Auds love local romance

'Crying' a hit on the bookshelves and now in theaters

TOKYO — True love, death, nostalgia and a good cry are stronger audience draws in Japan these days than action, special effects and $200 million tentpole budgets.

The trend has been brewing for some time, but proof came with the May 8 release of “Crying Out for Love From the Center of the World.” Produced for a mere $3.5 million, to date it has racked up some $70 million at the local box office.

Known by its acronym “Sekachu,” the bestseller-based film has surpassed “Troy” and “The Day After Tomorrow” to land in fourth place among Japan’s top 10 this year, and it’s playing on fewer than half the screens. And it’s still going strong, even with “Spider-Man 2” trying hard to rebound from its disappointing opening earlier this month.

“Nobody among the production partners expected this,” says Daisuke Ooka, producer at the film department of Tokyo Broadcasting (TBS), which co-produced with Hakuhodo DY Media Partners (HDY), distrib Toho and publisher Shogakukan.

When Shogakukan came out with the original novel in late 2001, it planned a print run of only 8,000 copies. The sentimental story of a high school boy losing his love to leukemia didn’t promise to become a bestseller.

But then Japan’s superstar of the moment, “Battle Royale” thesp Kou Shibasaki, read the book in one go, cried all night and wrote an article about her experience in a popular woman’s magazine. The book started to fly off the shelves, with a Shibasaki-penned recommendation adorning each volume.

Meanwhile, HDY had secured the film rights and started to scout partners to produce the pic, which wasn’t too difficult after the book hit the bestseller list. And marketing costs would be low, due to the book’s high awareness.

The book has sold more than 3 million copies so far and landed in seventh place on Japan’s all-time bestseller list.

“Instead of following the original, the script added a crucial component,” Ooka says. The film’s story toggles between the present, when the male protagonist is supposed to marry his loving fiancee (played by Shibasaki), and those idealized high school days. He cannot overcome the loss of his high school love. When he tries to solve his problems by revisiting the past, tragedy ensues.

“The ‘Sekachu’ phenomenon will change Japan’s film world,” says a production executive in Tokyo. “It’s the best case so far for more local films and less imports, especially from Hollywood. Just look at the profit margin!”

A wave of newfound optimism is gripping the local film industry, even though “Sekachu” could be a fluke.

Attempts to repeat the success are under way. Shooting of “I’ll Be With You” started July 21, with the “Sekachu” production partners behind the project. The story: A widowed and slightly retarded father and his son whose birth resulted in the mother’s death encounter a woman years later who they think is their wife and mother. “It’s a different story but has the same ingredients,” Ooka says.

The tragedy couldn’t skip the small screen, either. TBS has launched a drama series of the same name, which has landed in second place in the ratings of all TV dramas.

Meanwhile, “Sekachu” is starting its international rollout. Toho Intl. recently sold it to distrib Dong A in Korea after a ferocious bidding war “for what we know to be the highest price ever paid by Korea for a Japanese film,” according to Toho Intl. director Masaharu Ina. “Other Asian territories are very interested, too.”

Hollywood is taking note, as well. “We’re organizing screenings (in Hollywood),” says HDY exec Hirofumi Fujisaki. “There’s a lot of interest in a potential remake.”

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