Non-Japanese residents in Tokyo who want to see new and classic Japanese films but are frustrated by the small number of subtitled screenings can catch up — and move ahead — at the Tokyo International Film Festival (Oct. 22-30).
Eleven of the 23 films in the Special Screenings section devoted to upcoming releases are Japanese, as are eight of nine in the Japanese Eyes section that showcases independent titles. (The one exception, family drama “The First Rains of Spring,” is a Japan-Kazakhstan coproduction directed by Shinju Sano and Erlan Nurmuhambetov.) There is also a scattering of local films in the Competition, Natural TIFF and other sections, plus tributes to Golden Age star Kyoko Kagawa and iconoclastic director Juzo Itami. All Japanese films will have English subs.
Given the nearly 400 Japanese films released annually, this is only a sampling, but TIFF will present a wide range of what is being made here, from TV network-produced crowd-pleasers to zero-budget passion projects from an indie sector that has retained its vitality, despite a drying up of venues and funding.
Where to begin? How about the only Japanese film in the Competition section, “Kitsutsuki to Ame (The Woodsman and the Rain).” Director Shuichi Okita’s previous film, “Nankyoku Ryorinin (The Chef of South Polar),” became a critical and popular success for its distinctive blend of dry foodie comedy and heartwarming human drama, and his new film promises to be more of the similar.
Koji Yakusho stars as a lumberjack drafted into helping a film shoot up in the mountains, while Shun Oguri plays a fledgling director desperately pretending to know what he’s doing. Oguri no doubt drew on his own experience directing his debut feature, “Surely Someday” (2010).
Also promising to entertain in offbeat ways is “Tokyo Dorifuta (Tokyo Drifter),” director Tetsuaki Matsue’s followup to his 2009 documentary “Raibu Tepu (Live Tape),” the winner of the Best Picture award in TIFF 2009′s Japanese Eyes section. Once again his subject is eccentric but endearing musician Kenta Maeno, this time busking his way through the neonless streets of postquake Tokyo as he is followed by Matsue’s camera.
Among the other noteworthy films in the Japanese Eyes section are Hitoshi Kitagawa’s “Damn Life,” a dark comedy awarded the Grand Prize at this year’s Pia Film Festival for new filmmakers, and “No Reply,” Satoru Hirohara’s followup to his 2010 Pia Grand Prize winner “Sekai Good Morning!! (Good Morning to the World!!).”
The difference used to be stark between Japanese Eyes, with its indie focus, and Special Screenings, with its commerce-over-art orientation. But this year, several of the latter section’s Japanese films have a nonmainstream flavor, whatever their distributor’s box-office aspirations.
One is director Gu Su Yeon’s action-drama “Hadoromanchikka (Hardromanticcer)”, based on his own autobiographical novel, about a quick-fisted ethnic Korean temp worker mixing it up with the bad elements on the rougher streets of Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture. The hero, played by charismatic up-and-comer Shota Matsuda, is impeccably cool, while the action, atmospherics and attitudes are grittily real.
Another is Yuya Ishii’s “Hara ga Kore Nande (Mitsuko Delivers),” a dramady about a young woman who, nine-months pregnant, returns alone to the working-class neighborhood of her childhood and tries to restart her life — and those of the people around her — before she goes into labor. The energy on screen is infectious, if raucous, and the story, though cartoony in its telling, addresses Japan’s present crisis of confidence with passion and, given that the film wrapped just before March 11, prescience.
Those looking for big-scale entertainment can certainly find it in this section, though Japanese offerings fitting the description are few. The film with the biggest box-office expectations behind it is Koki Mitani’s “Suteki na Kanashibari (A Ghost of a Chance),” a comedy about a failing lawyer (Eri Fukatsu) whose last-chance client is a man accused of killing his rich wife. The only witness she can come up with, though, is a samurai ghost (Toshiyuki Nishida) who kept the poor mope frozen with fear the night of the murder. Mitani, who is clearly channeling Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” masterfully extracts laughs from his fanciful material, but also shamelessly lays the sentiment on thick.
The whole festival, not just the above Japanese films, is worth checking out, however. Much criticism has been leveled at TIFF over the years for everything from its domination by major distributors to its questionable programming choices (I’ve done some of the leveling myself). But the quality of the selections has been steadily rising, as exemplified by the World Cinema section of films previously screened at major festivals worldwide but without a Japanese distributor as of the end of August. After their exposure at TIFF, some of these films have secured distribution here, erasing a lot of the bad karma for inflicting “Armageddon” on the opening-night audience in 1998.
There is also a veneer of glamour at TIFF that other Japanese fests can’t match, beginning with the parade of stars and celebs down the eco-friendly Green Carpet on opening day. There will be a plethora of parties and events, most of which require a festival badge to enter, unfortunately. But if you want to rub elbows with film folk, try the TIFF Movie Cafe in Roppongi Hills, where TIFF press conferences will be held and various festivities will unfold. I can’t guarantee a one-on-one with Koji Yakusho, but this reporter will certainly be there, especially when they set out the free food.
Tokyo International Film Festival takes place at Roppongi Hills and other venues around Tokyo from Oct. 22-30. A special program will take place in Sendai on Oct. 25. For more information, visit www.tiff-jp.net. For extra coverage of the festival, see the back page.
Kaori Shoji’s TIFF picks
The Mill and the Cross
This isn’t just a film, it’s a mind-blowing piece of artwork that fittingly premiered at the Louvre in Paris. An investigation into Pieter Bruegel The Elder’s masterpiece “The Way to Calvary,” the film transports you to the world on and off the canvas, circa 1564. Be prepared to lose yourself completely.
A century ago, Sun Yat Sen was the Chinese visionary/revolutionary who was actually friends with the Japanese. We all know how the two nations’ relationship soured, but before that there was a honeymoon period, and this is our chance to see a grand, epic treatment of it. The centerpiece: a serious, matured Jackie Chan. And this is his 100th film.
German auteur Wim Wenders has always had a particular scientific interest in the human body and how it’s affected by clothes, music and cities. In this glorious documentary, he explores the realm of dance — in a no-holds barred, adoring tribute to acclaimed dancer Pina Bausch.
Another fascinating doc from James Marsh, the director of “Man on Wire.” This one almost plays like a prequel to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” focusing on a group of researchers in the 1970s who try to teach a chimp to speak. Raised by a wealthy Manhattan family, Nim showed promise as a child before becoming a bit too wild as an adult, and wound up in an animal testing center. Marsh seems to view the researchers in much the same way they regarded the chimp.
Tony Kaye’s filmmaking debut was 1998′s “American History X” — a great film, yet it wrecked his career after a very public falling-out with his star and producers. “Detachment” is his long-awaited followup, and though Adrien Brody as New York City high school substitute teacher sounds rather social-realist, trust Kaye to give his fervid imagination a workout with animation and dream sequences. Should be utterly brilliant or utterly self-indulgent — or quite possibly both.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Cult director Werner Herzog makes a documentary on Paleolithic cave paintings in 3-D? You must think I’m joking, but this is the real deal, as Herzog explores mankind’s earliest known art, dating back 33,000 years. Discovered deep in limestone cliffs near the Ardeche River in south-central France in 1994, the caves are closed to the public, and only a handful of people have glimpsed what’s within. Here’s your chance, and believe me, it’s worth it. Herzog remains as whimsical and esoteric as ever.