TOKYO (Reuters) - Hollywood 3D movies may be huge in Japan, but a wave of new samurai films threatens to tarnish their image by dazzling audiences with old-school action and some clever new twists to the sword-and-kimono stories.
From the works of filmmaking legend Akira Kurosawa, such as “Seven Samurai,” to dramas aired on public broadcaster NHK, samurai fare has long been a staple of Japanese entertainment.
But several films in the genre are hitting theaters in a big way this autumn, led by Takashi Miike’s “13 Assassins,” fresh from its Venice film festival world premiere last month, kicking off a run of six major releases over three months.
The boom highlights the growing importance of older audiences to Japan’s film business as the population rapidly ages and retirees with ample time and money return to the multiplexes to take in the kind of movies they enjoyed back in the samurai cinema heyday of the 1950s and ‘60s.
“People are retiring, the kids have left home and it’s just the husband and wife with time on their hands,” said Masao Teshima, president of Asmik Ace Entertainment, the studio behind “The Lady Shogun and Her Men” and “Abacus and Sword.”
“There’s a market for samurai dramas made for such people,” he told Reuters, noting that those aged 60-65 represent Japan’s biggest population segment.
Indeed, Toho release “13 Assassins,” a remake of a 1963 film about a band of samurai hired to bump off the cruel brother of a Shogun, opened at a solid No. 3 on the last weekend in September, despite tough competition in a crowded market from 3D holdovers “Umizaru: The Last Message” and “Resident Evil: Afterlife.”
One weekend later, “Lady Shogun,” which Asmik is co-distributing with Shochiku, swashbuckled to a No. 2 debut, according to box office tracker Kogyo Tsushinsha, boding well for the upcoming four samurai movie releases.
To be sure, 3D movies are by far the top films in Japan this year. “Avatar,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Toy Story 3” have all smashed the 10 billion yen ($122 million) blockbuster threshhold, according to the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan. That is a level no film reached in 2009.
Still, samurai movies are fighting for their fair share of ticket sales by reaching older audiences. In Japan, people over 65 already make up 23 percent of the population — the world’s highest such percentage — and that figure is forecast to jump to about 40 percent by 2050, according to government data.
“Senior citizens, students and single working women are the three groups supporting the film business,” Teshima said, adding demand was weakest among men in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
The samurai characters also appeal to traditional Japanese values, and they represent strong leadership seen as lacking in modern-day Japan, which is already on its fifth prime minister in three years as the country struggles to revive its economy.
“The samurai had the power to become strong leaders,” said Shigeto Arai, marketing director at Toho, which is also distributing samurai romance film “The Lightning Tree” due out later this month. “I think Japanese people have hopes” for such leaders, he said.
Still, the new wave is not merely about replicating the action-based samurai slashers of old by providing neat twists to proven formulas of a male-dominated society where brave soldiers battle for justice with their swords and their mastery of martial arts.
“Lady Shogun,” based on a popular comic book series, is more fantasy than historical fiction, portraying an early 18th century society in which women are superior to men and hold all the important jobs and centering on a female Shogun who lives in a castle with a harem of 3,000 young men.
“Abacus and Sword,” to be released in December, chronicles a bookkeeper’s rise to prominence through his accounting abilities, not his sword-fighting prowess.
Among other samurai releases, Toei’s “Sakuradamongai No Hen” hits theaters on October 16. The film does not yet have an English title but translates roughly to “incident outside Sakurada-mon gate.”
In December, Warner Bros. is set to release “The Last Ronin,” the Time Warner division’s latest local-language production in Japan.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte