Animal films are big again in Japan, after the thumpingsuccess last year of Yoichi Sai's Quill. Based on a true story, thisheart-warmer about a lovable blind dog and its grumpy middle-aged mastergrossed $20m (Y2.2bn) in Japan and was a hit across Asia.

Japan's first cinematic animal wave -- or rather ark --was launched in 1979 by Koreyoshi Kurahara's hit documentary The Glacier Fox.The peak came in 1983 with Kurahara's Antarctica,featuring twodogs left to face an Antarctic winter by a Japanese research team. It set a boxoffice record for a domestic film that stood until 1997, when Hayao Miyazaki's PrincessMononoke swept all before it.

Quill rode a pop culture wave of a different type-- for true-life narratives about ordinary folks who triumph over disability,while learning life lessons. Fuji TV, which made Antarctica, hasfollowed in Quill's wake with Shining Boy & Little Randy, yetanother film taken from a true story about the human-animal bond -- and itslife-changing consequences. This time, however, atroubled teenageboy,played 2004 Cannes Best ActorYuya Yagira (Nobody Knows),journeysto Thailand tolearn elephant riding. Opening in Japan on July 16, ShiningBoy is Fuji's main entry in the summer box office sweepstakes.

Fuji TV arch-rival TBS (Tokyo Broadcasting System) andother members of a powerful media consortium are weighing in with StormyNight, a big-budget animation about a goat and wolf who become friends --and must flee for their lives from an enraged wolf pack to a land where theyhope to live in peace. Director Gisaburo Sugii worked on the pioneering AstroboyTV series and later directed the features Night on the Milky Way Railroad(1985), Touch (1986) and Streetfighter II: The Animated Movie(1994). Perhaps more importantly for the box office, the Yuichi Kimura picturebooks on which the film is based are beloved classics in Japan. Toho willrelease on December 10 -- the start of the peak New Year's season.

Meanwhile, Shochiku is following Quill with HelenThe Baby Fox, a drama about a boy's love for an injured baby fox -- and howits struggle for recovery encourages the boy's disabled sister. The cast isheaded by Takao Osawa, who starred in the last year's smash-hit weeper CryingOut Love in the Centre of the World and the Steven Seagal thriller Intothe Sun. Release is set for the spring of 2006.

Although some might not put it in the "animalmovie" bin, Kadokawa Pictures is reviving the Gamera series about agiant flying, fire-belching turtle -- andreturning to its origins with astory about a young boy who cares for a baby sea turtle -- who morphs into Gamera.Director Ryuta Tasaki, who helmed the Sailor Moon, Masked Rider and PowerRangers TV series, is no stranger to CG-laden live-action entertainmentsfor kids. Release is set for the late spring of 2006, after the Golden Weekholiday. No word yet on whether the original 1965 Gamera film, in whichthe eponymous hero attempts to level Tokyo, will also hit the theatres.

Finally, Shochiku is prepping the 16th installment of theFree And Easy series about a happy-go-lucky construction companysalesman (Toshiyuki Nishida) who becomes the fishing companion and mentor ofthe over-worked company president (Rentaro Mikuni). This paircelebratesacquatic lifeby, not communing with it, but catching andconsuming it. Against the current animal-loving box office grain' Definitely,but Free And Easy 16, which is set for an August 27 release, reflectsthe way millions of Japanese, including its multitudes of fishing enthusiasts,actually interact with the natural world. Bon appetit.

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