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2004 Japanese Cinema Summary

(Kitano Takeshi)

Two box office hits by local films highlighted the year 2003. First, the enormous success of ODORU DAISOSASEN 2: RAINBOW BRIDGE WO FUSASEYO! (Bayside Shakedown 2: Save the Rainbow Bridge) directed once again by Motohiro Katsuyuki and starred by the same cast. After its release in July of that year, Bayside Shakedown 2: Save the Rainbow Bridge became the all time Japanese non-anime biggest hit in the history of Japanese cinema and remains at the third position in the general ranking behind the animes by Hayao Miyazaki, MONONOKE HIME (Princess Mononoke) and SEN TO CHIHIRO NO KAMIKAKUSHI (Spirited Away). Second, it deserves special mention ZATOICHI by Kitano Takeshi, a film director highly respected abroad but whose recognition in his own country has only been achieved quite recently. Zatoichi has become by far his highest grossing film. This fact has helped to bring forward his work as a film director (recently Takeshi has been appointed as professor of Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku's screen production department), notwithstanding the unfavourable reviews given by a number of foreign film critics and by the die-hard fans of the original series.

2004 will be also remembered for two similar events at the local box office. First of all, a non-anime feature film became the biggest Japanese hit of the year. SEKAI NO CHUSHIN DE, AI WO SAKEBU (Crying for Love at the Heart of the World known simply as SEKACHU), directed by the young Isao Yukisada, managed to attract more than 6 million viewers, many of them young women who would hardly pay for a cinema ticket to see a Japanese film, and began a trend in films and TV dramas based on the theme of jun-ai (pure love).

(Isao Yukisada)

A TV series was broadcast between July and September last year reaching high viewer ratings and the film's manga version has also sold considerably. The clearest example of this trend among middle-aged women is, without any doubt, the South Korean drama FUYU NO SONATA (Winter Sonata also known as Fuyusona starred by the idol Bae Yong-joon, nicknamed with the honorific term of Yong-sama).

However, the tremendous success of Crying for Love at the Heart of the World (which will surely continue after its last December's DVD and video releases) has not exactly been a surprise. The film is based on a novel of the same title written by Kyoichi Katayama, which has sold to this date more than 3 million copies since its publication in 2001 making it the all-time bestseller in Japan having broken the record previously held by Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.

Not just that but its main music theme, Hitomi wo Tojite (Close your eyes) performed by Hirai Ken, was last year's biggest selling single in the country.

Another film titled IMA, AI NI YUKIMASU (Be With You, directed by Nobuhiro Doi) released at the beginning of November and which fits with the pure love genre (it tells the story of a dead wife and mother who comes back to life to spend six weeks with her husband and son. On the hand, Sekachu follows a man's journey to his hometown to bring back memories of his first love, a high school classmate who suddenly died of leukemia). As with Sekachu, Ima, Ai ni Yukimasu is a nicely packaged commercial product. Is is based on a bestseller written by Takuji Ichikawa, which so far has sold more than a million copies, it has two uprising young actors, Yuko Takeuchi and Shido Nakamura (Sekachu had in its cast Takao Osawa, Ko Shibasaki and Masami Nagasawa), as its main protagonists and is accompanied in the soundtrack by the single Hana performed by Orange Range which stayed at the top position for several weeks. Ima, Ai ni Yukimasu commercial success is now obvious after having spent more than ten weeks at the box office top ten.

Secondly, Takashi Miike, one of the most admired and followed film directors in the West, had not just one but two hits at the box office. The first of them a horror film, his first, CHAKUSHIN ARI (One Missed Call), clearly marketed towards the fans of such sagas as RING and JU-ON, where a curse is spread through the ketai (mobile phone). Its success has prompted a sequel to be released on the 5th of February, this time without Takashi Miike heading the project.

The director's second financial success was ZEBRAMAN, a nostalgic view with touches of parody, of the world of classic Japanese heroes from the small screen such as Ultraman and Kamen Rider. Nevertheless, we need to point out that the popularity of both films was not due to Takashi Miike being their director but as the result of a cast that included Show Aikawa (Zebraman) and Ko Shibasaki (Chakushin Ari, also starring in Sekachu and that will be remembered by many as the bad girl in BATTLE ROYALE. Funnily enough Ko Shibasaki performed the main theme (Katachi Aru Mono) for the TV series version of Sekai no Chushin de, Ai wo Sakebu, becoming the sixth best selling single of 2004).

The third feature film by Miike that could be seen on the big screen last year was IZO, which even though did not obtain the same commercial success as Zebraman or Chakushin Ari, has established the position of the director in the world of contemporary Japanese cinema. Proof of this is the absolutely amazing cast that was able to gather for the production of Izo that included such well-known and veteran actors as Renji Ishibashi, Micky Curtis, Hiroyuki Nagato, Hideji Otaki, Yoshio Harada or Ken Ogata among many others.

Regarding genre films, in particularly horror films, on the 2nd of October it was released a double program featuring KANSEN (Infection, by Masayuki Ochiai, HYPNOSIS) and YOGEN (Premonition, by Norio Tsuruta, RING 0) under the label J-Horror Theater. This label, created in March 2004, is supervised by the producer Taka Ichise, who produced RING, RASEN, RING 2, DARK WATER and JUON). J-Horror Theatre features another four titles that will be directed by the renowned directors Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Takashi Shimizu and Hideo Nakata and the scriptwriter Hiroshi Takahashi (RING and GHOST ACTRESS). Even though these films did not bring anything new to the genre they made a considerable impact on the local box office. Two weeks later were released in Tokyo a series of horror films under the label Eiga Bancho Horror. All the directors in these films work under the same economic and technical conditions. All these works are shot with digital cameras and are given the same budget. Of the four films we need to mention the one directed by Takashi Shimizu (JUON) MAREBITO which had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and that has independent film director Shinya Tsukamoto (A SNAKE OF JUNE) as its main protagonist. The other three films that make the project are SODOMU NO ICHI de Hiroshi Takahashi, TSUKI NEKO NI MITSU NO TAMA by Hiroyuki Minato and UNMEI NINGEN by Yoichi Nishiyama. Their lack of commercial distribution, in the city of Nagoya for example Marebito only played a couple nights at the Nagoya Cinematheque, has prevented them from achieving any relevant success among the public. All these releases are proof that the horror genre is still in active but somehow lacking in any ideas.

When one decides to write a summary on Japanese cinema it is extremely difficult to avoid talking about anime films. In 2004 we witnessed to three long-awaited releases which rights for distribution abroad were bought by numerous countries long before their date of release. Of course I am talking about INNOCENCE, pseudo-sequel of GHOST IN THE SHELL, by Mamoru Oshii (released in March), STEAMBOY by Katsuhiro Otomo (released in July) and HAURU NO UGOKU SHIRO (Howl's Moving Castle, released in November). The reviews given to the first two features varied considerably and their commercial impact has been worse than expected.

(Katsuhiro Otomo)

In particularly Steamboy, which pre-production started in July 1995. In May 2000, after five years of hard work, Otomo had completed more than 180,000 storyboards, the highest number in the history of Japanese animation. By Spring 2002 the final cost of Steamboy reached nearly 2 billion and half yens, a budget as high as Hayao Miyazaki's productions, a director, who once again has gained the respect and admiration from both the critics and the general public. In its first release weekend Hauru no Ugoku Shiro was seen by more than a million viewers and obtained almost 1.5 billion yens at the box office, surpassing in a 40% the money collected by Spirited Away in its first release weekend, and breaking the previous of 1.26 billions yens held by Odoru Daisosasen 2 .

Nevertheless, two other films by first time directors that mixed digital animation with real characters attracted the attention of the critics. CASSHERN by Kazuaki Kiriya and MIND GAME by Masaaki Yuasa, both based on not very well-known mangas by Tatsuo Yoshida and Robin Nishi respectively, were praised by local and foreign film critics and have achieved an almost cult status. Their low budgets, experimental leaning and unkempt photography and graphics have represented an antidote to such immaculate mega productions as the already mentioned Steamboy or Howl's Moving Castle.

More predictable was the success of the annual installments of MEITANTEI CONAN 2004, DORAEMON 2004, CRAYON SHIN-CHAN 2004, ONE PIECE 2004 and POCKET MONSTERS 2004 which already have ready their 2005 episode.

Another point to consider is the film adaptations of popular mangas, particularly the ones by Go Nagai (CUTIE HONEY and DEVILMAN). In a different level another two films on video and DVD, based on a manga by again Go Nagai, joined the series KEKKOU KAMEN, a kinky parody of Gekko Kamen, with the titles of KEKKOU KAMEN RETURNS which was released in November and KEKKO KAMEN SURPRISE that will be released on the 25th of February and also one more installment of MABOROSHI PANTY, full title MABOROSHI PANTY VS. HENCHIN POKOIDER. Nevertheless, the most commercially successful film adaptation from a manga was NIN NIN NINJA HATTORI-KUN, based on the comic Ninja Hattori-kun created in the 60s by Fujiko Fujio (pen name of the manga-ka Hiroshi Fujimoto and Moto Abiko, also creators of such memorable characters as Obake-no Kyutaro, Paa-man and especially Doraemon). One reason for its popularity might be the appeal of its main actor Katori Shingo, member of the pop band SMAP.

The rest of its members have kept themselves busy appearing in several films and TV dramas. Thus, Goro Inagaki shared the screen with Koji Yakusho in WARAI NO DAIGAKU (University of Laughs), by Mamoru Hosi. Kusanagi Tsuyoshi starred in HOTEL VENUS by director Shuta Takahata and Kimura Takuya had a brief role in the Hong Kong film 2046 and lent his voice to the character Howl in the anime by Hayao Miyazaki Howl's Moving Castle.

The large number of independent productions exhibited during 2004 makes it very difficult to mention all of them. Therefore, it would be better to just talk about an actor whose image is linked to that of Japanese independent cinema: Tadanobu Asano. Asano has collaborated in such diverse films as CHA NO AJI (The Taste of Tea) by Katsuhito Ishii, CHICHI TO KURASEBA (Living with Father) by the veteran director Kazuo Kuroki and SURVIVE STYLE 5+ first feature film by the partnership made of Gen Sekiguchi (director) and Taku Tada (scriptwriter). More recently, Asano has starred in the latest film by Shinya Tsukamoto VITAL. And let us not forget one of the most eminent Japanese independent film directors Koji Wakamatsu, who remains in active having directed the sixth installment of the erotic series KANZEN NARU SHIIKU (The Perfect Education) which complete title is KANZEN NARU SHIIKU: AKAI SATSUI (The Perfect Education: Red Intentions of Murder).

Finally, let us have a look at a few films. First of them DAREDEMO SHIRANAI (Nobody Knows) by Hirokazu Koreeda based on a true story that happened in Tokyo in 1988 when a decomposed body of a baby was found in a flat where lived four other children by themselves after their mother had abandoned them to live with her current boyfriend. The 14 years old actor Yuya Yagira, interpreting the role of Akira who was accused of having murdered the baby, won the prize for best actor at last year's Cannes Festival, becoming the youngest actor in getting such prize and a celebrity in his own country appearing in numerous TV programs, always alongside Koreeda with whom he developed a close relationship during the shooting of the film. Yagira is now in Thailand shooting a new film titled HOSHI NI NATTA SHONEN (Little Randy and Shining Boy) which will be released this summer.

Another two films dealing, in a very different way, with the world of adolescence are SWING GIRLS and SHIMOTSUMA MONOGATARI (Kamizake Girls). The latter concentrates on a group of high school girls who decide to create a jazz big band with the help of their maths teacher Osawa, himself a jazz lover. Swing Girls presents the same narrative structure and type of protagonists, except for their gender, than WATERBOYS, which is not a coincidence since both films were made by the same director Shinobu Yamaguchi. Not just that but Osawa is played by Naoto Takenaka who has consolidated his role of mentor in films such as the already mentioned Waterboys and PING PONG by Fumihiko Sori. The former is directed by Tetsuya Nakajima and starred by the J-pop idols Kyoko Fukada and Anna Tsuchiya. The story is based on a novel by Novala Takemoto creator of the so-called Lolita novels, which takes at its main theme a recent trend among young Japanese who like dressing out as characters taken out from some Victorian painting or Alice in Wonderland. This trend has evolved into different Lolita variations such as Gothic Lolita. These two films did a pretty good business at the box office.

Another film that had a good performance at the box office was QUILL by the director of Korean origin Yoichi Sai. Quill follows the life of a Labrador Retriever from puppy until it becomes a guide dog and triggered a fad in Japan for these dogs. Much more interesting by the same director was the production CHI TO HONE (Blood and Bones), based on one of the biggest bestsellers in Korea written by the Osaka novelist, but also of Korean origin, Sogiru Yan.

(Yoichi Sai)

Chi to Hone tells the story of the Korean Shunpei (Takeshi Kitano) who emigrates to Japan in 1920 when Korea was a colony of the Japanese Empire. After the end of WWII Shunpei becomes a successful businessman and leader of the Korean community in Osaka thanks to the tyrannical, exploitative and extremely violent way in which he treats his family and employees. Some critics have seen Kitano Takeshi's performance as the best of his career. Mark Schilling, for example, chose Chi to Hone as the best Japanese feature of the last year. Sai doesn't give any rest to the audience as for over more than two hours Chi to Hone is an unstoppable roller coaster of extreme violence, destruction, sex and greed featuring a never-ending sequence of funerals. The brutality shown on the screen ends up by hiding the different levels in which the script of this amazing film works.

Finally it only remains to comment on the latest film by a filmmaker whom I respect enormously, Hirayama Hideyuki (OUT, A LAUGHING FROG and TURN). LADY JOKER, based on a bestseller by Kaoru Takamura, combines social drama and thriller as it deals with the kidnapping of the president of a beer company. Director Hirayama manages to get an amazing performance from all the actors in the cast.


Ashby, Janet Book Trade Booms in 2004

Kawamoto, Mamiko A 'Steamboy' timeline

McClure, Steve Import-export issues mark J-pop year

Schilling, Mark SMAPers drive the Japanese box office

Schilling, Mark Buy local produce

'Howl's Moving Castle' conjures up box-office record

PURE LOVE: Tear-Jerking Love Stories Enthrall Japanese Women

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©Joaquín da Silva
Date of Publication: 03/02/2005