TOKYO (AP) _ Star Wars mania has struck again _ this time in Japan, where fans turned out in droves at theaters around the country Saturday for a sneak preview of the hit movie.

Some in costume and others toting light sabers, the movie-goers began lining up as early as Thursday in Tokyo for seats for ``Star Wars: Episode I _ The Phantom Menace'', which officially opens on July 10, more than five weeks after its U.S. debut.

``It's like a festival,'' said Yuki Nishijima, a 19-year old student who had been waiting seven hours for one of three late-night showings at the Nihon Gekijo theater in Tokyo.

Around him, hundreds of people sat in the theater's sweltering entryway, fanning themselves and passing the time with everything from backgammon to beer drinking.

Japan, the world's second-largest movie market, is home to legions of Star Wars fans, and the film has been heavily hyped by the media in the weeks leading up to its first showing.

Some say the science fiction series holds a special appeal for the Japanese, who see it as an updated version of classic samurai films.

The first ``Star Wars'' movie was based loosely on ``The Hidden Fortress,'' a 1958 film about a warrior's journey by Akira Kurosawa, Japan's most renowned director.

``I realize this has sort of become a media event,'' said Chitose Koike, a 37-year old pianist who was waiting to see the sneak-preview in Tokyo. ``But I wanted to see it before everyone else.''

Nihon Gekijo officials said advance ticket sales had already surpassed previous records for the theater. And several fans waiting in line Saturday said they plan to see the movie again.

Fans like Yuichiro Saitoh, a 21-year old university student who said he was happy to sit six hours in the heat for a chance to see the movie.

``That just shows you how much I like Star Wars,'' he said.