New generation challenges Hollywood

Japanese moviegoers seek more homegrown content

2008 is shaping up to be another solid year for the Japanese film industry as homemade films hold their own against Hollywood imports struggling to make their mark in the world's No. 2 movie market.

With three quarters of the year over, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," at number three at the boxoffice with $50 million, is the sole overseas film in the top five at the boxoffice.

In fact, so far this year, only three U.S. films are even in the top ten. Compare this with the end of 2007, when Hollywood claimed three of the top five slots, and this year is on track to be truly great for domestic filmmakers.

"Younger Japanese audiences don't connect so strongly with Hollywood films recently," says Yusuke Horiuchi of Toho-Towa, a leading distributor of imported films.

Japanese moviegoing appears to be echoing a music industry trend that has seen a shift in popularity from Western artists to J-Pop.

"Some of it is due to a lack of real stars," Horiuchi says. Distributors in Japan have resorted to employing local actors to promote Hollywood films to younger moviegoers who, he says, nowadays seem to prefer to watch imports dubbed into Japanese where they used to settle for subtitles.

Anime remains the biggest boxoffice draw and leading 2008's domestic film charge is "Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea," the first full-length animated film from Studio Ghibli founder and auteur Hayao Miyazaki since "Howl's Moving Castle" in 2004.

"Ponyo" looks likely to pass the $150 million mark but will have to catch a second wind to break the boxoffice earnings record set by Miyazaki's "Spirited Away," which earned $200 million in 2001.

In order to protect this strong boxoffice showing for homegrown films, in September authorities made Japan's first arrest for the illegal distribution of an unreleased movie over the Internet.

Although Japan has some of the cheapest and fastest broadband connections on Earth, a particularly law-abiding population mitigates the potential for earnings lost to piracy.

Yasutaka Iiyama, executive director of the Japan and International Motion Picture Copyright Association says his group had worked with the police to find the online pirate since May.

"They can hide their IP addresses but he was eventually traced by the subtitles he had put on the movie -- that was the key," says Iiyama.

On the legal distribution front, the Tokyo Broadcasting System is set to break new ground. One week before the Nov. release of the dramatic film "New Type: Just for Love," the TBS On-Demand channel will offer a pay-per-view premiere online, marking the first such pre-release broadcast by a major network.

As Japanese film delivery changes, its source material remains largely unchanged as scriptwriters delve into traditional comics, known as Manga, and homegrown novels with nearly equal attention.

One notable 2008 movie that started life as a book is theater director Yukio Ninagawa's debut film, "Snakes and Earrings." Haruko Watanabe from distributor Gaga touts it on the strength of Ninegawa's experience directing Shakespeare in Japan and Europe.

Due to screen in Pusan's Window on Asian Cinema section, "Snakes" is a tale of a 19-year-old girl's love triangle with her lover and his sadistic tattooist friend. It's based on an eponymous novel that won Japan's top literary honor for author Hitomi Kanehara in 2003, then just 20 herself.

Leading "Snakes" is actress Yuriko Yoshitaka ("Adrift in Tokyo"), who stars alongside Arata ("After Life") and plays against a cameo by Tatsuya Fujiwara. Producers hope crowds at Pusan will flock to Fujiwara because of his popularity across Asia, and in Korea, in particular, for his roles in the "Death Note" films.

"There is a kind of boom in international co-productions currently and Japan and Korea are natural partners being neighbors," says Toshiyuki Hasegawa from J-Pitch, a government-funded film body that has sought to facilitate cross-border collaborations since 2006. "Both countries films have enjoyed successes in each others markets."

J-Pitch will take three projects to the Pusan Promotion Plan, including "Leaving the Peninsula Behind," a screenplay adapted from a Ryu Murakami novel for the Korean-Japanese director Lee Sang-il, winner of five Japanese Academy Awards in 2007 for his film "Hula Girls."

It was a mere two years ago, in 2006, that Japanese films outsold imports for the first time in 20 years. In 2007, imports regained boxoffice dominance. With three months of 2008 left, Japanese film industry insiders wonder if the home team might score another victory. The answer from Hasegawa at Toho-Towa is simple: "Yes, definitely."
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