Japan's largest distributor, Toho Studios, has surpassed box office earnings of $442m (Y50b) for the fourth year in a row, the company announced. The company's releases during the lucrative Christmas/New Year's period are set to break Toho's record-setting year in 2006.

Earnings up until the end of November totaled $476.4m (Y53.63b). December earnings of the year's biggest domestic hit, Fuji TV's Hero, November releases Always: Sunset On Third Street 2 (NTV-Robot), Sky Of Love (TBS) and Crows (TBS) and December releases such as Akira Kurosawa remake Sanjuro (a Toho in-house production) and family film A Tale Of Mari And Three Puppies (Toho-NTV) add up to approximately $22m for a grand total just under $500m.

The latest Pokemon film ($44.41m) and Fuji's Monkey Magic ($39.82m) were Toho's second and third biggest hits after Hero ($73m).

Out of the 25 films the studio released in 2007, 20 titles grossed over $8.8m (Y1bn), the industry's indicator of a hit, compared to last year's 15.

Toho enjoyed its most successful year in history last year with earnings of $521.3m (Y58.7b), but the record looks to be broken by the end of 2007. This weekend (Dec 15) Toho opens Fuji TV-produced ice hockey comedy Smilers and the first feature-length Tamagotchi movie. The latest installment in the popular Bleach animation franchise opens December 22.

The studio also announced its 2008 lineup at a press conference held yesterday.

Toho and the companies behind the Always production consortium will produce K-20: Kaijin Niju Menso-den (The Fiend With Twenty Faces), a big-budget mystery set in 1949 based on characters created by Edogawa Rampo. Pan-Asian star Takeshi Kaneshiro will play the infamous criminal. The film is set for a Dec 2008 release.

Other major releases include Stephen Chow co-produced Shaolin Girl (April 26), Koki Mitani's period gangster comedy The Magic Hour (June 7) and the return of Hayao Miyazaki with Studio Ghibli's Ponyo On A Cliff (summer).

At 29 titles, next year's slate will be the studio's biggest ever. Toho is aiming for $530.53m (Y60b) in box office revenue.

The figures and lineup do not include Hollywood and other foreign films released by Toho subsidiary Toho-Towa. As announced in February, Toho-Towa now handles Japanese distribution of Universal Pictures titles in the wake of UIP's end-of-year closure in the territory. Toho-Towa's first Universal release, The Bourne Ultimatum, has earned $13.3m and remains in the top ten after five weeks.