B.O. giant doesn't diminish country's diverse offerings

The Japanese film biz is booming — that is, if you happen to be Toho (by far the biggest distrib) or its TV network partners, who serve as backers and producers of the Toho slate. Eight of the top 10 domestic B.O. pics for 2009 were released by Toho — and this year will probably be no different.

Yet focusing on Toho’s dominance risks glossing over the diversity of the Japanese film zeitgeist.

Among the summer’s biggest hits on the Toho lineup are Studio Ghibli’s “The Borrowers,” a 2D toon based on Mary Norton’s eponymous fantasy classic and produced by Nippon Television Network, and “Bayside Shakedown 3,” the latest installment in a massively popular franchise about cops in the trendy Tokyo Bay area, based on a Fuji Television Network show. By mid-August the cume of the former had reached $57 million, the latter $68 million.

Critics complain, however, that network pics are often little more than TV shows writ large, made with the same helmers, cast and staff. Producer Taka Ichise, the godfather of the J Horror genre, has blogged that such pics will lead to a collapse of the Japanese biz, as disappointed local auds start to rebel against paying the highest adult ticket prices in the world — ¥1,800 ($21.18) — for pics very much like what they can get at home for free.

What fans at foreign fests, from Venice to such Asian specialty events as the Udine Far East Film Festival, have been seeing from Japan is quite different, however. Programmers rarely select the nets’ TV drama adaptations, which in any case account for only a sliver of the nearly 400 Japanese pics released annually.

Instead, auds around the world are discovering that Japan still produces a significant number of pics that stretch boundaries and challenge conventions, rather than simply cash in on franchise properties.

Some are classic auteurist exercises, such as Hirokazu Kore’eda’s “Still Walking,” a 2008 family drama that has been compared to the work of 1950s Golden Age masters Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu.

But others balance individual visions, from the flesh-crawlingly strange to the blackly comic, against the needs of today’s young auds, including the growing numbers of Japanese pop culture fans overseas. That is, they aim to entertain — though their definition of “entertainment” can be wildly different from Hollywood’s.

At the apex of international cult popularity is Takashi Miike, whose pics may play to the multiplex multitudes at home but appeal to foreign fans with everything from gross-out shocks to slap-and-tickle jokes — often in the same scene.

Screening out of competition this year at Venice are Miike’s two “Zebraman” sci-fi action laffers about a mild-mannered, middle-aged loser (Show Aikawa) who dons a superhero costume on the sly — and finds himself battling malevolent space aliens for real.

Miike also has a pic in competition, the samurai swashbuckler “13 Assassins,” that is generating even more buzz among his foreign fan base.

Quickly catching up, in terms of both local B.O. clout and international recognition, is Tetsuya Nakashima, who burst onto the international scene with the 2004 punk-biker-girl-meets-frilly-fashionista comedy “Kamikaze Girls.” Nakashima’s combination of quirkily original pop visual sensibility and darkly dramatic storytelling first hit the B.O. sweet spot with “Memories of Matsuko,” a 2006 musical dramedy that was like “Anna Karenina” on acid, which earned $15 million.

His latest, “Confessions,” tells a pitch-black story about a junior high teacher (Takako Matsu) who learns that two of her students killed her 3-year-old daughter and, at the end of the year, tells the entire class she will get her revenge. Once again Nakashima delivers a stylish, original take on an unlikely story that has drawn auds in large numbers, despite his defiance of formula.

Since its June 5 bow, “Confessions” has earned nearly $47 million at the Japanese B.O.

“Nakashima can entertain while making the film his own,” says Hiro Otaka, box office analyst for the Bunkatsushin entertainment news service. “That’s very rare today. He is a hitmaker who has become a key presence in the Japanese film industry. It will be interesting to see what he will do from here on.”

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