Asthe Japanese industry continues to ramp up production, releasing 310 films in2004, compared with only 251 a decade earlier, producers are making more filmsinspired by, based on or remade from earlier hits, domestic or foreign.
A sign of flagging creativity' Perhaps, but the Japanesemovie industry has long ridden winning formulas to the point of exhaustion andbeyond. The Tora-san series, scripted and mostly directed by Yoji Yamadafrom 1969 to 1996, is basically 48 tellings and retellings of the same story:Folksy-but-feckless peddler falls in love, but loses girl by the last reel.
Yamada, who often described himself as a maker of cinematicnoodles, gave his customers exactly what they wanted -- a consistentlyentertaining, never-varying package. The Tora-san series produced hitafter hit and kept the Shochiku studio afloat for decades.
Recycling is often a sound business strategy for theJapanese market, where audiences crave familiarity, but foreign fans who havecome to expect something different from Japanese films - from the cultishoutrages of Takashi Miike to the commercial spookfests of Hideo Nakata - maystart to sense deja vu, if not yet terminal ennui, from the latest offerings.
Some, such as the recent spate of war and disaster films,are not meant for them anyway. One is Yamato, the latest in a series oflive-action and animated films about the famous battleship that sank battlingthe Americans in the closing days of the Pacific War. The comeback of legendaryproducer Haruki Kadokawa, Yamato is frankly intended as a flag waver for localpatriots (not to mention war nostalgists). Outlanders, particularly Asians withmixed feelings about the Japanese martial spirit, are not invited.
Another is Japan Sinks (Nihon Chinbotsu), ShinjiHiguchi's remake of a 1973 disaster movie, based on an eponymous bestseller,about Japan sliding into the sea after a series of earthquakes. Higuchi alsodirected the WWII submarine actioner Lorelei and supervised effects onthe films in the Gamera and Godzilla series. Once again thetarget audience is squarely local, though the topic -- natural disasters withcivilization-destroying consequences -- has suddenly acquired wider relevance.
Then there are the films following in the large box officefootprints of Crying Out Love In the Centre of the World and Be WithYou -- two dramas about love in the face of death that collectively grossed$120m in Japan last year.
Among the mostly highly anticipated is Memories ofTomorrow (Ashita no Kioku), a drama by directed TV hitmaker YukihikoTsutsumi (Ikebukuro Westside Park, Trick) about a prosperous businessmansuddenly faced with the devastation of Alzheimer's. Incredibly, the film willbe Ken Watanabe's first starring role, in a career than includes The LastSamurai, Memoirs of a Geisha and Batman Begins.
Also, hot are animal films, a genre with a long pedigree inJapan, though the recent spate is inspired by the success of Quill,Yoichi Sai's 2004 film about a lovable seeing-eye dog and its crankymiddle-aged master that grossed $20m in Japan. The latest is Helen the BabyFox, a drama about a boy's love for a young fox -- and how that lovechanges his disabled sister. The species, if not the story, echoes KoreyoshiKurahara's The Glacier Fox, a 1978 documentary whose monster successignited a decade-long animal movie boom.
Finally, there are all the films that are sequels or newentries in long-established series. In the first category are Umizaru 2,Fuji TV's follow-up to its hit 2004 film about Japan Coast Guard divers, and Trick2, Yukihiko Tsutsumi's follow-up to his 2002 comedy, derived from a culthit TV show, about a struggling-but-sexy magician (Yukie Nakama) and ascraggly-but-handsome physicist who expose phony man-gods in a remote village.
In the second category is Gamera, the long awaitedrevival of the Daiei studio's signature series, first launched in 1965, about afire-breathing flying turtle. Daiei, alas, is gone, absorbed into KadokawaHerald Pictures last year, but its most famous monster lives on. Japan may someday sink, but its film franchises are forever.
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