Big-budget movies need all the help they can get recovering their production and promotional costs at the box office, so advertisements stating that the 3 1/2-hour epic “Shizumanu Taiyo” (“The Sun That Doesn’t Set”) is a “big hit” should be taken with a grain of salt. First of all, every movie released in Japan is described as a “big hit” in advertisements after it opens, but in the case of this ¥2 billion blockbuster (reviewed in The Japan Times, Oct. 23), which stars Ken Watanabe as a man trying to reform an airline, the claims are doubly suspicious because major media outlets haven’t been providing the kind of free promotional publicity they provide for other blockbusters.

The five commercial TV networks, in particular, may have avoided promoting the movie on purpose. “Shizumanu” is based on a very long novel by Toyoko Yamazaki that was originally serialized in Shukan Shincho from 1994 to 1998 and then published in book form in 1999. Two million copies have since been sold. Everyone who read it, and quite a few who haven’t, see it as a fictionalized treatment of Japan Airlines before, during and after the JAL Flight 123 crash in 1985 that killed 520 people. In the book, the company, called Kokumin (“national”), is portrayed as being corrupt and heartless, and the hero is a superhumanly selfless employee who attempts to make the company over in the face of enormous obstacles.

Not surprisingly, JAL has never liked the book, which is probably one of the reasons it took so long to be made into a film. Right now the airline is in such serious financial trouble that it has had to rely on government infusions of cash and loans from the Development Bank of Japan, but not too long ago it was a huge source of advertising revenue for all the major media, which are instrumental in promoting major movies. According to Kinyobi magazine, two studios, Daiei and Toei, were originally set to coproduce “Suzumanu” earlier this decade, but for some reason it never panned out.

Then the publisher Kadokawa, which is also a major movie-production house, took on the project and announced an initial release date of summer 2008. Kinyobi reports that Kadokawa’s president and chairman visited JAL to gain some kind of understanding, but JAL was unmoved. The airline subsequently sent letters to Kadokawa threatening a defamation lawsuit if it released a movie “based on the novel unchanged.” Kadokawa went ahead with the film anyway, though the release date was pushed back more than a year.

In a corporate newsletter put out Oct. 21, JAL hinted that it might still resort to legal means to punish the filmmakers, and, according to the weekly Aera, the airline sent letters to all major media explaining its objections to the movie.

If this is intimidation, it seems to have worked. The media has refrained from promoting the film, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t publicized it. JAL’s strong reaction guarantees that “Shizumanu” is covered as a news story, even if it only warrants a small article in the newspapers or a minute on an evening news show. Since there is no such thing as bad publicity, JAL could very well be shooting itself in the foot by continuing to protest the film. According to box-office figures, the movie will more than make back its production costs, though apparently it isn’t making as much money as Kadokawa hoped it would.

It should be pointed out that the perceived lack of free promotion for “Shizumanu” is relative since many major motion pictures receive excessive coverage in the media. There’s a good reason for that. Major media companies, broadcasters in particular, are in the movie-production business, which has become more important for the bottom line as advertising revenues plunge. Some films, like last summer’s hit “Rookies,” are direct tie-ins to popular TV shows. Consequently, the major networks provide free promotion for newly released movies by having the movies’ stars appear on variety, quiz and news programs. And the stars don’t necessarily restrict their appearances to the network that has a stake in their film. Ryoko Hirosue, the star of “Zero no Shoten” (“Zero Focus”), which opened nationwide yesterday, was all over the TV last week. TV Asahi is one of the film’s producers, but other stations are happy to plug it if they can get a movie star of Hirosue’s status to appear for free.

No broadcasters have money invested in “Shizumanu,” but Kadokawa still managed to wrangle some free promotion. Several weeks ago Fuji TV’s long-running noontime variety show, “Waratte Ii Tomo,” featured three of the film’s actors appearing on successive days. Ostensibly, their appearances were unplanned, since the premise on “Waratte” is that the main guest telephones a celebrity friend right there on the air and asks him or her to appear on the show the next day. The decision is thus taken out of the hands of the producers.

Kinyobi speculates that the media is still anxious about making JAL mad because they know how sensitive the airline is about its image. As one editor told the magazine, when JAL used to buy ads in his publication, any article that mentioned things like the 1985 crash or JAL’s disastrous relationship with Japan Air Systems was subjected to very close scrutiny. But what can JAL do to these media outlets now? It can’t withhold advertising it doesn’t have, so any perceived threats could only be carried out in the future after the airline recovers.

It should be noted that major media companies aren’t doing so well either. Midterm advertising revenues for the five networks were down ¥66 billion from last year. So far, I’ve only seen one TV commercial for “Shizumanu,” on TV Asahi’s nightly news show “Hodo Station.” Maybe TV Asahi is risking JAL’s wrath by accepting the ad, but like JAL, it badly needs the income. Unlike the former national airline, however, it doesn’t have the government to bail it out.