Japanese prefer home grown

Local filmmakers unleash new pic formulas

TOKYO — Last year, the Japanese biz pulled off what was thought to be mission impossible — a majority market share.

This feat, after three decades of Hollywood dominance, was all the more impressive in that no one blockbuster dominated. Instead, the wealth was spread more evenly, from “Tales From Earthsea,” the toon by Miyazaki’s first-timer son Goro that led the local B.O. with $64 million, to “Love and Honor,” the smash samurai drama by veteran Yoji Yamada that boosted the domestics above the 50% line in December, and “Hula Girls,” the hit dramedy about a struggling hula troupe. This year began with fantasy period actioner “Dororo” taking in $3.74 million in its first weekend with producer TBS predicting a final take of $33 million.

As result, the three major domestic distribs, as well as several of the smaller ones, enjoyed banner years.

Perennial front-runner Toho led with a $486 million B.O., for a year-on gain of 12%, followed by Shochiku ($116 million, up 3%) and Toei ($100 million, up 11%).

But all is not sunshine for the Japanese biz. Of the nearly 400 pics released in 2006 — 100 more than only three years previously — the vast majority never recouped theatrically, while many other pics lost out in the fierce competition for the country’s 3,000 screens.

Several of the B.O. losers, such as “Nana 2,” the sequel to the 2005 smash “Nana,” failed to find auds despite massive PR campaigns and big fan bases for the original material — in “Nana 2’s” case, a comic that sold 24 million copies.

“We’ve been seeing a production bubble — and now it’s starting to deflate a bit,” says Yuko Sekiguchi, chief editor of Kinema Junpo, Japan’s oldest film mag. “The industry needs to find new approaches.”

One problem is the overproduction of weepy dramas — a hot genre at the start of the current production boom in 2003. “They keep making the same kinds of films — and audiences are tiring of them,” Sekiguchi says. Another problem is the stagnation of the DVD market, which many producers rely on to turn a profit. Again, there are more pics fighting for the same consumer coin.

This year, the hot pics are more about battles and bloodshed than sad-but-sweet romance, as the national political mood turns to the right.

Leading the martial wave is “Dororo,” based on an Osamu Tezuka comic about a young samurai (Satoshi Tsumabuki) on a mission to recover 48 of his body parts his warlord father gave to demons in exchange for political power. Toho released the pic nationwide Jan. 27 to boffo B.O., while TBS has sold the pic to nearly 20 territories in Asia and Europe.

Even bigger may be “The Blue Wolf,” uber-producer Haruki Kadokawa’s biopic of legendary warlord Genghis Khan, shot entirely on location in Khan’s native Mongolia at a cost of nearly $25 million.

Shochiku will release on March 3, while Kadokawa, with typical hubris, is predicting $100 million B.O. worldwide.

Finally, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara has scripted and exec-produced “I Go to Die for You” (Ore, kimi no tame ni koso shi ni iku), a drama about the lives and early deaths of kamikaze pilots in WWII. Toei will open the pic on May 1, while Ishihara, who got his start as a novelist, scriptwriter and sometime actor nearly five decades ago, is touting the pic as an antidote to the historical amnesia afflicting many of his under-25 constituents.

Among the local pics getting the biggest buzz, however, is “Sakuran,” the debut feature by photographer Mika Ninagawa.

Set in Tokyo’s fabled Yoshiwara red-light district, the pic tells the story of a rebellious girl (Anna Tsuchiya ) who becomes the most-sought-after oiran (concubine) in all Edo (feudal-era Tokyo). The eye-popping visuals, from the kimonos to the flower arrangements, are drawing pre-release raves, as is pop diva Shina Ringo’s jazzy score and Tsuchiya’s pull-out-the-stops perf as the punk rebel oiran. Helmer Ninagawa’s reflected celebrity from her famous stage director dad, Yukio Ninagawa, is also adding to the hype.

Asmik Ace has skedded the release for Feb. 24, after what it hopes will a be a triumphant screening in Berlin on Feb. 9.

Can “Sakuran” beat the Hollywood blockbusters, let along the domestic competition in the annual box office race? No telling, but the pic is an indication that, for all its reliance on sometimes-tired formulas, the Japanese biz is still capable of reinventing itself — in a flaming red kimono yet.

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