‘Ponyo’ likely to heat up Japan

Miyazaki's animated pic to open this summer

The summer pic season starts late in Japan, since Japanese schoolkids grind away at the books until mid-July. Also, workers commonly crowd all of their summer vacation days into a one-week holiday in mid-August called Obon (the Festival of the Dead). Big summer pics in Japan, however, can rack up humongous numbers by any standard, such as the $290 million earned by the Hayao Miyazaki toon “Spirited Away” in 2001.

On July 19 Miyazaki will be back in the theaters with “Ponyo on a Cliff,” his first feature toon since “Howl’s Moving Castle” in 2004. The pic is still in production, but “Ponyo” is expected to easily clear the $100 million mark for distrib Toho on the Miyazaki name alone. “What it does after that is a question mark,” says B.O. analyst Hiro Otaka of the Bunka Tsushin entertainment news service. “Will it do $150 million? Or top the $200 million of “Howl”? No one has seen the film yet, so it’s hard to say.”

 “Ponyo’s” biggest Hollywood rival for the summer B.O. crown is “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” which Par will bow on June 21 on nearly 800 screens. Given the sterling track record of the series in Japan — the two previous Indy Jones pics topped the Japanese B.O. for the year —Par is predicting  $100 million plus.

Otaka, however, is not so sure: “The last “Indiana Jones” film was released nearly two decades ago and the audience for them has gotten older. I think $100 million will be tough — $70 million or $80 million is more realistic.”

 Meanwhile, despite disappointing business in the U.S., Warner continues to have high hopes for “Speed Racer,” skedded for a July 5 bow. The property originated in Japan as an iconic TV toon in the 1960s. The helmers of the pic, the Wachowski Brothers, had a huge success in the Japan with the “Matrix” trilogy, which was heavily influenced by Japanese pop culture. Also the nine “Animatrix” short toons the Wachowskis commissioned and released in 2003 made local celebrities of their Japanese animators.

“But the fans who remember the original (“Speed Racer”) series are rather old,” notes Otaka, and are not likely to turn up in the theaters in large numbers. “Depending on how interesting the film is (for the younger audience), it could do anywhere from $20 million to $40 million,” he predicts.

 Another contender in the summer sweeps is the latest feature installment in the “Pokemon” toon series, which is set for a July 19 release by Toho — the same day as “Ponyo.” Toho publicist Hiroe Wakita says the scheduling was coincidental and is not intended to pair Toho’s two strongest summer toons in a B.O. death match.

 The “Pokemon” pic series, which started in 1998 and is now in its 11th installment, has been a steady earner, with four of the past five pics passing the $40 million mark. The secret of its  success, says Wakita, lies in a marketing strategy that tightly ties the pics to the Nintendo Game Boy game that launched the Pokemon boom in 1995 and its now in its fourth generation, as well as to spin-off TV shows, comics and character goods. “(The makers) keep introducing new characters and story concepts to make the series fresh for fans,” she explains.

 Still another big summer pic is “Boys Over Flowers” (Hana Yori Dango). a drama based on a popular comic and TBS series about a working-class girl who enters an elite high school and has to contend with its upper-class students, particularly a group of four gorgeous guys who are collectively known as F4 (“Flower Four”).  The pic, which Toho will release on June 28, stars Shun Oguri,  one of the hottest young male stars in the country, reprising his TV role as the F4 leader. How high can “Boys” go? Last year “Hero,” another pic based on a smash-hit TV show with a hot male star (Takuya Kimura), finished with nearly $80 million.

 In other words, Indy, Speed and their Hollywood cohorts will be lucky to fight the local competition to a draw. Whatever the result, Toho, which operates a large theater chain that plays both Japanese and Hollywood pics, will be the winner.