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PACIFIC RIM : They <i> Really</i> Care Who Killed Laura Palmer : The ‘Twin Peaks’ series is a national obsession in Japan with thousands of videos in circulation; now ‘Fire Walk With Me’ is the country’s hottest movie

<i> Dana Lewis is a writer based in Tokyo</i>

It was spitting rain, but the lines formed early at the Shochiku Central Theater near the Ginza. By 11 a.m., it was standing room only for the opening of the hottest film property in the country, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.”

This David Lynch film, a prequel to his defunct television series detailing the last days of Laura Palmer, has found a far kinder audience than it did in Cannes, where reviews were decidedly mixed. Rather than screening to boos, the movie is a phenomenon in Japan.

Whether sniggering at the quirks of Special Agent Dale Cooper or desperately trying to follow the jerky tale of Laura Palmer’s dissolution and gory death, Japanese audiences are packing theaters. They are doing it despite lukewarm reviews, a cast that leaves out many of the favorite characters from the TV series--and the not-always favorable word-of-mouth.

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“My friends told me not to waste my money,” says Tomoko Saito, who started watching “Twin Peaks” while living in the United States. But she may be in the minority. Since its premiere in Japan on May 16, ticket sales for the movie have reached 450,000; it is expected to run through the summer.

“We’re booked into more than 100 theaters around Japan,” says Taku Ushiyama of Nippon Herald Films Inc., the movie’s Japanese distributor. “That’s the equivalent of a 2,000-theater release in the U.S. This is going to be one of the top 10 films of the year.”

The popularity of this cult movie, marketed in Japan as “The Last Seven Days of Laura Palmer,” is less attributable to the name value of its creator--it’s hard to find Lynch’s name in the fine print at the bottom of promotional flyers--than to that of his creation: “Twin Peaks,” the TV series that would not die.

Lynch’s first television foray may be fodder for trivia tests back in the United States, but in Japan, the series, which began airing on pay TV a little more than a year ago, has become a national obsession. While some industry observers suggest that the release of “Fire Walk” may well be the end of the “Twin Peaks” frenzy, others point to the demand for Episode One of the series, which is back near the top of the rental video charts.

According to Shusei Tsujihata of Pioneer, which originally bought the rights in a joint deal with software distributor Amuse Video in anticipation of selling about 3,000 of the 14-tape sets, there are about 30,000 sets, or 420,000 tapes, in circulation either at rental video stores or through direct sales.

“That’s unheard of for a television series,” says Tsujihata. “It’s just impossible. And it’s also made us a nice bit of money.”

“Twin Peaks” also has single-handedly boosted the fortunes of Wowow, Japan’s first satellite pay-TV service. It has spawned a cottage industry of writers and analysts, constantly regurgitating summaries of the complex story line in a raft of magazine special issues and knock-off books ranging from “Be a Peaker!” to the “White Paper on Twin Peaks Psychoanalysis.” Japanese TV directors have parodied the show on their comedy programs, while ripping off its lighting and camera angles for their own offbeat dramas.

The feeding frenzy reached bizarre proportions in February when promoters threw gaudy public wakes for Laura Palmer in front of five of the busiest train terminals in the nation. Thousands of fans filed by to pay their last respects to identical wax effigies of Laura Palmer, reported to have cost 1 million yen, about $8,000, apiece to make. Pop stars and actors sent flowers, and roving news camera crews mobbed any enterprising mourner who arrived sporting a Nadine eye patch or toting Log Lady logs.

Amazingly, until the movie’s release, “Twin Peaks” had only been available on video, laser disc and limited circulation pay TV. It has never been aired by one of the national networks. In fact, when it was first shown in Japan, only a few hundred thousand viewers were able to see it.

That was May 31, 1991. Wowow, operated by Japan Satellite Broadcasting, was winding up a special promotion to mark the start of its service. Until that date, anyone with a small parabola antenna on his or her house or apartment balcony could tune into JSB’s satellite, and the showpiece program was Episode One of “Twin Peaks.” The next day, Wowow’s scrambles kicked in, and in order to see Episode Two, viewers had to pay 27,000 yen (about $200).

The strategy worked. Today the pay-TV channel has nearly 870,000 subscribers. “Wowow,” says spokesman Masamoto Oda, “has become synonymous with ‘Twin Peaks.’ It’s both raised our profile and established our image.”

Viewer Hitomi Tsutamoto of the port city of Koba agrees. She shelled out for the Wowow service, and even bought a satellite dish, when she heard they’d be showing the series.

“I’d been thinking of signing up even before that,” says the 32-year-old word processor operator, “but ‘Twin Peaks’ decided it for me. It starred Kyle MacLachlan, and I wanted to see it before anyone else did.”

Tsutamoto is more than the average fan. She’s the founder of the Kyle MacLachlan Fan Club and Twin Peaks Report, a “Twin Peaks” fanzine. At home there are “Twin Peaks” posters on the wall and a pair of videos for watching and re-watching her favorite show. “My husband is getting a little fed up with it all,” she admits. “Of course, he watched ‘Twin Peaks,’ too. But it didn’t seem to grab him.”

What is it that has grabbed so many Japanese and turned them into “Peakers,” as the faithful are called?

“The story is so complicated and hard to understand,” Tsutamoto says, “and the characters are so eccentric. You keep wondering, what’s going to happen next?”

In the view of Nobuo Kaneko, a senior editor at Fuso Publishing Co. in Tokyo, “Japanese like following these complex story lines. Especially younger people get off on knowing details that no one else knows.”

To feed that hunger, Fuso published translations of “The Diary of Laura Palmer” and other “Twin Peaks” books. “Diary” has sold 250,000 copies, compared to about 350,000 copies, published by Penguin, in the United States, where there was a network TV audience. Of course, Lynch’s own peculiar vision helped, says Kaneko, but he doesn’t think it played such an important part. “We have plenty of weird dramas in Japan,” he says.

For a country that also took to Rubik’s cube, “Twin Peaks” represents the ultimate game. Add a dose of the supernatural, a handsome lead actor and a bit of audience one-upmanship, and there was a boom just ready to explode.

From the start, “Twin Peaks” has been a model of Japanese niche marketing, a method whereby companies target narrow segments of the population in an extremely competitive marketplace.

Musicians and music critics were the first to pick up on “Twin Peaks,” most industry people agree. “They’re on top of what’s happening in America, and they began telling us about the show,” recalls Pioneer’s Tsujihata. But after that, it was all calculation. “We contacted people we thought would like the show,” he says. “We sent them sets of the video, and asked them to mention it in their columns or on their programs.”

The word-of-mouth strategy worked. Soon, magazines were quoting pop stars and TV actors about their “Twin Peaks” obsession. It helped that Japanese popular culture and media critics loved it. Soon teen-agers and college students were hearing the leaders of Japanese hip rave about the series on late-night radio and television talk shows.

Long before the mainstream media picked up the story, rental video shops had waiting lists filled up for weeks in advance. The 60,000 yen (about $460) laser disc set sold out overnight. “High school girls would be gossiping about the characters and who did what to who,” says Wowow’s Oda, “and if only a few of their friends knew what they were talking about, all the better. It let them feel superior.”

The series also became fodder for the “otaku” boom. “Otaku,” as they are called, are obsessive fans who pour all their energy into obscure pursuits, whether collecting Barbie dolls or hacking computer networks.

Long derided as eccentric nerds, otaku have emerged as Wayne’s Worldly pop culture antiheroes among young Japanese bored with the old culture standards. And “Twin Peaks,” says Fuso’s Kaneko, “is the definitive otaku show.”

Readers of “Twin Peaks” books and magazines are taking personality tests to find out if they are Agent Cooper material or the stuff of Bob. Complicated charts in books and magazines trace connections between “Twin Peaks” characters. T-shirts, coffee mugs, posters, soundtracks and other “Twin Peaks” goods are available through catalogues. Even giant Pasco, a major manufacturer of prepackaged pastries, has started shipping “Twin Peaks” cherry pies to pastry stores and convenience shops across Japan.

But the top prize must surely go to the Japan Travel Bureau. For a paltry 228,000 yen (about $1,750), JTB promises to whisk travelers to the very site where Laura Palmer first washed ashore wrapped in plastic. Originally planned as an on-off event, the “Twin Peaks” tours have taken on a life of their own, says JTB’s Tomoyuki Komagata, himself an avid Peaker. By now, 300 Japanese, most in their 20s, have trekked to Snoqualmie Falls and North Bend, Wash., spending the night at the Great Northern Lodge and having their pie and mocha at the R.R. Diner.

“Everyone was very nice,” says Komagata of their reception by bemused Washingtonians. “By the second trip, they had plastic bags ready so our people could wrap themselves up and pretend to be Laura Palmer.”

Not that the fans needed help. Joining the inaugural trip, for instance, was a 15-member contingent from Tsutamoto’s fan club, all decked out in matching FBI jumpers.

“I was really surprised by how cheerful the town was,” admits Tsutamoto. “It wasn’t like the dark, treacherous place in the TV show at all.” The most unsettling part, in fact, was all the attention the Japanese tourists got from Japanese and local media. “There were all these cameramen milling about while we were trying to eat at the R.R. Diner,” she says ruefully. “It was really kind of embarrassing.”

While the movie is bringing “Twin Peaks” to a wider audience, observes Fuso Publishing’s Kaneko, it is also stripping away “Twin Peaks” elitism. “The otaku types,” he suggests, “are already losing interest.”

In fact, many in the entertainment industry are pondering when the boom will go bust.

“Lynch is not the sort of director that 10 in 10 people are going to like,” says Pioneer’s Tsujihata. “What I’m afraid of is that one day people will just get fed up with it. They’ll say, ‘Twin Peaks’ again? Enough already!’ ”

Already, “Twin Peaks” posters and pamphlets are retreating to the Back 40 of public relations departments’ bulletin boards. At Nippon Herald, the new news is “Basic Instinct.” “This one will be big,” Ushiyama says. “This one’s a hit.”

But “Twin Peaks” plods on. Audiences are still growing, if more slowly. Books are still being published, and Wowow has scheduled a special two-day, 28-hour marathon broadcast in July.

Looking ahead, superfan Tsutamoto says she hopes the fan club can be kept going.

“Shows like ‘Star Trek’ still have their fan clubs, don’t they? Even if they’re just a few of us left, we intend to keep on.”


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