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Producer casts wider net

Yasuhiro Mase takes Japan's box office crown

TOKYO — TV networks have produced most of the hit commercial pics in Japan for the past decade — and Fuji TV has long been the leader, with its motion picture department head Chihiro Kameyama as the reigning box office guru.

His 2003 cop thriller, “Bayside Shakedown II,” holds the B.O. record for a live-action domestic pic: $170 million.

But archrival Tokyo Broadcasting System, under pic production chief Yasuhiro Mase, has wrested away Fuji’s B.O. crown.

In the past year it has released “Departures,” the Oscar-winning drama that scored a stupendous $60 million, and high school baseball drama “Rookies.” Based on a TBS show, it’s on track to earn $85 million, making it the biggest domestic hit of the year.

Where Fuji pics bear Kameyama’s creative stamp, including his preference for fast-paced plotting and dislike of onscreen death, TBS’ pics are more diverse and less formulaic.

“There’s nothing you can call a TBS style,” Mase says. “We’re in business to make successful films — that’s it.”

Mase produced “Departures,” a pic that he describes as an “adventure for us.” Its unconventional subject matter — the hero finds happiness in preparing corpses for funerals — made it a tough sell. “I ran into a lot of opposition — people wondered what the target audience was,” Mase says.

But Mase pushed the film through and was vindicated when “Departures” won the best foreign-language Oscar this year and became a box office smash. “I’m just a lucky guy, that’s the only way I can explain it,” he says.

One example of this luck was the skedding glitch that set back the release of “Departures” by nearly a year to September.

“When the film finally came out, a lot of people in Japan were in the same situation as the film’s hero — looking for work after being restructured out of a job,” Mase says. Mase joined TBS in 1982 and rose up the ranks as a news producer before joining TBS’ pic production unit in 1998.

One of his passions is pop music — he scouts acts for his pics at clubs and concerts — and his style reflects it. Rather than the gray suits of Japan’s corporate elite, Mase prefers designer denims — embroidered dragons optional — while his clean-shaven head, often topped by a spiffy cap, makes him a standout in any crowd.

Mase personally produces one pic a year, while the other four members of his production team handle the rest of TBS’ slate — 10 pics for 2009 — under his supervision.

Among his credits are “Secret” (1999), the fantasy drama that introduced him to “Departures” helmer Yojiro Takita and star Ryoko Hirosue. The pic, in which a mother and daughter switch bodies in a traffic accident, attracted the attention of Luc Besson, who produced the 2007 remake “Si j’etais toi.” Mase and Besson also partnered to make “Wasabi,” a 2001 thriller starring Jean Reno and Hirosue.

“One of the biggest challenges for me has been finding directors who can do both comedy and drama,” he says. “There just aren’t that many like that in Japan.”

One was Takita, who gave “Departures” its blend of laughs and tears; another was Tetsuya Nakashima, whose 2006 “Memories of Matsuko” leavened his heroine’s sad story with colorful CG and blackly comic musical numbers.

Mase, however, denies any aspirations to becoming an auteur. His first and foremost priority is the health of TBS’ bottom line, and if a project contributes to that goal, he’ll make it.

But pressed, he admits to a filmmaking philosophy: “We’re making human dramas that can connect with audiences. My job is to support the people who are good at doing that.”

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