The Japanese film industry, at least the top end where Toho and its media partners dwell, is looking forward to a prosperous 2010, with a lineup of crowd-pleasers that should thump the Hollywood competition.
Japan’s biggest domestic distributor, Toho will release 30 films in 2010, including several potential blockbusters — that is, films expected to gross ¥50 billion or more.
One of those films is the third outing in the “Odoru Daisousasen” (“Bayside Shakedown”) series, about a cheeky detective, played by Yuji Oda, who battles bad guys and police bureaucracy with the aid of lovably oddball coworkers. The film is scheduled to open in July. The second installment, released in 2003, finished with ¥17.35 billion — nearly $200 million, the most for any Japanese live-action film ever.
Also looking to rake in the yen, starting in September, is the third entry in the “Umizaru” series, about elite divers in the Japanese Coast Guard. The previous film, which opened in 2006, grossed ¥7.1 billion.
Both “Umizaru 3” and “Odoru Daisousasen 3” are made by the Fuji TV network, whose chief producer, Chihiro Kameyama, stands accused by critics of making films that are glorified television episodes. He and other network film producers plead guilty, since so many of their products either began life as a hit TV series (“Odoru Daisousasen”) or provided the template for one (“Umizaru”).
They also laugh all the way to the board meeting, since these adapted-from-TV films so often hit the box-office gong, such as last year’s No. 1 box-office film “Rookies, a TBS high school baseball dramady that was little more than a TV special — but earned ¥8.5 billion.
Meanwhile, indie filmmakers, even ones with prestigious festival prizes on their resumes, are finding it harder to assemble backers in a difficult market for anything but multiplex fare. Also, the minitheaters (i.e., art houses) that are their natural homes have been opting for more popular programming to attract young fans, and once friendly festivals are sending their precious invitations to anime and genre films that would have once been beneath their notice.
Even so, leading indie directors have always found ways to get their films made, and this year will be no exception. Look for them at Berlin, Cannes, Venice and other major fests — if not in quite the numbers seen in previous years.
So what will be the big films in 2010, not only box-office-wise, but worth- watching-wise? In order of release:
“Ototo” (“Younger Brother”)
(release date: Jan. 30) : Yoji Yamada’s latest is his first contemporary drama in nearly a decade. Tsurube Shofukutei and Sayuri Yoshinaga — who also appeared in Yamada’s World War II drama “Kabei” (“Kabei: Our Mother,” 2008) — reunite on screen as a ne’er-do-well brother and an older sister who can’t stop worrying about him. This may sound like “Tora-san Redux,” but Yamada keeps the schmaltz content low and the pathos on high.
(Jan. 30) : Yoshihiro Nakamura tops his minor masterpiece of last year, “Fish Story,” with a thriller about a delivery guy (Masato Sakai) framed as the killer in a successful plot to assassinate Japan’s prime minister. As usual with Nakamura, the story takes clever twists, though the emotional wallop at the end is anything but contrived. After several almost-but-not-quite attempts, this could be his box-office breakthrough.
“Ningen Shikkaku” (“No Longer Human”)
(Feb. 20) : Producer/director Genjiro Arato’s new drama is based on the famous Osamu Dazai novel. Stage and TV drama star Toma Ikuta makes his screen debut as Dazai’s alienated young hero, pulled one way by love, another by dark, suicidal thoughts. A career-defining masterpiece — or art-house tedium?
(February) : Selected for the panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival, this ensemble drama by Isao Yukisada begins like an episode of TV show “Friends”: Two guys and two gals in their 20s coexist uneasily in a cramped Tokyo apartment. But a teenage male hustler who insinuates himself into their circle becomes a target of dark suspicions — and a catalyst for surprising and finally shocking revelations.
“Zebraman 2: Zebra no Gyakushu” (“Zebraman 2: Zebra Counterattack”)
(May 1) : Takashi Miike’s followup to his hit 2004 action comedy about a nebbishy superhero. Sho Aikawa returns as the hero and Kankuro Kudo as the scriptwriter, but the story unfolds in 2025 and, from the trailer, looks to be more on the hyperkinetic than comic side. With yakuza movie icon Aikawa at its center and Miike at the helm, though, the film won’t be the usual sci-fi outing.
(June 6) : Tetsuya Nakashima, director of “Kiraware Matsuko no Issho” (“Memories of Matsuko,” 2006), and “Shimotsuna Monogatari” (“Kamikaze Girls,” 2004) — two of the best Japanese films of the past decade — returns with a drama set at a junior high school, based on a best-selling novel. The catch-phrase: Thirty-seven 13-year-olds confess.
“Karigurashi no Arrietty” (“Arrietty Borrows Everything”)
(summer) : Studio Ghibli’s latest feature animation is based on the classic Mary Norton fantasy novel “The Borrowers.” Ghibli veteran Hiromasa Yonebayashi directs, while studio maestro Hayao Miyazaki scripts and supervises. The last time Ghibli tried a similar experiment with a foreign children’s book, for the 2006 “Gedo Senki” (“Tales of Earthsea”), the result was a formulaic disappointment. Have lessons been learned?
“13-nin no Shikaku” (“13 Assassins”)
(fall) : A samurai swashbuckler starring Koji Yakusho and directed by Takashi Miike, this promises to be a fun time for all — maybe. Sword action is hard to make interesting and new — the weight of its cliched past is too heavy — but if anyone can do it, it’s the always-inventive Miike.
(fall) : Takeshi Kitano’s first gangster pic since 2000’s “Brother,” “Outrage” promises a return to violent and entertaining form after several self-indulgent outings. Kitano plays a low-ranking gang boss charged with doing the dirty work for his superiors. The cast list reads like a Who’s Who of top male character actors, including Tomokazu Miura, Ryo Kase and Jun Kunimura.
“Space Battleship Yamato”
(December) : Takashi Yamazaki, of the famous “Always” films, is directing a live-action, big-budget version of the iconic 1970s Leiji Matsumoto anime space opera, starring SMAP “boy” Takuya Kimura. Huge expectations are being placed on the film; it’s like Japan’s “Avatar.” A computer-graphics whiz for the Shirogumi effects house, Yamazaki launched his directing career with the sci-fi pics “Juvenile” (2000) and “Returner” (2002), though the results, creatively and commercially, were mediocre. But he has progressed considerably since, as has the technology under his command.
Most of these are commercial films, but many good indie films, whose makers often have to scramble for distribution, will pop up as well. So there will be plenty of reasons to go to the theater through the year — and to keep up with those Japanese lessons.
Miki Nakatani: The best Japanese actress of her generation is once again brilliant as an emotionally and sexually starved wife in Hitoshi Yazaki’s marriage drama “Sweet Little Lies,” set for a February release. That said, she is in danger of becoming the local equivalent of Nicole Kidman — i.e., cordially disliked for her ice queen image. Time for a goofy comedy?
Masato Sakai: The best Japanese actor of his generation is on a roll, with his best performance yet coming up as the hunted hero in the thriller “Golden Slumber.” Though totally committed to whatever role he is playing, Sakai always manages to be himself — nice-guy-ish but with intensity and edge.
Yu Aoi: Cast as a geisha in the new NHK taiga drama (yearlong maxidrama) “Ryomaden” (“The Story of Ryoma”) and a “wolf girl” in the new Ryuichi Hiroki period drama “Raiou,” scheduled for a late 2010 release, the quirky, always compelling Aoi is making a move to major stardom. Here’s hoping she keeps one foot in the indie world, where she has done most of her best work.