Japan's Fuji hopes fourth in franchise breaks out abroad

Based on Shuho Sato’s bestselling comic about elite divers in the Japan Coast Guard, “Umizaru” has become a money-spinner for the Fuji TV network and its partners, generating two hit TV drama series and three feature films.

But it took a petition drive among fans to make the fourth pic in the franchise, “Brave Hearts: Umizaru.”

The franchise centers on the aquatic adventures and romantic life of diver Daisuke Senzaki, played on both the bigscreen and small by Hideaki Ito (who appeared alongside Quentin Tarantino in Takashi Miike’s 2008 action comedy “Sukiyaki Western Django”). In “Umizaru 4″ Senzaki and his team go to the rescue of passengers on a jumbo jet that has made an emergency landing in Tokyo Bay, an incident based on the 2009 incident in which “Sully” Sullenberger had to ditch his US Airways jet in the Hudson River.

But with “Umizaru 4″ coming so close on the heels of Japan’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami, in which real-life rescue divers were among the first-responders, there was talk of scratching the pic, whose pre-production was thrown into disarray by the disaster. A petition drive, with nearly 10,000 fans nationwide signing, persuaded the producers — including the Robot production house, which partnered on the other feature installments as well — to go ahead.

“The ‘Umizaru’ films, which celebrate the importance of life and the can-do spirit, have a theme that people are looking for now,” said Fuji TV producer Hirotsugu Usui in September, announcing the film would go ahead.

Fuji and distrib Toho are targeting a July rollout in hopes “Umizaru 4″ can become the first film in the franchise to pass the ¥10 billion ($130 million) mark at the box office. The current series B.O. high is held by the third installment, “The Last Message: Umizaru,” which earned $104 million in 2010.

By mid-October, shooting was going full bore on the $10 million-budgeted pic at the cavernous studio on Toho’s Tokyo lot where Eiichiro Hasumi, helmer of all four series installments, was shooting Ito as Senzaki boarding a sinking cargo ship in a raging typhoon.

Dressed in full diver regalia, Ito struggled across the sloping deck as he was drenched with water from hoses and a huge overhead drum.

Later, taking a break at a picnic table outside, the 36-year-old Ito looked little worse for wear.

“I do all my own stunts,” he said. “We try to make it look as realistic as possible. Our approach is more analog than digital.”

Among the “analog” elements are ships, helicopters and personnel contributed by the Japan Coast Guard, which has given the series its full cooperation. Ito trains for the films with Coast Guard rescue divers, and has befriended many of them.

“They really had it tough,” Ito says, of the tsunami first-responders.

So far the series has not sold well abroad, despite the efforts of sales company Pony Canyon. One problem is Fuji’s long-standing policy of not showing violent deaths in its pics, which makes the series look rather tame compared with its high-body-count foreign competition. “This one is going to have more real action though,” Ito vows. “We want more people abroad to watch it.”

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