Who will matter in the future?

Four players about to begin making an impact beyond Japan

Kou Shibasaki, thesp

Kou Shibasaki first came to international attention in Kinji Fukasaka’s sci-fi smash “Battle Royale,” as one of a class of high schoolers forced to play a murder game by an evil government. Quentin Tarantino was ready to cast her in “Kill Bill Vol. 1” as the sister to Chiaki Kuriyama’s Go Go Yubari, but a scheduling conflict forced her to cancel — and Tarantino wrote her part out of the script.

Domestically, Shibasaki had better luck, starring in Isao Yukisada’s 2001 hit coming-of-age drama “Go” as the elusive love interest of a wild-hearted Korean boy. She also played a pop vocalist in Akihito Shiota’s 2003 “Resurrection,” a love-beyond-the-grave drama that was one of the year’s biggest hits. Her rendition of the theme song reached No. 1 on the charts, but her role in the pic was small.

In 2004 she gave good scream as the terrified heroine of Takashi Miike’s horror hit “One Missed Call,” but Miike grabbed the international spotlight for his bizarro stylistics.

Last year, Shibasaki starred in Inudo Isshin’s indie hit “Maison de Himiko” as the resentful office clerk daughter of an absent tranny father. She drew raves for her earthy perf — one at odds with her earlier glam image.

She made a bigger B.O. splash this year in the Hiroshi Nishitani dramady “Star of the Prefectural Government,” playing a hard-shelled supermarket clerk who gives Yuji Oda’s obnoxious-but-dishy bureaucrat a hard time before falling for him in the last reel. The pic drew more than 1 million admissions, while displaying Shibasaki’s knack for comedy.

When will Tarantino or someone with similar clout finally give this multitalented beauty with the riveting eyes the international launch she deserves? They will soon get another chance to catch her in “Sinking of Japan,” a big-budget disaster pic skedded to open in Japan this July.

Kenji Uchida, scribe

Kenji Uchida is about as hot as a young scribe-director with one low-budget feature to his credit can be. Selected for the Critics Week section at Cannes last year, Uchida’s romantic comedy “A Stranger of Mine” scooped the SACD Screenwriting Award and three other prizes.

Released last year in Japan by Klockworx, the pic enjoyed a 12-week run, while Uchida garnered several awards for his script, including the 2005 best screenplay prize from film mag Kinema Junpo, whose annual awards are considered the most prestigious in the industry.

The story, about a budding romance between a shy businessman and a just-jilted woman, brokered by the businessman’s fast-talking private investigator pal, unfolds conventionally enough in its first act. Then the story doubles back on itself, from different angles, and the audience discovers that nearly everything it thought it knew about this trio is wrong.

Uchida spent a year writing the script, while channeling Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock and other maestros of the well-made films he so admires.

A 1998 grad of San Francisco State U.’s undergraduate cinema program, Uchida won the 2002 Pia Film Festival’s grand prize for “Weekend Blues,” a comedy about a businessman who mysteriously loses a day out of his life. He then used the Pia scholarship coin to make “A Stranger of Mine.”

Flooded with offers after his Cannes triumph, Uchida turned down everything to work on his new script, which he describes as “a suspense film, with comic elements.” The story again begins with an everyday incident that has extraordinary consequences. Pia is producing, with shooting skedded to start sometime this year.

Naoko Ogigami, helmer

In 1994 Naoko Ogigami left Japan to study at USC School of Cinema-Television. After returning in 2000, she won a Pia Film Festival scholarship that supplied the coin for her first feature, the 2003 children’s comedy “Barber Yoshino,” which screened at Berlin and many other fests around the world.

Ogigami next made “Love Is Five, Seven, Five!” (2005), about a high school haiku club, but her break came this year with “Kamome Diner.” Shot entirely in Finland, this low-key drama about three Japanese women who run a Japanese eatery in Helsinki, while finding their respective grooves, opened to a full house on March 11 at Cine Switch — the first time this Ginza landmark had filled every seat on opening day since “Life Is Beautiful” in 1997. The pic has since gone from strength to strength, recording better screen averages at similar venues than “Crash” and “Brokeback Mountain.”

Distrib Media Suits has expanded the number of screens in both the Tokyo metro area and Osaka, including Ebisu Garden Cinema — one of the premier arthouses in Tokyo.

Not surprisingly, the pic is strongest with adult female auds, who have sent it flying past the $1 million mark.

Shinya Kawai, producer

Shinya Kawai is hardly an industry newcomer — among his early credits was “Antarctica,” the 1983 Fuji TV megahit that became the basis for “Eight Below.” He also worked as a producer on the first two films of the “Ringu” trilogy as well as Edward Yang’s 2000 family drama “Yi yi: A One and a Two,” whose long list of prizes included the best film award from the National Society of Film Critics.

But Kawai is now in the process of resetting (not rebooting) his career. Last year he became vice president of development and production at Gaga Communications, a distrib with a 20-year history that has handled major Hollywood titles, including “Seven,” “The Green Mile” and “Phantom of the Opera,” but is only now launching into feature production.

Kawai is not starting with a completely blank slate, however. In addition to his extensive network of industry contacts, he can call on strong financial and structural backing from Gaga and its corporate parent, Internet giant Usen, including a Y30 billion ($254 million) content fund Usen manages with Daiwa Securities.

Kawai intends to produce six titles this year, starting with “First Love,” a heist pic based on the true story of an unsolved 1968 robbery that netted nearly $25 million. His star is Aoi Miyazaki, an ingenue who shot to stardom in last year’s megahit “Nana.” Domestic release is skedded for June, though buyers will be able to catch the pic at Cannes.

Ultimately Kawai hopes to boost budgets to the $10 million level, while working with partners from Asia and the West. Is another “Antarctica” on his horizon?

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