Offbeat and extreme pics seek non-arthouse auds

How to succeed in the Japanese film biz means really trying … something different.

Producers and helmers have traditionally had two ways to make a name for themselves in the Japanese biz: Produce populist hits for the domestic B.O. (see ticket-sales behemoth Toho) or arty award-winners for the international fest circuit. Some, such as Akira Kurosawa, have wowed both local crowds and foreign critics, but the basic template has remained much the same, despite the emergence of such international cult faves as Takashi Miike — and even Miike has had his pics screened as Cannes and Venice.

In the past decade, however, a growing circuit of fantastic film fests in Europe and North America, as well as the rise of non-Japanese fan sites devoted to Japanese pics, have taken up certain helmers who may have never topped a B.O. list at home or won a major prize abroad, but have nonetheless connected with fans, often with the sort of extreme shocks and strangeness that mainstream Hollywood pics soften for censors.

With the backing of the Nikkatsu studio, producer Yoshinori Chiba has launched a new label, Sushi Typhoon, that directly targets the overseas Asian Extreme crowd. Also, instead of waiting to be discovered by fantastic fest programmers and DVD distribs, Chiba and his team have aggressively promoted Sushi Typhoon pics across a range of platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, while taking several of their makers and pics (beginning with Seiji Chiba’s splatter actioner “Aliens vs. Ninja”) on the road this summer, to events ranging from the New York Asian Film Festival to Comic-Con in San Diego.

In the process, they have further raised the international profiles of Sushi Typhoon helmers, who are now better-known abroad than colleagues with vastly more B.O. clout at home.

“The (Sushi Typhoon) brand is just a platform,” says Chiba. “Through the diffusion of the brand, we can provide young Japanese directors a place where they can make interesting films.”

They need this place, Chiba believes, because the environment for indie filmmakers is so tough in Japan.

“The films being made by the big film companies have become standardized, and it’s become harder to make films that have an individual vision or a socially challenging theme,” he adds.

Yuko Shiomaki, prexy of sales outfit Pictures Dept., sees the indie glass even more darkly.

“Almost no one is making money out of independent projects, and they cannot take risks any more,” she explains. “Nobody knows where to recoup costs. They can’t do it from theatrical. They can’t do it from DVDs.”

One way forward she sees is that of helmer Sion Sono, an indie vet who has played the fantastic fest circuit successfully with his unique brand of black comic action, as found in last year’s fest fave “Love Exposure.” The pic, which skewers everything from the Catholic church to up-the-skirt photo artists, delighted foreign auds while racking up DVD sales, despite its four-hour running time.

“Sono not only makes films with low budgets but aims to entertain audiences,” Shiomaki observes. “This is something severely lacking in other Japanese auteur directors.”

She dubs him the “Uniqlo of films” after the popular Japanese brand of low-cost but quality clothing.

And who is producing Sono’s latest — the serial killer pic “Cold Fish”? Sushi Typhoon, natch. And where will it make its international preem? At Venice, in the Horizons section.

Toho, eat your heart out.

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