Buena Vista International has bought worldwide distribution rights from Toei to Hotaru, a romantic drama starring Japanese screen legend Ken Takakura. This marks the first time that a US major has made this kind of deal for a straight dramatic feature from Japan.

Toei will open the film domestically this summer, while Buena Vista is expected to release it in both North America and Europe.

The BVI purchase marks a growing interest by Hollywood in Japanese product. Disney owns various worldwide rights for films made by Studio Ghibli, Japan's leading animation studio, including video distribution rights (for Japan but not the rest of Asia) for the studio's latest animated feature, Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away) -- which is set for a summer release and could well become the biggest domestic film of the year.

In addition, Miramax acquired North American distribution rights to Mamoru Oshii's dark futuristic thriller Avalon at the AFM, while Dreamworks spent a reported $1m distribution and remake rights for Hideo Nakata's horror hit Ring.

Japanese films released in the United States in recent years include Shall We Dance' and Princess Mononoke (Miramax), Godzilla 2000 (Sony Pictures) and two entries in the Pokemon franchise (Warner Bros.).

In Hotaru, Ken Takakura, who also appeared in Sydney Pollack's The Yakuza, Ridley Scott's Black Rain and Fred Schepisi's Mr. Baseball, stars as an elderly fisherman who, in the chaos of early postwar Japan, helps his dying wife, played by Yuko Tanaka, face her last days.

Buena Vista president Mark Zoradi reportedly expresed interest in Hotaru at the script stage. Release plans are still in the works, but the film may be used as counter programming against Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor - an interesting strategy since Buena Vista is distributing that mega-budget WW2 film as well this summer.

Takakura's last film, Railroad Man, was Japan's Foreign Film Oscar nominee, while earning Y2,050 million ($16.7 million) in film rentals at the domestic box office for distributor Toei.