This scene from Bayside Shakedown 2, a Japanese cop drama debuting on July 19, is a terrific movie moment precisely because it's so charming and modest. But are charm and modesty the stuff of a box-office blockbuster? Chihiro Kameyama, producer of some of Japan's most memorable TV and film hits over the past 15 years, is banking on it. In a conference room high atop Fuji TV's futuristic Tokyo office building, he seems positively serene just days before the highest-profile movie release of his career. Kameyama predicts that Bayside Shakedown 2 will be one of Japan's biggest films of the year, perhaps one of the biggest of all time. Does he really think it will outgross imported heavyweights such as The Matrix Reloaded, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle and Terminator 3. "Yes, I do," he says matter-of-factly. "I am confident that we can beat all those movies."
To reach those kinds of milestones, a movie has to have something special going for it. For Bayside Shakedown, it was its tongue-in-cheek take on crime fighters caught in a web of bureaucratic and cultural red tape that struck a chord with Japanese and made the movie an instant social phenomenon. After its release, police academies across the nation reported an increase in applications; some tourists arriving in Tokyo to this day are disappointed to discover that the film's mythical Wangan Police Station doesn't exist. "People collected Bayside-related goods," recalls Kawasaki City housewife Yoshimi Yamakawa. "It was like if you wore an Aoshima coat, you could be like him. There has never been a drama that made people go that far. It created maniacs."
And careers. "I made the first movie as an obscure TV director," says Katsuyuki Motohiro. "Next thing I knew, I was one of the hottest movie directors in the country." Motohiro is back behind the camera for the sequel, as are all of the original film's screenwriters and producers. Also present for encores is the cast, including actor and singer Yuji Oda in the starring role as Aoshima, the boyishly handsome detective. With a bigger budget, a handful of new faces (including Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's son Kotaro playing a police-department surveillance expert) and the most extensive domestic movie-marketing campaign in history, Bayside Shakedown 2 has become the most widely anticipated, heavily hyped live-action Japanese movie to date.
In the original movie, audiences were introduced to Aoshima, an idealistic but hotheaded homicide investigator posted to a backwater district where nothing much seemed to happen. Soon enough, however, he and his good-hearted pals at Wangan Police Station found themselves with two nasty crimes on their hands—a gruesome murder and the kidnapping of a police commissioner. Simultaneously, they had to fend off the arrogant and frequently sleazy meddlings of headquarters bigwigs who swooped in to oversee the politically sensitive investigations.
At first glance, it all seemed like conventional movie fare. But about half an hour into the film, anyone anticipating a Hollywood-style thriller began to notice something was amiss. Despite the superslick credits, snappy editing, witty dialogue and driving soundtrack, the expected adrenaline-pumping scenes failed to materialize. Where were the car chases, fight scenes, stunts, gun battles and helicopter crashes? There were none. Throughout the movie's entire 119 minutes, none of the five main characters even held a gun. When a lunatic actually pulled a pistol in the station house, the whole joint—of cops, mind you—practically cleared out in a panic.
And that's precisely the point. Bayside Shakedown—and its sequel—are cop movies without the usual cop-movie trappings. Rather than focus on the derring-do of cowboy police collaring bad guys, these movies look inward, exploring—often hilariously—the petty annoyances, political infighting and endless frustrations of paperwork, bureaucracy and tight budgets that come with being a public servant. Though hardly by choice, Aoshima and his colleagues spend more time tracking down stolen receipts for their expense reports, angling for better-subsidized lunches and ferrying their bosses to golf tournaments than catching crooks. Yet the Bayside movies aren't farces; they walk a tightrope between deadpan humor and serious drama. Aoshima and his gang are at root a virtuous bunch, constantly questioning the dubious policies of their superiors while putting themselves at personal and professional risk to seek justice. They weigh choices and debate the differences between the good of the individual and of the group, loyalty to one's boss vs. the pursuit of justice, and doing what's right for one's career vs. simply doing what's right.
These themes play just as well in the sequel as in the original. This time around, Aoshima and the rest of the Wangan Police Station get thrown into an even larger, more tangled web of crime involving multiple murders and a terrorist plot to blow up Tokyo's landmark Rainbow Bridge. And before they can start sorting through the evidence themselves, the know-it-alls from headquarters invade again, certain that the Wangan police just aren't up to the job. Though slicker than the first movie, the seriocomic tone remains, and the crime-related plot lines are still secondary to the internal dynamics of an underappreciated police precinct and its attempts to combat and correct the misguided larger bureaucracy.
Ultimately, both films are indictments of the paralysis in organizations where unchecked power and conflicts of interest are endemic. Forget the murderers and terrorists—the upper echelons of state officialdom are, in many ways, the real villains. For a country feeling increasingly betrayed by the gerontocracies of government ministries, this theme has a particularly powerful resonance. "You can replace the police force with the government," says actor Kotaro Koizumi—whose father swept to power two years ago on a reform agenda and has battled the same demons in reality that his son faces on screen. "The movie shows all the things that Japanese know need to change about the way things are done but how complicated it can get even when the answer is so simple," he says. "It's a commentary about how you cannot change without wanting to change."
Fuji TV producer and Bayside creator Kameyama argues that Japanese viewers already get plenty of fantasy from Hollywood and are hungry for domestic productions in which they can see reflections of their own lives and experiences. That's why the whole Bayside Shakedown universe was designed as a metaphor for Japan, Inc. "We wanted to depict the daily struggles that average salarymen and office ladies face every day," he says. "We simply transferred it to a police setting." This approach also makes abundant financial sense, adds leading man Oda: "There is no way we can compete with Hollywood budgets. So we do what they can't or won't. We focus on the Japanese audience and work with themes that speak directly to them. Hollywood has to make stories that appeal to the whole world. We, on the other hand, only play home games."
It's too early to tell whether the sequel will outstrip the original, but the advance buzz is positive. Bayside Shakedown 2 is scheduled to open on 400 of the country's 2,600 movie-house screens. That's an unusually high number; Hayao Miyazaki's animé film Spirited Away, the top Japanese movie ever, with $258 million in box-office gross, debuted on 320 screens. As of last week, advance ticket sales were three times Spirited Away's over the same period.
If nothing else, the film's made-from-TV pedigree gives it a head start, since TV shows converted into full-length movie features are an increasingly well-worn path to celluloid riches. Unable to compete with Hollywood's expensive special-effects extravaganzas, traditional Japanese film studios have fallen by the wayside. In their place, the TV networks have become the nation's major film-production companies, churning out fast and cheap entertainment with actors, plot devices and production values borrowed from the small screen. Much of this is niche oriented, but the formula has also produced some widely popular hits, such as the schoolroom drama GTO and the offbeat hospital comedy Leave it to the Nurses.
And, of course, the best of the breed, Bayside Shakedown. "We have learned a lot about viewer habits from our work in television," says Kameyama. "We give viewers what they want." This summer, he is gambling that what Japanese viewers really want is not Arnold Schwarzenegger or The One but a crime-fighting salaryman who, try as he might, just can't bring himself to litter.