Divide between small, big screen helmers begins to close

In Japan, there’s always been a strict divide between film directors and their TV compatriots.

Japanese commercial pics, including this year’s smashes “Thermae Romae” and “Umizaru 4,” are mostly produced by TV networks and directed by TV-trained helmers. Quite often the pic is essentially a special of the TV series on which it is based, with the same director and cast.

Meanwhile, Japanese helmers whose indie pics screen at major film festivals around the world have long kept their distance from television, save for the occasional foray (which pays the rent, though it may not burnish their rep).

But this smallscreen division is disappearing, if recent TV efforts by local auteurs are any indication.

The project getting the most attention internationally is “Penance,” horrormeister Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s five-part miniseries thriller for the Wowow pay channel. Broadcast in January and February, the series was later screened in an edited version out of competition at Venice — an almost unheard of honor for a TV drama. But Kurosawa, whose 2008 dysfunctional family drama “Tokyo Sonata” won the Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, has long been a fest favorite.

Wowow producer Tomoko Takashima is quick to note that the channel’s Kurosawa project is hardly a first; the feevee has been making original dramas since 2002. “In terms of quality, Wowow is leagues ahead of other stations,” she says.

But “Penance,” in common with the vast majority of J-dramas, was not made with the international market in mind,Takashima admits. “We knew that Kurosawa is a popular director overseas, but the series was five hours long,” she says.

Positive responses at Venice and Toronto, however, as well as invites from other fests, have spurred buyer interest. International sales outfit Free Stone has closed deals for Hong Kong, South Korea, France, Germany and Benelux, with others in the offing.

But the jump to TV has not always been easy for helmers used to making art for the classes, not entertainment for the masses. A case in point is Hirokazu Kore’eda, whose debut feature “Maborosi” was selected for the Venice competition in 1995. The helmer has since become a much-honored auteur for such pics as “After Life” (1998), “Nobody Knows” (2004) and “Still Walking” (2008).

But Kore’eda’s drama “Going My Home,” which has been airing on the Fuji TV network since Oct. 9, has been falling in the ratings week by week, despite an all-star cast that includes Tomoko Yamaguchi, a J-drama megastar from the 1990s who is making her comeback after a 14-year hiatus.

The story, scripted by Kore’eda himself, centers on an ad man (Hiroshi Abe) who returns to visit his sick father in the countryside, and becomes intrigued with mythical creatures called kuna who are said to serve as conduits between the living and the dead.

Various reasons have been advanced by critics and bloggers for the series’ dismal showing, including its lack of the young pop idols who typically headline other shows. In a column for the Best Post Seven entertainment news service, media writer Yumi Yamashita observed that Kore’eda’s low-key, naturalistic style may work on the bigscreen, where auds have committed themselves to his pics’ two-hour duration, but not on the smallscreen, where viewers’ attention can be divided.

Noting that TV in Japan is said to be something you watch sipping tea — that is, while conducting the business of ordinary life, Yamashita says that stories have to grab viewers with a constant stream of plot twists and surprises, the formula for success among J-dramas since time immemorial.

Still another foreign fest fave making the TV leap is Sion Sono, whose most recent pic, the nuclear reactor meltdown drama “The Land of Hope,” preemed at Toronto this year. He has signed to make “All Esper Dayo!” a sitcom based on a hit manga by Kiminori Wakasugi for the TV Tokyo network. The show, about a high school boy (Shota Sometani) who can read minds, with humorous results, starts next spring.

Will Sono succeed where Kore’eda had failed? One indicator may be “Love Exposure” (2008), Sono’s nearly four-hour opus whose youthful hero becomes an upskirt photographer to produce “sins” for the confessional of his father, a strict priest. Auds roared with laughter, and the pic was a hit at fests around the world, despite its formidable length. “All Esper Dayo!” is in the same comic vein that Sono seems to find congenial.

The moral? Quality may be the reason TV producers hire auteurs, but free TV auds need more than arthouse epiphanies to keep them from putting down the tea cup — and hitting the channel changer.

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