New wave of Japanese cult films look overseas

The Machine Girl
‘The Machine Girl’
TOKYO (TR) – Japanese arthouse dramas and comedies routinely receive substantial critical acclaim internationally, but slipping under the radar and steadily gathering an overseas following is a new wave of low-budget cult films.

Japan’s domestic market continues to be dominated by films based on well-known comic books or television programs. Targeting foreign coin by exploiting interests in exotic Asia is another option.

One company responsible for the trend is Japan’s oldest studio, Nikkatsu, which last year launched its Sushi Typhoon gore label, whose aim is to assemble Japan’s best ultraviolent helmers.

“In the domestic market now, a collaboration with a television network is almost a necessity,” explains Nikkatsu’s Yoshinori Chiba, who has produced dozens of gangster and action thrillers. “But if you want to make a profit overseas, you have to do something different.”

For Sushi Typhoon, the slash-up “Alien vs. Ninja,” helmed by Yuji Shimomura, was finished earlier this year, and Sion Sono’s “Cold Fish,” a horror story about a fish-seller on a murder spree, is receiving final touches.

Gore and action films are certainly nothing new to Japanese cinema. However, the progenitors, such as Takashi Miike, have in recent years departed from the limb-severing, straight-to-video fare of the ’90s to more mainstream works.

Death Kappa
‘Death Kappa’
Nikkatsu is not the only producer seeking international audiences. After “Hard Revenge, Milly” and its sequel, “Bloody Battle,” screened last year at the New York Asian Film Festival and the Montreal Fantasia Film Festival, to name just two, director Takanori Tsujimoto started looking beyond his film preferences — meaning, sword-wielding women carving up their opponents. “Films depicting extreme violence do not play well in Japan,” says the director. “So for accruing a decent budget, overseas will be the place to look for my future projects.”

Two pics widely considered as the source of this emergence, Yoshihiro Nishimura’s “Tokyo Gore Police” and Noboru Iguchi’s “The Machine Girl” (both with Chiba as a producer), also received coin from abroad, each having been fully financed through U.S.-based Media Blasters, for release in 2008.

The success of the pair — both of which shipped over 50,000 DVD units — spurred Chiba to want to create similarly “blood-spurting, heroine action” projects funded through Nikkatsu.

Media Blasters is heading in a different direction with monster mash-up “Death Kappa,” helmed by Tomoo Haraguchi, which wrapped earlier this year.

Also targeting fans of Japanese subculture are Nikkatsu’s “From the Back, From the Front” and “Apartment Wife: Afternoon Affair,” both of which unspooled this year and represent modern reinterpretations of “roman porno” classics — that is, pics combining “romance” and “pornography” — within the catalog of over 1,000 features that were routinely praised by critics and served as a testing ground for up-and-coming directors during their initial run in the ’70s and ’80s.

Cold Fish
‘Cold Fish’
Chiba emphasizes that the majority of the roman porno and Sushi Typhoon pics, which will generally see a scant theatrical release and instead target DVD sales, have been shot in HD — a key to keeping budgets reasonable, between $150,000 and $500,000.

Most companies are hesitant to take risks with conventional genres as the low-budget actioners will always perform better in the DVD market, says Adam Torel, managing director of U.K.-based distributor Third Window Films, but interest could be developing for other off-beat pics.

Tetsuya Nakashima’s kitschy comedy “Kamikaze Girls” and “Memories of Matsuko,” a look back at the troubled life of a prostitute, both screened theatrically, enjoyed strong DVD sales and were sold to digital broadcaster Film4.

Further, the Raindance Film Festival included “Love Exposure,” the Sono-helmed black comedy, and the Glasgow Film Festival played first-time director Momoko Ando’s “Kakera: A Piece of Our Life” in their lineups last year.

“It’s in these sorts of festivals where the change is happening,” says Torel, “which is the best outcome as they are being seen by an audience who tend to have a broader spectrum of film fancy.”

Note: This article originally ran in Variety on May 13 inside a special daily issued at the Cannes International Film Festival.

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