'Monkey' shines at Japanese b.o.

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TOKYO -- Monkey and his sidekicks defied a devastating typhoon and two major earthquakes in Japan to rake in a respectable $6.5 million during the opening three-day holiday weekend for "Monkey Magic."

The big-screen adaptation of Fuji Television Network's hugely popular TV series -- an interpretation of a folk tale first published in the 1590s in China -- opened on a record 461 screens across Japan, despite the elements.

" 'Monkey Magic' has started remarkably, despite the odds this weekend," said Chihiro Kameyama, head of Fuji's Motion Picture Department. "The summer boxoffice season has just begun, so we have every confidence that 'Monkey' fans will be lining up in front of theaters in the coming weeks.

"We will work our own Monkey Magic against any typhoon that comes our way," he added.

At least 10 people have been reported killed in the typhoon and earthquakes over the weekend, with thousands more evacuated from their homes.

Fuji has sky-high expectations for the movie, which features Shingo Katori, star of the boy-band SMAP, after one in four Japanese TV viewers tuned in weekly to the 11-part series, which first screened in January 2006.

The film is anticipated to earn ¥6 billion ($50 million) at the boxoffice by the time it has finished its run, and Fuji also is hoping that it will be snapped up for overseas markets.

"There has been tremendous interest in this title from our international clients," said Mina Mita, deputy director of the Motion Picture Department. "Together with the resurgence of the franchise worldwide, this film has great potential to become a mainstream, crossover hit."

The popularity of "Monkey" in Europe stems largely from the popularity of the 1970s Japanese television series, starring Masaaki Sakai, and spawned a cult following in many countries. Brit pop star Damon Albarn is presently working with artist Jamie Hewlett on an opera based on the tale.

Considered one of the four great classic novels of China, "Monkey" -- also known as "Journey to the West" -- tells of three goblins accompanying a monk on a journey to India and the adventures they face.

As well as Katori, the cast includes Teruyoshi Uchimura, Atsushi Ito and Eri Fukatsu as the monk.

Kensaku Sawada, who directed the TV series, makes his big-screen directorial debut with the film, which was announced at the Festival de Cannes in May.
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