Japan is targeting the international market that swooned over Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with at least seven new youth-oriented period dramas in various stages of production.
Following 1999's boardroom coup, Shochiku's new management team, led by Nobuyoshi Otani, has dramatically beefed up the company's slate and is now investing $35m to $45m in five period dramas targeted at the multiplex masses.
Heading the new slate is Tasogare Seibei, a period drama set in the mid-19th century about a lowly samurai and his family. Directed by Yoji Yamada, a Shochiku hitmaker for three decades best known for his Tora-san series, the film is set for a November release.
Next up is Mibu Gishi Den, another period drama also set in mid-19th-century Kyoto and featuring the Shinsengumi, a legendary band of warriors for the Shogunate who fought samurai revolutionaries out to depose the Shogun in favour of the Emperor. The film, currently in post production, will open in January.
Shochiku is also preparing three more period films to go before the cameras: The Empire Of Demons, a CG-heavy action film about a boy who time travels to 9th century Kyoto to battle demons; The Legend Of The Dog Warriors (Hakkenden) , based the Bakin Takizawa novel about eight young warriors who unite to break a curse on their house; and Koga Ninpo-cho, a drama about a succession struggle in the Shogun's family.
Why so many films with characters wearing top knots and wielding swords' Samurai dramas used to be a Japanese film industry staple, accounting for nearly half of all production in the 1950s, but went into a steep decline with the advent of television. Now, boosted by CG-effects and targeted at a younger audience, period films of all types are making a comeback, with Takita's Yin-Yang Master going head-to-head with Hollywood at the multiplexes last year and grossing nearly $20m.
Though Shochiku may be leading the way, several other Japanese producers are also making period dramas, with big (for the Japanese industry) budgets and overseas ambitions. The biggest, by far, is that for Spy Sorge, Masahiro Shinoda's long-mulled film about a World War II spy whose Japan-based ring fed Japanese and German secrets to the Soviets.
Made at a cost of $17m and starring Iain Glen, Spy Sorge was shot over a two-month period in Shanghai and Berlin, as well as fifteen cities across Japan. Completion is scheduled for February and release, through the Toho chain, is slotted for the summer of 2003.
Meanwhile, a production consortium led by Toho rival Toei is readying T.R.Y., a $9.5m thriller set in early 20th century Shanghai and Tokyo about a Chinese swindler who is recruited by Shanghai gangsters to finagle arms from the Japanese military for the anti-Imperial revolutionaries.
The international cast includes top Japanese star Yuji Oda (Whiteout, Bayside Shakedown), as well as China's Shao Bin and Korea's Sohn Chang-Min. Release in Japan is set for January, 2003, with Toei distributing.