Japanese cult pics soaring

New wave adapts to take advantage of market desires

Non-mainstream Japanese dramas and comedies routinely receive substantial critical acclaim internationally, but a new wave of low-budget cult pics is slipping under the radar and gathering an overseas following.

Japan’s domestic market continues to be dominated by pics based on well-known comicbooks or television programs. Targeting foreign coin by exploiting interest in exotic Asia is another option.

One company responsible for the trend is Japan’s oldest studio, Nikkatsu, which last year launched its Sushi Typhoon gore label with the goal of assembling Japan’s best ultraviolent helmers.

“In the domestic market now, a collaboration with a television network is almost a necessity,” explains Nikkatsu’s Yoshinori Chiba, who has produced dozens of gangster and action thrillers. “But if you want to make a profit overseas, you have to do something different.”

For Sushi Typhoon, slash-up “Alien vs. Ninja,” helmed by Yuji Shimomura, was finished earlier this year, and Sion Sono is putting the finishing touches on “Cold Fish,” a horror story about a fish-seller on a murder spree.

Gore and action films are certainly nothing new to Japanese cinema. However, the progenitors, such as Takashi Miike, have in recent years departed from the limb-severing, straight-to-video fare of the ’90s to more mainstream works.

Nikkatsu is not the only producer seeking international auds. After “Hard Revenge, Milly” and its sequel, “Bloody Battle,” screened last year at the New York Asian Film Festival and the Montreal Fantasia Film Festival, to name just two, director Takanori Tsujimoto started looking beyond his film preferences — meaning, sword-wielding women carving up their opponents.

“Films depicting extreme violence do not play well in Japan,” Tsujimoto says. “So for accruing a decent budget, overseas will be the place to look for my future projects.”

Two pics widely considered as the source of this emergence, Yoshihiro Nishimura’s “Tokyo Gore Police” and Noboru Iguchi’s “The Machine Girl” (both with Chiba as producer), also received coin from abroad. Each was fully financed through U.S.-based Media Blasters and released in 2008.

The success of the pair — both of which shipped more than 50,000 DVD units — spurred Chiba to want to create similarly “blood-spurting, heroine action” projects funded through Nikkatsu.

Media Blasters is heading in a different direction with monster mash-up “Death Kappa,” helmed by Tomoo Haraguchi, which wrapped earlier this year.

Also targeting fans of Japanese subculture are Nikkatsu’s “From the Back, From the Front” and “Apartment Wife: Afternoon Affair,” both of which unspooled this year and represent modern reinterpretations of “roman porno” classics — that is, pics combining “romance” and “pornography” — within the catalog of more than 1,000 features that were routinely praised by critics and served as a testing ground for up-and-coming directors during their initial run in the ’70s and ’80s.

Chiba emphasizes that the majority of the roman porno and Sushi Typhoon pics, which will generally see a scant theatrical release and instead target DVD sales, have been shot in HD — a key to keeping budgets reasonable, between $150,000 and $500,000.

Most companies are hesitant to take risks with conventional genres, because the low-budget actioners will always perform better in the DVD market, says Adam Torel, managing director of U.K.-based distrib Third Window Films, but interest could be developing for other offbeat pics. Tetsuya Nakashima’s kitschy comedy “Kamikaze Girls” and “Memories of Matsuko,” a look back at the troubled life of a prostitute, both screened theatrically, enjoyed strong DVD sales, and were sold to digital broadcaster Film4.

“We have managed to open the market up to people interested in other sorts of films from Japan,” Torel says.

Further, the Raindance Film Festival included “Love Exposure,” the Sono-helmed black comedy, and the Glasgow Film Festival played first-time director Momoko Ando’s “Kakera: A Piece of Our Life” in their lineups last year.

“It’s in these sorts of festivals where the change is happening,” says Torel, “which is the best outcome, as they are being seen by an audience who tend to have a broader spectrum of film fancy.”

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