The Tokyo International Film Festival is the movie's first port of call

The sun has set early on this first day of November, and by 5 p.m. the teenage girls jammed six deep along a tree-lined street in Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood are swathed in shadow. The youngest among them still wear their blue school uniforms. Some have camped here outside Tokyo’s Orchard Hall theater for three nights; one claims she staked her spot a week earlier. Nao Yamada, 17, arrived only at noon. ”I wanted to come earlier, but I was in the hospital,” she says sadly and mysteriously.

Yamada and her fervent compatriots have taken up a favorite Hollywood pastime — waiting for Titanic. After the seemingly endless months of hype and gossip, director James Cameron‘s $200 million-plus epic is finally making its world premiere at, of all places, the Tokyo International Film Festival. That the Hollywood blockbuster is headlining an event accustomed to paint-drying social dramas and documentaries strikes many observers as odd. The official line from both Cameron and Titanic‘s international distributor, Twentieth Century Fox (Paramount is handling the film domestically), is that Japan’s $1.21 billion box office is the largest single foreign market for American films and that Cameron’s films have historically done well in Japan.

But Tokyo’s English-language dailies have hardly taken notice of Titanic‘s arrival. That may be because the crowds here at Orchard Hall are gathered not so much for the movie but for a glimpse of the film’s star, heavy-lidded heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio. ”I think he is a genius of acting,” Yamada sighs. Clearly, DiCaprio, not the movie, is the main event. As a precaution, Fox has announced it would deploy 49 guards to protect the actor and Cameron. Smart move: The instant their car arrives, the squealing mob overpowers Tokyo police, engulfing the vehicle. Cameron makes his way through the crowd and dashes inside; DiCaprio is hustled through a side entrance. In minutes, the show is over, although confused fans mill about hopefully.

Some of the teens are luckier than others. A number of them have managed to secure Titanic tickets; in fact, judging from the chatter, seemingly half the 2,000 attendees are DiCaprio cultists. The din increases when the actor appears on stage just before the three-hour and 14-minute movie unspools, and declares Japanese fans to be ”the best and most loyal in the world.” DiCaprio’s every gesture is greeted with cries of ”Leo! Leo!” — or more accurately, ”Lay-O! Lay-O!” (One desperate lover wails, ”Romeo, O Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” as the Romeo & Juliet star slips backstage.)

As for the movie itself, the response is unequivocal: Its conclusion brings loud and sustained applause. (The Stateside reviews that appear two days later are equally enthusiastic: ”A complex and radiant tale that essays both mankind’s destructive arrogance and its noble endurance,” gushes the Hollywood Reporter.) Later, at a press conference in Tokyo, a pleased Cameron reflects on the success of Fox’s marketing gamble. ”I always thought a Japanese audience would embrace a film on a large topic with strong emotional content,” says the director. ”And judging by the initial reaction, it looks like I was right.” That’s one country down, the world to go.

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