In the pipeline: Japanese cinema

Five upcoming Japanese releases promise a little bit of everything

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Best-selling Tokyo Tower author Lily Franky and actress Tae Kimura (both in their first starring roles) star as Kanao and Shoko, a couple whose young marriage goes from normal to nightmarish (and back) over an eight-year stretch. The spousal bickering and emotional swipes bleed into Kanao's job as a courtroom sketch artist, in which he records the darker aspects of Japanese society. Director Ryosuke Hashiguchi contrasts the loving couple's efforts to salvage their tragedy-filled marriage with the most notorious crimes of the '90s, including the Aum sect's deadly 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack.

Recent winner of the Grand Prix at the Montreal Film Festival, the movie locally known as Okuribito (literally, send-off person) is the story of Daigo (iron-jawed leading man Masahiro Motoki), an out-of-work cellist who returns to his hometown and takes up the only job available: That of a 'nokanshi' preparing corpses for funeral rites. Daigo's wife (Ryoko Hirosue) is less-than-thrilled with her husband's new assignment, even moreso when it turns out he has something of an aptitude for the job. The Yojiro Takita film - costarring Tampopo's Tsutomo Yamazaki - is based on an original idea from Motoki.

Happy Flight
After chronicling the trials and tribulations of teen synchronized swimmers and jazz band members in the hits "Water Boys" and "Swing Girls," director Shinobu Yaguchi tries his hand at some adult subject matter for his comic follow-up, "Happy Flight." The director's cheery touch remains, however, in this story of a pilot (Saburo Tokito) and a team of flight attendants working an extremely troubled All Nippon Airways Japan-Hawaii flight. Haruka Ayasa (also starring this year as a blind swordswoman in the action-drama "Ichi") stars as the lead flight attendant.

Strange things are afoot at the sprawling Monzen estate, where Aoi (Yoshino Kimura), the family matriarch, indulges in her past as a beauteous screen star while making life hell for her two daughters, Lisa (Noriko Nagakoshi) and Kazusa (Kimura, again). Lisa's jealously for her favored older sister takes a frightening turn when a strange girl named Orochi (Mitsuki Tanimura) shows up at their doorstep one stormy night. Comic book legend Kazuo Umezu's manga hits theaters nearly 40 years after its 1969 debut, with horror director Norio Tsuruta (Premonition) working from a script by Hiroshi Takahashi, creator of the original "Ring" series.

The Sky Crawlers
No stranger of late to the festival circuit, famed animator Marumo Oshii turned heads at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival with "Innocence," the sequel to the director's groundbreaking sci-fi hit "Ghost in the Shell." Oshii's latest -- a Golden Lion nominee at this year's Venice Film Festival -- chronicles the exploits of a squadron of eternally young fighter pilots in a peaceful futuristic world. Peaceful, that is, until the massive corporations that run things begin televising their sponsored pilots' competitions (CGI-enhanced flight scenes rich with soaring speed and swooping realism) to thrill a bored, emotionally stunted populace.