Japanese Star Boosts Visibility of Imports

Americans have no culture hero to match Takeshi Kitano, one of Japan's most popular public personalities. Besides writing books (more than 50 so far) and publishing regular columns in six magazines, he appears on national TV eight times a week and has played important roles in international movies ranging from "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence" to "Johnny Mnemonic."

He has also made six films of his own, two of which have now traveled to American theaters. "Fireworks," also called "Hana-Bi," focuses on a policeman besieged by personal and professional problems. "Sonatine" deals with a yakuza gangster who lands in trouble while fighting a rival mob away from his own turf. In addition to writing, directing, and editing the pictures, Kitano created on-screen paintings for "Fireworks" and stars in both under his acting name, "Beat" Takeshi.

With their dramatic stories punctuated by moments of explosive action, these movies would have strong box-office potential if they came from Hollywood studios. As imports from abroad, however, they may have to struggle for attention at a time when American audiences show limited interest in foreign-language films.

Fortunately, both have resourceful US distributors supporting them - "Fireworks" will open in more than 200 cities courtesy of Milestone Films, and Quentin Tarantino is backing "Sonatine" through his division of Miramax - and Kitano's growing fame will further boost their visibility.

If they prosper, their success could open the door for more Asian imports. If they don't, distributors and exhibitors will be more reluctant than ever to take a chance on non-American pictures, further diminishing the range of choices available to US moviegoers.

* "Fireworks" and "Sonatine" are not rated; they contain violence and some sexuality.

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