Tokyo International Film Festival hits 25

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

This year, Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) celebrates its 25th edition and will hold commemorative programs, including a three-day screening of six Japanese films from the Showa Era (1926-89) in the very Showa-esque district of Nihonbashi.

“It’s our way of connecting Japanese viewers and having people get in touch with their inner Showa,” says TIFF publicist Hideko Saito. “The youth of today may not be familiar with those times, but people over 40 are bound to remember. It’s one way to get conversations going, and to bring people together.”

The origins of the film festival go back to the years immediately following World War II. “People wanted to celebrate peace, to bask in its glow and steep their minds in the greatest escape hatch known to mankind — the cinema.” Famed director Akira Kurosawa said that in 1994, and it’s an admirable description of a film festival’s function.

By the early 1950s, Cannes, Berlin and Venice had established events of international status, proudly showcasing the best and newest works by filmmakers from around the globe. After the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Japan was eager to join the club and set its sights on a film festival opening in step with the Osaka Expo in 1970.

“The idea was that Osaka would have the Expo and Tokyo would have the film festival,” says Michio Morioka who has been involved with TIFF since its beginning. “But that didn’t really work out and we had to wait for the proper timing.” That came 15 years later, in 1985, when Japan again held an Expo — this time in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture. That was Tokyo’s entree to finally join a legion of other prominent cities by hosting its very own, homegrown film festival.

From that first occasion, Kurosawa was a willing and gracious participant. “We knew that the first TIFF wouldn’t really work without the presence of the great Akira Kurosawa,” Morioka says. “On the other hand, he seemed unapproachable and completely inaccessible. But we had to ask, and he said ‘yes,’ just like that.” The festival opened with his masterwork “Ran,” and Morioka says she “can’t begin to express how happy and honored I was to be there, to be part of the experience.”

At the time, Kurosawa was the leading brand name working in Japanese cinema and as such, filmmakers from around the world hotfooted to Tokyo for the privilege of meeting him in person, on his home turf. “The next TIFF happened two years later, in 1987,” says Morioka. “Like the Biennales, TIFF was at first a biannual event. Kurosawa also came for this and the guests all crowded around him to take photos, ask for autographs and shake his hand. We were a little surprised at how he had the power to change the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg into giddy fans.”

Kurosawa attended TIFF until its fifth edition in 1992 (he died in 1998). It was around this time that certain TIFF protocol were established. Says TIFF programming director Nobushige Toshima: “Like all the other international film festivals, TIFF had become an annual event. We wanted to hold it annually in May, perhaps right after Cannes since the weather in Tokyo is lovely around then. But that didn’t go over well with the international film festival people. So we opted for autumn and decided on October. It’s a good time for people to go to the festival, kick back and watch films.”

Some years were better than others, but both Toshima and Morioka say that every year brings its own drama, and with it a renewed sense of joy and accomplishment.

“There’s no such thing as a perfectly run film festival,” says Toshima. “The festival is a living thing, around for only a set number of days and then it’s gone. After that we have to wipe the slate clean and start all over again: hunt around for films, negotiate the guest arrivals, gradually build up the process to opening day and see it close.”

Morioka agrees: “Once the festival is over, we’re back at work the very next morning. It’s an ongoing, never-ending process that’s always changing, always challenging.”

Echoing their sentiments this year is the closing picture, “Trouble With the Curve (Japanese release title: “Jinsei no Tokutouseki”),” starring Clint Eastwood as an old pro-baseball scout and Amy Adams as his estranged daughter.

“It’s about a guy who has done the same thing, in the same kind of way for decades,” Toshima says. “He doesn’t trust computers. He doesn’t want data. He believes in his gut instincts, and he has the willpower to travel from ballpark to ballpark in search of a great player. That’s basically what we do too, travel from festival to festival to pick up the cinematic gems.”

This year, TIFF is putting special emphasis on its Natural TIFF programme lineup. Going green has been a TIFF sub-theme for the past five years but this year, “we’re really serious about it,” says program director Yoshihiko Yatabe. The Natural TIFF slot has eight films — all documentaries, which is a first for the festival. “We really wanted this to be a wakeup call, and to raise awareness that the environment is in deep, deep trouble.”

One film that drives the point home is “Trashed,” a disturbing take on the global waste problem, reported by English actor Jeremy Irons. “One film may not be able to change the world,” says Yatabe. “But it could maybe change the viewer. I know my own habits have altered.” For starters, Yatabe has decided to forego those plastic bags given out at practically every shop in Japan. “After seeing the film, it’s impossible to keep using those bags. I know it’s a tiny step. But I had to take it, because I couldn’t move forward otherwise.”

The 25th Tokyo International Film Festival takes place Oct. 20-28 at various locations. For more information on films, schedules and ticket prices, visit 2012.tiff-jp.net .