It often seems as though everyproducer of commercial films in Japan is playing follow the leader, chasing afterhot novels, comic-books and TV shows - while seldom developing originalmaterial themselves.

It's all for one reason. Mostof these films are financed and produced by media consortiums - and it's easierand usually more profitable to build such a consortium around a proven media propertyowned by one of the members.

Girls' comics (or shojo manga), a once derided genre,are now among the hottest of those properties. The leader that everyone is followingis Nana, Ai Yazawa'smegahit comic (27m copies in paperback editions) abouttwo women, one a sneering punk rocker, the other a chirpy country girl, who areboth called Nana - and become unlikely friends. They then move into the same Tokyoapartment and help each other with various boyfriend crises, while trying to findtheir grooves in the big city.

The film version, directed byKentaro Otani and starring real-lifepop star Miki Nakajima and top idol Aoi Miyazaki, hasgrossed more than $34m since its Sept 3 release.

Though hardlythe first hit live-action film to be adapted from a girls' comic, Nana has proven the genre's box office viability. Now a spate of films with shojo manga roots areheaded toward the theatres.

* Among the most highlyanticipated is Honey AndClover, Masahiro Takada's teen drama based on an eponymous comic by Chika Umino. Launched in the magazine Young You in 2000, Honey And Clover depicts the aspirations and romantic entanglementsof five art college students - three guys and two girls - with a dash of knockabouthumour. It has sold 3.6m copies in paperback editions and morphed into a hit TVanimation. The film version, starring hot new talent YuiSakurai, is expected to be one of the hottest tickets of summer 2006.

* Coming to theatres on Jan 21is Angel (Tenshi), Mayumi Miyasaka's fantasy drama based on Erika Sakurazawa'shit comic, in which an angel who looks like an ordinary girl (save for her whitewings) and has a thing for gin and lime helps lonely hearts find love. Kyoko Fukada, a super idol whose turn as a frilly fashionista in KamikazeGirls raised her international profile, stars as the angel.

* Also scheduled for a 2006 releaseis Issei Oda's action comedyLaughing Michael (Warau Michael), based on a popular Izumi Kawahara comic about three girlsat an exclusive private school who are well-bred, well-mannered - and well-versedin martial arts. Together they set off to solve a kidnapping that has thrown theschool in an uproar. Topping the cast is Juri Ueno, whoshot to stardom last year in the hit musical comedy Swing Girls. Albatross Filmsis handling Japanese distribution.

* Meanwhile, fresh from his successwith Nana, Otaniis about to make Rough, a drama basedon an Mitsuru Adachi comic that ran in Shonen Sunday magazinefrom 1987 to 1989 and has since sold 15m copies in paperback. Eighteen-year-oldMasami Nagasawa (CryingOut For Love In The Centre Of The World) stars as ateen diving ace who falls for a hunky star swimmer. But their families both runconfectionery stores - and are bitter rivals. Arisa Kaneko,whose credits include this year's smash hit TrainMan, is writing the script. Principal photography will start in mid-March, withToho set to release in autumn of 2006.

All these features also pointto another trend - the profusion of ingenues soaring tostardom. The Japanese film industry has long starred cute teens in idoru eiga ("idol films")- lightweight entertainments for the star's young fan base - but the current cropof teen female stars have talent to go with their looks.

In addition to Ueno and Nagasawa, who starred in two of the biggest Japanese films of2004 (Ueno in Swing Girls and Nagasawa in Crying OutFor Love In The Centre Of The World), Meisa Kurokiand Maki Horikita, both all of 17, have been makingbig waves in 2005.

An Okinawa native of mixed parentage,Kuroki made her screen debut as a seductive college girl in MitsuoYanagimachi's Who Camus Anyway' and soon after starredin Kenta Fukasaku's youth dramaUnder The Same Moon, which is currentlyon wide release in Japan.

Meanwhile Horikita has impressed in Takashi Yamazaki's hit nostalgia pieceAlways - Sunset on Third Street, playing an innocent country girl who comes to Tokyoto make her fortune in 1958.

Now these two are paired in One Missed Call 3, the third in a hit horrorseries about mysterious mobile voice messages that predict the owner's death. Inthe latest instalment a high-school girl sends a death message on her mobile afterbeing bullied by her classmates. Horikita plays the sender;Kuroki, a classmate caught up in the ensuing havoc. Shooting will start shootingnext February, with Toho set to release next summer.

Japanese sportswomen are playinga bigger role on the international stage than their male counterparts. This newcrop of young actresses, as well as the shojo manga adaptations they star in, may soon join them. Which raisesanother question - what's happening with Japanese guys'

One holding up his end is Yuya Yagira, the 15-year-old sensationwho was awarded the Best Actor prize at Cannes in 2004 for his performance as anabandoned boy in Hirokazu Kore-eda'sNobody Knows. He also proved his box officeclout with Shining Boy and Little Randy, in which he played a teenageelephant trainer who learns his trade in Thailand. Released in July, the film grossedY2.3b ($19m).

Yagira is now slated to appear opposite Erika Sawajiri, yet another up-and-coming ingenue,in Sugar And SpiceFumizekka (Sugarand Spice: Great Taste), a Fuji TV film based on a best-selling Amy Yamada novel.Release is scheduled for next autumn.

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