Japanese cinema

Japanese animators and filmmakers are now second to none in Asia at CG wizardry — no surprise given Japanese strengths in both the hardware and software sides of the CG equation, from high-end electronics to the manga that provides material for so many CG films. Much of their best known work, from the films of Hayao Miyazaki to the later entries in the “Godzilla” series, is in the fantasy and sci-fi genres.

Japan’s hottest CG wizard today, however, is Takashi Yamazaki, whose smash hit film “Always — Sunset on Third Street” is a stunningly detailed re-creation — not of an alien world or dystopian future city, but a folksy Tokyo neighborhood, circa 1958.

Released by Toho on Nov. 5, “Always” cleared the ¥3.0 billion ($26.3 million) mark after two months in theaters and is expected to finish with $31 million, making it one of the highest grossing Japanese films of 2005. It also scooped numerous year-end honors, including 13 Japan Academy Award nominations.

What drew audiences and pleased critics was not just the episodic story of colorful period types, based a long-running Ryohei Saigan comic, but Yamazaki and his staff’s meticulously detailed reconstruction of Tokyo in the 1950s.

Given a $12.3 million budget, high for the Japanese industry, they made vibrant streetscapes filled with period buses, streetcars and buildings, most of which were created on computer — their real-life models having largely vanished in the intervening decades. “I had never seen a lot of these things myself,” the 40-year-old director commented. “I made the film because I wanted to see them.”

Japanese baby boomers — the film’s primary target audience — had seen them, of course, but they were joined in the theaters by a surprisingly large number of under-30s who had not. “They find (the film) nostalgic as well,” comments Yamazaki. “It’s in their DNA.”

A graduate of Asagaya Art College in Tokyo, Yamazaki collected dozens of film and TV credits working for Shirogumi, a leading animation and special effects house, in the 1990s. In 2000 he made his directorial debut with the “E.T.”-esque “Juvenile.” His 2002 follow-up, “Returner,” sampled everything from “Terminator” to transformer robots, while taking $11 million at the Japanese box office. It screened widely at festivals and even went into limited North American release.

“Always,” however, is Yamazaki’s career breakthrough, in more than just its box office numbers. It is, he believes, “a new type of CG film.”

“The CG supports the story — it’s not what people come to see,” he explains. “It’s like the music or the color cinematography.” And that, he feels, is the wave of the CG future, for Japanese films certainly. “People do go to see Hollywood films for their CG effects … but we can’t imitate the Hollywood style,” he says.

In fact, this fan of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who was inspired to become an effects specialist by a screening of “Star Wars” when he was 13, is “sick of Hollywood sci-fi effects, period.” “With ‘King Kong’ I had my fill,” he adds. “I don’t need anymore”

Neither, Yamazaki believes, do Japanese audiences. “What people want now are films that appeal to the heart,” he says. “That’s also why ‘Always’ is a new type of CG film.” His aim was not to send eyeballs spinning with his CG effects, but to use them, together with real sets and miniatures, to creates a warm, thoroughly authentic period atmosphere. “CG is becoming more of a supporting player, not the main actor,” he comments. “I like that trend.”

His next project? “I want to do a comedy,” he says. “I want to make people laugh.” But presumably not with computer-generated comedians.

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