Who really matters in Japan

Four players making waves beyond the Land of the Rising Sun

Joe Odagiri, thesp

Since debuting in the 2001 youth drama “Platonic Sex,” Joe Odagiri has soared to stardom in Japan, in a career enviably balanced between critical and B.O. success. He starred in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2003 Cannes competition entry “Bright Future,” while also appearing that year in “Azumi,” Ryuhei Kitamura’s hit samurai swashbuckler. (He also picked up a Japan Academy rookie of the year award for his turn as the heroine’s foppish-but-wily enemy.)

The next year Odagiri garnered a best supporting actor prize for his perf as an impulsive young gangster in Yoichi Sai’s drama “Blood and Bones.” In 2005 he returned to Cannes as the star, together with Zhang Ziyi, of Seijun Suzuki’s period musical “Princess Raccoon.”

Meanwhile, he was drawing fans at home as a love-obsessed ninja in Ten Shimoyama’s actioner “Shinobi.”

In his latest film, Miwa Nishikawa’s “Yureru,” he stars with Teruyuki Kagawa (“Devils on the Doorstep”) in a drama of fraternal strife.

Having conquered both the home market and international festival circuit with his range, intensity and brooding good looks, Odagiri might consider following compatriot Ken Watanabe to Hollywood. English shouldn’t be a problem — he spent two years studying acting at California State at Fresno prior to starting his film career. What he needs is an incentive to brush up — say, a role in the next Tom Cruise pic?

Koki Mitani, scribe

A fan of Neil Simon, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen and other American masters of sophisticated, character-driven comedy, scribe-director Koki Mitani is the odd man out in Japanese showbiz, where most TV funnymen get laughs by exchanging insults, puns and blows. But he is also extraordinarily successful, with a long list of hit plays, TV dramas and now films to his credit.

His first film script, for Shun Nakahara’s 1991 dramedy “The Gentle Twelve,” was a clever twist on Sidney Lumet’s “Twelve Angry Men,” with the jurors reaching a Japanese-style consensus.

His first film as a director, the 1998 comedy “Welcome Back Mr. McDonald,” was based on his own tribulations as a screenwriter and sold widely abroad.

That and his follow-up, the 2001 comedy “Our House” (“Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House” comes to Japan) were also hits domestically, but his latest pic, “Suite Dreams,” is his true B.O. breakthrough. Loosely based on the 1932 MGM classic “Grand Hotel,” this intricately plotted ensemble comedy about New Year’s at a ritzy hotel has earned more than $40 million since its release in January — the most of any domestic film this year. The reason, says Mitani with characteristic modesty, is simple: “The audience has become used to enjoying my style of comedy. I’m now reaping what I’ve sown.”

Takashi Yamazaki, helmer

A graduate of Asagaya Art College in Tokyo, Takashi Yamazaki got his professional start at Shirogumi, a leading animation and special effects house, where he collected dozens of film and TV credits 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 domestic box office. It screened widely at festivals and even went into limited North American release.

But Yamazaki truly proved his B.O. clout with his third film, “Always — Sunset on Third Street.” Released in Japan in November 2005, this pic about the colorful residents of a downtown Tokyo neighborhood circa 1958 grossed $27.4 million, making it one of biggest domestic hits of the year. It also scooped up 12 Japan Academy Awards.

Yamazaki and his CG staff re-created the look of a now vanished era, including digitally generated cars and buses, with a level of fidelity and detail never seen before in a Japanese film. “I had never seen a lot of these things myself,” says the 40-year-old director. “I made the film because I wanted to see them.” So, it turned out, did millions of others.

His next project? A contemporary comedy, though what role pixels will play is anyone’s guess.

Haruki Kadokawa, producer

Not long ago, Haruki Kadokawa was a non-person in the Japanese film world. Though he produced dozens of hits from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, a 1993 drug bust embroiled him in years of legal wranglings while nearly destroying his career.

Last year, Kadokawa came roaring back with “Yamato,” an epic based on the true story of Japan’s last WWII battleship, which was sunk, together with nearly 3,000 of its crew, in an American air attack in April 1945.

Kadokawa had wanted to make a film about the Yamato for two decades, since leading a 1985 expedition to discover the ship’s remains in the waters off the island of Kyushu. When he and his partners raised the coin from a consortium of investors, including distributor Toei, industry skeptics wondered how yet another WWII pic could draw, not just white-haired nostalgists, but the young core audience. Kadokawa replied that under-30s were in fact his main target and proved it by casting hot young talents and delivering all-out battle action reminiscent of the Omaha Beach sequence in “Saving Private Ryan.”

Released on 324 screens on Dec. 17, “Yamato” became a hit with exactly the wide demographic Kadokawa had planned, sailing past the $30 million B.O. mark.

Kadokawa is already gearing up for his next blockbuster, a biopic of Ghenghis Khan. Titled “The Blue Wolf,” the pic stars “Yamato” vet Takashi Sorimachi as Khan and will feature 3,000 extras — soldiers supplied by the Mongolian government. On a March visit to Ulan Bator, Kadokawa predicted that 100 million auds will turn out for the pic worldwide. Well, he’s been right before. “The Blue Wolf” will go before the cameras in July, with a budget of $25 million.

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