With the economy stagnant and the political situation in turmoil, its no wonder Japanese audiences want to escape the present. Fittingly, there are an extraordinary number of new Japanese live-action films set in the past or in the future.
And yet, only a few years ago both the sci-fi and period genres were all but dead in Japan (though the former was an animation staple).
The revival of the period drama has been underway for some time now, with older audiences driving much of the demand - and older producers and directors rushing to fill it. The most successful of these films, however, including Masahiro Shinoda's Owl's Castle and Yojiro Takita's Yin-Yang Master (pictured), have also had fantasy elements, created with state-of-the-art CG effects, that appeal to younger audiences.
Until recently, however, CG-effects-driven Sci-Fi films were considered too expensive by the local industry, with the main exceptions being family-targeted fare that could get by with less than Hollywood quality. Now, though, sophisticated CG effects are everywhere, from TV commercials to holiday releases that go head-to-head with Hollywood for the same young adult demographic.
The latest, Returner (pictured) with a story that combines elements of Terminator, Leon and the '80s craze for transformer robots, may not have out-performed Harry Potter or Lord Of The Rings at the Japanese box office, but it has done enough business to repay its backers-and encourage other local producers of SF product.
The most heavily publicised is the forthcoming sequel to Battle Royale, the hyper-violent film about teenagers forced to play a suicide game by a repressive government. Though criticised by outraged parliamentarians and slapped with an R-15 rating, the film earned more than $20m following its release in December 2000 and revived the career of its director, veteran Kinji Fukasaku. Unfortunately, Fukasaku has since been diagnosed with inoperable cancer, but has proclaimed his determination to finish the sequel regardless. Fukasaka's struggle to make good on his vow will no doubt keep the film in the news until its release next summer.
Also getting press attention is Moon, an SF drama starring megastar rockers Gackt and Hyde.The director is Takahisa Zeze a veteran of Japan's flourishing porn industry who has become a leading, if defiantly non-commercial, light on the indie scene for films like Rush and Tokyo Erotica. Set for a spring 2003 release, the film also stars Ryo Ishibashi and Etsushi Toyokawa.
The past, however, still provides a more popular destination for Japanese filmmakers, though the stories now often derive more from the wilder imaginings of manga artists than the research of historians. One such project is Azumi, which tells the fictional tale of a 16th century woman warrior who battles the powers-that-be for the right to rule the country. Newcomer Aya Ueto stars while Ryuhei Kitamura, whose martial arts fantasy Versus made him an international cult celebrity, directs.
Another in the same vein is Dragon Head, a fantasy about three high schoolers who survive an accident on a school bus excursion-and find themselves in another world. The cast is headed by Sayaka - the daughter of Japanese pop legend Seiko Matsuda - and is directed by George Iida, who is best known for Night Head, a cult hit TV series and film about two brothers with supernatural powers.
Yet another is Makai Tensho, which stars Yosuke Kubozuka as a young Christian who dies in the government-ordered persecution of 1838 - and is reborn to lead a crusade against his oppressors. Kubozuka is the hottest male actor in Japan at the moment, following his successes in Go and Ping Pong.
One of the few directors doing historical drama without the aid of CG effects is the 90-year-old Kaneto Shindo, whose latest film Owl is set in northern Japan in the days after World War II. Shindo, who began his career more than six decades ago, is calling this comic thriller his last. And, for the mainstream industry at least, Shindo's type of film, without the benefit of CGI, looks like becoming an endangered species.