Picture the scene: two bachelors decide to take a road trip round Californian vineyards to celebrate an impending marriage. One is a down-and-out writer, unlucky in love and a tad self-conscious; the other is a swaggering lothario, ignorant about wine but great with the ladies. The first wants to bond over Merlot; his affianced friend wants to hit Las Vegas.
Sound eerily familiar? That's because this latest Japanese release is actually a remake of Sideways, the American sleeper hit of 2004 and winner of an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Fully sanctioned by the original's creator, Alexander Payne, this version, released at the end of October to cinemas across Japan, has all the trademarks of the original – except that, instead of Paul Giamatti's painfully gauche Miles, we have Michio, a clumsy, failed screenwriter who has come to join his old college buddy Daisuke for a last single men's jaunt around vineyards where they spent time as foreign-exchange students.
This is not the first time a movie has been adapted for a domestic market. Bollywood and Turkey have done it countless times (Mrs Doubtfire, My Best Friend's Wedding, E.T.) and Japan itself has provided plenty of fodder for Hollywood hit remakes, including The Ring (Ringu), The Grudge (Ju-on) and The Magnificent Seven (Shichinin no samurai, or The Seven Samurai)
But this is the first time the Japanese have taken something high-profile from across the Pacific, and garnered interest from Hollywood in the process. Cellin Gluck, who has assisted on several blockbusters, including Transformers and The Long Kiss Goodnight, as well as making his directorial debut with the Japanese war drama, Lorelei, in 2005, has directed the remake (also called Sideways). He admits that he was surprised when he was first approached: "At first I was like, 'huh, that movie, really?' But I read the script and I loved the idea that it wasn't set in the home country, like most remakes. Sending the guys off on a sake-tasting trip – now that would have been the obvious route."
Instead, the film, like Gluck, who is of Japanese and American descent and spent most of his childhood in Japan, is a cross-cultural mix. Michio and Daisuke studied together in California as students, and Daisuke has stayed there to become a moderately successful actor. The girls they meet, Mina and Mayuko (the former is played by Rinko Kikuchi, who was Oscar-nominated for her part in Babel), are both Japanese, but one has lived in the US all her life.
Why now? "Japan is the second-biggest film market, in terms of box office sales, in the world", says Sanford Panitch, president of Fox International, which co-produced the film with Fuji TV. "It's a difficult market but we wanted to give it a try."
Another reason may be that, in recent years Japanese cinema-goers have begun to shun foreign films in favour of local ones: in 2006, for the first time in 21 years, domestic Japanese films outperformed foreign films at the box office, capturing 53 per cent of the market. Now that figure has moved closer to 60 per cent.
Several changes have been made to Sideways to suit its new audience. Santa Barbara has been replaced with the Napa Valley, which producers thought Japanese audiences were more likely to have heard of. Michio is less of a wine snob than Miles (although Gluck insists that the Japanese love to drink), and Daisuke's rather graphic infidelities have been toned down to appeal to the largely female, and perhaps more prudish, demographic to which the film is expected to appeal.
Daisuke is also "a bit larger", metaphorically speaking, than the lackadaisical Jack of the first film, and one gets the feeling that this more farcical film might not appeal to devotees of its more subtle predecessor. Toru Miyazawa, of Fuji TV, says that, although comic children's films are very popular in Japan, there is a lack of adult comedy. This, coupled with the fact that the original film hadn't quite made it in Japan ("We wouldn't want to remake something as successful as Titanic"), appealed to Miyazawa. Along with the fact that it could be made for a mere £1.8m.
Paramount has taken the opposite view: it is currently casting for a remake of Ghost, the 1990 classic starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze. "For nervous US investors, a remake of Ghost comes with the assurance that it was a hit the first time round," says Andrew Cripps, president of Paramount Pictures International. The iconic clay scene may feature, and producers are currently trying to secure the rights to use The Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody", according to Cripps. But the film will be very different he adds. Unlike Sideways, it will have a fully Japanese team behind it. It may also reverse the male and female lead roles. "You have to have an obvious point of difference with a remake." Cripps says he has been curious as to whether the new Sideways would be able to pull it off.
"Comedy has always been a hard sell in Japan", he says, adding that the new Ghost will avoid the Whoopi Goldberg gags and "stick to emotion". Perhaps he is right to be wary: Sideways has made just £800,000 at the box office in the first two weeks. "Not brilliant", admits Gluck, although he stresses that it has been competing with Michael Jackson's This Is It.
Rumours abound about more Japanese remakes: Trading Places, What Women Want and Working Girl are all mooted. It's not all about foreign remakes, though. Warner Bros Japan, which has a greater local presence than either Fox or Paramount but which has until now let local investors do most of the work, has recently announced the title of the first local production in which it will be fully involved: Chushingura, a classic samurai tale that has been remade almost 50 times since the success of Kenji Mizoguchi's version The 47 Ronin in 1941. "All the interest in the Japanese market sparked up when Warner Bros opened up in Japan," says Gluck, "particularly a few years back when Clint Eastwood got involved in Letters from Iwo Jima, which was originally a Japanese idea. Suddenly Hollywood took notice."
Whatever the needs of its new audience, a remake must learn from its past mistakes. In Gluck's version of Sideways you won't see Michio trashing Merlot, as Miles does: wineries kicked up such a fuss when sales plummeted following the first film that this time round Merlot is the tipple of choice.
UNLIKELY REMAKES FROM AROUND THE WORLD
The Exorcist, Turkey (Seytan)
Chilling? Yes. But only in the same way that a film like Disaster Movie makes your skin crawl. The possessed girl looks like she has stuck green plasticine and safety pins all over her face and the close-up camera shots are bizarrely out of focus. Proof that sometimes low budget just doesn't work..
Mrs Doubtfire, India (Chachi 420)
This film has the same silly premise but fewer in-your-face gags, and the lead, Kamal Hassan is a serious match for Robin Williams. It doesn't have a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan though.
ET, Turkey (Badi)
“Badi” is not cute. Bulbous and brown, he looks like a cross between Yoda and an orc. The production is shoddy and the over-acting extraordinary, but this is still a film with a big heart.
Fight Club, India (Fight Club)
What was the original 1999 classic lacking? Men dancing around a stripper's pole evidently. This 2006 remake focuses on a group of friends who open a fighting venue for youngsters. Not exactly Brad Pitt and Ed Norton, but the singing and dancing does give it an edge.
Titanic, Nigeria (Masoyiyata/Titanic)
A wonderfully awful video version of the 1999 epic, with puffed-up CGI shots of the ship and lots of Celine Dion with an African twist. “Abdul” is a bit more street than Leonardo Di Caprio, but the rest of the film is largely the same – without James Cameron's $200 million budget.