding to the same qualities that have turned Frozen into a global phenomenon. Not only is the music catchy, but the story is morally nuanced enough that adults seem to enjoy it as well as children. And then there’s the fact that Frozen revolves around the relationship between strong, commanding female characters who defy the “Disney princess” stereotype (even though they technically are monarchs).

That latter point is what makes Frozen‘s unexpected popularity—particularly among Japanese women—so striking.

The story centers on the closeness between two sisters—Elsa, the older sister and queen, and her younger sister Anna. Unlike typical princess movies, Disney or otherwise, romance isn’t a big focus; in fact, the “handsome prince” ends up being a villain. And far from being a spunky but ultimately passive heroine like Beauty and the Beast‘s Belle or Aladdin‘s Princess Jasmine, Elsa is genuinely powerful. Not only is she queen, but she has the magic ability to turn things into ice—a magical power that in other Disney movies signals “evil” (think Maleficent or Ursula).

But Elsa’s superpower is a mere distraction; chip away all that fanciful frost and it turns out the movie’s mainly about her struggle to be an effective ruler while gaining control over her power and still caring for her sister—"having it all," as some might term it. And it’s clearly no cakewalk. Elsa delivers the show-stopping number “Let It Go” as she (fairly irresponsibly) ditches her queenly duties for a life of self-imposed exile in an ice-castle of her creation.

A “screw ‘em all” tirade against social expectations, “Let It Go” sees Elsa’s embrace the weird power that makes her different from everyone else, rejecting the shame her parents had made her feel about it. It’s not really her finest moment—while she’s traipsing all over glaciers, her kingdom is in a state of deep-freeze. But it’s also necessary: an instant of brazen self-acceptance that will soften into confidence. And people love it; “Let It Go” has become an anthem for the oppressed of all stripes, as this New Yorker article explains.

This is all pretty un-Disney, and the company seems to know it. Disney marketed Frozen in the US and Europe by playing up Olaf the Snowman—and omitting the whole musical thing—likely in a bid to appeal to boys, knowing that girls would see it regardless. Here’s the US trailer:

That’s unsurprising given how much better more masculine, action-themed movies tend to do:

But Disney took a totally different tack in Japan, highlighting the girl-power themes in its promotions, says Tami Ihara, head marketing director at Disney (Japan).

“Unlike in the United States and other nations, we deviated from the strategy of catering to families and specifically targeted Japanese women,” Ihara told the Japan Times (paywall), “who have the power to spur consumption and create a fad.”

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Gwynn Guilford is a reporter and editor for Quartz.

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