Toon fans storm ‘Castle’

Fanboys eagerly await Miyazaki's latest

TOKYO — Japanese audiences were waiting to see whether Hayao Miyazaki’s new pic “Howl’s Moving Castle” could top his Oscar-winner “Spirited Away.” A month after its release, it looks like the animated feature will do that, and then some.

Release date delays helped build audience anticipation and when it finally bowed on Nov. 20 the pic immediately set a new record for a local release. Some 1.1 million people, many of whom had lined up overnight, paid 1.48 billion yen ($14 million) to see the film during its first two days on 450 screens nationwide — 40% higher than the opening of “Spirited Away.”

The tally since: over $90 million in four weeks.

“Kids love it, and adults love it,” says one motion picture executive at a major television network. “It will break all records.”

While “Spirited Away” had a story embedded in the Japanese tradition of hard work overcoming nasty spirits, “Howl’s Moving Castle” is a cultural import. It’s based on the fantasy novel of the same name by British writer Diana Wynne Jones, which Miyasaki read in 1999.

His studio Ghibli picked up the rights and planned an animated film to be directed by Mamoru Hosoda, with Miyazaki providing the script. When Hosoda abruptly quit in summer 2002, Miyazaki took the reins of the project.

Originally planned as Toho Co.’s main summer release, it was pushed back to autumn because of production delays. Some observers said the strategy was meant to prevent a head-on collision with Hollywood tentpoles.

Whatever the strategy, it worked. Local audiences warmed to the story of Sophie, a teenager who is transformed into an old woman by a curse and falls for the dashing magician Howl. They even seem to prefer Miyazaki’s richly detailed traditional 2-D animation to the more trendy 3-D projects.

Choosing well-known voice talent added to the appeal — Sophie as an old woman is Chieko Baisho, one of Japan’s leading stars during the 1970s and 1980s, while the voice of the young magician is Takuya Kimura, a member of popular pop group SMAP. Kimura made his international acting debut in Wong Kar-wai’s latest film “2046.”

Jointly produced by Studio Ghibli and Toho, with the participation of Nippon Television Networks (the same alliance that made “Spirited Away”), the film got is first international exposure at this year’s Venice Film Festival, where it took the Osella award. Disney will release the pic in the U.S., France and Southeast Asia next year, while the pic opens in Korea Dec. 24. “Spirited Away” played in 50 territories, and Studio Ghibli expects “Howl’s” to open it at least that many.

“At this stage, we are pretty certain that ‘Howl’s’ will at least reach the same box office cume as ‘Spirited Away,’ ” says Kotaro Tsuchida, Toho distribution general manager.

It’s even likely the pic could make it past $350 million, which would make “Howl’s” the highest grossing film in Japan.

For Toho, the pic tops off a solid year. So far, it has released 16 films that grossed over $9.6 million, with four over $40 million each by year’s end.

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