In a break from the usualtalent agency system of Japanese movie casting, an unknown 20-year-old actresshas won a role in the 17th installment of Shochiku's long-running Free & Easy comedy series.

Kyoto college student Hana Ebise was selected from more than10,000 entrants in Shochiku's nationwide "Star Gate" open audition contest,which ran from last summer to winter as part of the conglomerate's 110thanniversary celebration. Ebise won a cash prize and the chance to make her filmdebut in a Shochiku production.

The Free & Easy series, which started in 1988 with a new installmentalmost every year, follows the humorous exploits of star Toshiyuki Nishida ashe navigates workplace, family and his crazed love of fishing.

The franchise, which alsospawned an animated series, has grossed over $138m (Y16bn) so far and iscurrently the longest running live-action series in Japan.

Legendary director YojiYamada (The Twilight Samurai, Tora-san) has served as a screenwriteron all of the films in the series. A special edition released in 1998 saw thecharacters transported back to samurai times.

Free & Easy 17 is released August 5 across Japan.