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The battle for 2009′s box office starts here

With a strong lineup of Western imports due, Japanese cinema could face a tough year. Here's our pick of the homegrown flicks

by Mark Schilling

The Japanese film industry — particularly at the top, where Toho and the TV networks dwell — had a terrific 2008. Boosted by Hayao Miyazaki’s animation “Gake no Ue no Ponyo” (“Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea”), which earned a splendiferous ¥15 billion, Toho passed the ¥70-billion box-office mark for the year — a new company record. Meanwhile, the TV networks, which produce most of the biggest Japanese films and distribute most of them through Toho, scored hit after hit, including the romantic dramedy “Hana Yori Dango” (“Boys Over Flowers,” TBS) and the mystery thriller “Yogisha X no Kenshin” (“Suspect X,” Fuji TV).

The new year, however, looks to be tougher for the local industry — and not only because of the recession. Hollywood, which ceded a majority share in Japan to homegrown competition in 2008, will have a stronger lineup in 2009, including new installments in the “Harry Potter” and “Terminator” series, as well as “Dragonball Evolution,” a highly hyped live-action version of the classic “Dragonball” anime, to be released here by 20th Century Fox.

Also expected to draw crowds are the remaining two parts of John Woo’s “Red Cliff” period action trilogy set in China. The first has grossed nearly ¥5 billion, a record for an Asian film in Japan.

As for Japanese hits this year, check out the Toho lineup, which usually earns most of the annual domestic box-office Top 10. In January, Toho will release “Kansen Retto” (“Infected Archipelago”), a disaster pic starring Satoshi Tsumabaki and Rei Dan about a virus that sweeps Japan (the movie is reportedly pegged for a Hollywood remake); and “Dare mo Mamote Kurenai” (“Nobody to Watch Over Me”), a thriller about a girl on the run from the media with her police protectors after her brother is charged with murder. The scriptwriter and director for the latter is Ryoichi Kimizuka, who also wrote scripts for Fuji TV’s money- spinning “Odoru Daisonsasen” (“Bayside Shakedown”) police-thriller franchise.

Coming up in March is “General Rouge no Gaisen” (“The Glorious Team Batista 2″), a TBS-produced followup to the 2007 hit starring Yuko Takeuchi as a spacey but intuitive hospital counselor and Hiroshi Abe as an obnoxious but sharp government bureaucrat who, in the new film, team up once again to solve a medical mystery. This pair’s first on-screen puzzle was not so puzzling, but their quirks and quarrels were entertaining enough.

Following in April is “Crows Zero II,” a sequel to the 2007 hit about gang warfare in a bottom-of-the-barrel boys’ high school, inspired by a best-selling Hiroshi Takahashi comic. Director Takashi Miike, Japan’s King of Cult, and star Shun Oguri, the ultimate ikemen (pretty boy) pin-up, are back for the sequel, as are the many scenes of strobed mano-a-mano mayhem.

Miike is also responsible for “Yattaman” (titled “Yatterman” for foreign release, for some reason), a goofy-looking action comedy — based on a well-remembered 1970s TV anime — that Shochiku and Nikkatsu will release in March.

This summer, Toho will open “Manatsu no Orion” (“Last Operations Under the Orion”), a World War II naval action film directed by Tetsuo Shinohara and based on a novel by Tsukasa Ikegami. Heartthrob Hiroshi Tamaki plays a submarine captain, and Keiko Kitagawa appears as both the hero’s love interest and his present-day granddaughter. Japanese WWII films, usually with a nationalist slant, have become hot at the local box office — the hit 2008 courtroom drama “Watashi wa Kai ni Naritai” (“I Want to Be a Seashell”) is one recent example, though sales to Asia have been “slow.”

An even bigger summer film is “Amalfi: Megami no 50-byo (“Amalfi: the Goddess’s 50 Seconds”), a suspenser starring Yuji Oda — Japan’s answer to Tom Cruise — as a diplomat in the title Italian resort town who investigates the disappearance of a Japanese girl. “Amalfi,” which commemorates Fuji TV’s 50th anniversary, is the first Japanese film shot entirely in Italy.

This fall, Takashi Yamazaki, the director of the hit “Always” nostalgic dramas, returns with “Ballad: Namonaki Koi no Uta” (“Ballad: Nameless Song of Love”), a period drama whose story is bizarrely based on an award-winning 2002 episode in the “Crayon Shinchan” kiddie animation series. “Ballad,” which stars SMAPster Tsuyoshi Kusanagi as a samurai general and idoru (manufactured entertainer) star Yui Aragaki as the girl with whom he falls in love, has a production budget, including lavish CGI, of ¥2 billion — considered the upper limit for a domestic film.

Continuing the trend for multipart films, which started two years ago with the smash-hit “Death Note” duology, is the three-part “20th Century Shonen” (“20th Century Boys”). Directed by Yukihiko Tsutsumi, this trilogy is based on Naoki Urasawa’s best-selling manga about a gang of boys who, grown to adulthood, see their childhood prophecies of worldwide devastation come horrifying true. The first installment, released last August, reeled in nearly ¥4 billion, to the enormous relief of the producers, led by the NTV network, who sank ¥6 billion into this project.

The second part will hit theaters on Jan. 31 and the third later in 2009, though Toho has not yet announced a firm date.

Toho, however, is not the only big distributor and the networks are not the only big producers in Japan. Hollywood studios, including Warner, Sony and 20th Century Fox, have recently been making and releasing more local productions. The most exciting among this year’s crop is “Goemon,” a fantasy actioner by Kazuaki Kiriya, the director of the 2004 sci-fi sensation “Casshern” and produced by Warner Japan.

Based on the life of legendary 16th-century ninja and bandit Ishikawa Goemon, the film boasts two years of research, 100 sets, 2,500 CG cuts, 1,000 extras and a staff of 300. Despite being made with far fewer resources, “Casshern” had not only the scale and look, but the mad ambition of silent-era Hollywood’s more extravagant follies and masterpieces. We can only hope that “Goemon” will be more of the same, squared. Release is set for May.

Meanwhile, Toei, a distributor whose usual target of choice is the salaryman demographic, will release Daisake Kimura’s “Tsurugidake,” an action drama starring Tadanobu Asano, Koji Yakusho, Ryuhei Matsuda and Aoi Miyazaki about a dangerous climbing expedition to the title mountain in 1907. The film, based on a novel that was in turn based on a true story, will open in June and, as its all-star cast indicates, it is Toei’s big picture for the summer.

Rival Shochiku’s big film for the year is Yoichi Sai’s “Kamui,” which stars Kenichi Matsuyama (the sweets-eating genius L of the “Death Note” films) as the title swordsman hero and Hideaki Ito (the jut-jawed coast-guard diver of the hit “Umizaru” films) as a shark-killer for hire who becomes the hero’s rival. “Kamui” is set for a September opening.

Even Japanese indie filmmakers are dreaming bigger dreams. One is Sion Sono, director of “Ai no Mukidashi” (“Love Exposure”), a 237-minute dramedy about starred-crossed love that satirizes both loony cults and the Catholic church. Winner of the Audience Award at the 2008 Tokyo Filmex Film Festival, it opens at the end of January.

Also making a bigger splash are non-native directors producing films with mostly Japanese casts and backing. One is Michael Arias, an American animator (“Tekkonkinkreet”) whose first live-action film, “Heaven’s Door,” is a reworking of a 1997 German film of almost the same title. Tomoyo Nagase and Mayuko Fukuda play two young terminal patients who decide to escape the hospital and squeeze out the last drops of fun and adventure before the big fade out. Asmik Ace will open “Heaven’s Door” on Feb. 7.

Another is Max Mannix, an Australian who cowrote the much-lauded 2008 Kiyoshi Kurosawa drama “Tokyo Sonata.” He has directed “Rain Fall,” a thriller based on a novel by Barry Eisler starring Kippei Shiina as a Japanese-American assassin for hire and Gary Oldman as a CIA agent. The latter, of course, is the bad guy. Sony has scheduled the film for an April bow.

In addition to these well-publicized films, there are always the sleepers — films by little-known talents that turn out to be more interesting than the self-proclaimed big titles. One that may deserve that label is “Drop,” a comic actioner about high-school gang members scripted and directed by newcomer Hiroshi Shinagawa, who also draws the comic on which the film is based. For once, in other words, a manga-to-movie project has been made without the usual filters — and, from the trailer at least, it looks as though Shinagawa has not only found actors who look as close as humanly possible to his manga characters, but has also filmed some slick-looking action. Miike, watch your back. “Drop” opens on March 30.