Fifth Okinawa fest celebrates community films

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Since its start in 2009, the Okinawa International Movie Festival has been more than its name implies. It has the usual competition sections: one called Laugh for comedies and another called Peace for dramas, though not all the films fit neatly into these two bins. But it has also been a promo event for the mostly comic talent of the giant Yoshimoto agency, the festival’s organizer and main sponsor.

Now in its fifth edition, the festival is not only trying to strengthen its lineup under new executive director Kazuyoshi Okuyama (pictured below), but also to expand and deepen its connections with both Okinawa and other regions around Japan beyond its Kansai (Western Japan) base.

During the weeklong fest, this year held March 23 to 30, you can see Yoshimoto manzai (comedy duo) acts not only at the stage intros for the films (after which some in the audience depart, having come only for the wisecracks), but also at the Beach Stage near the Okinawa Convention Center in Ginowan, the festival’s main venue. Some of the acts are famous names from TV flown in especially for the opening ceremony, whose long red carpet is lined by hundreds of excited young fans, but most are up-and-comers in Okinawa to perfect their comic chops on live audiences.

The festival features, in its Special Invitations section, such major upcoming releases as Hideo Nakata’s “Kuroyuri Danchi (The Complex),” the horrormeister’s return to his signature genre after a six-year gap, and “Jack the Giant Slayer,” action maestro Bryan Singer’s take on the “Jack and the Beanstalk” tale.

Meanwhile, the Laugh section, as might be expected, is packed with Yoshimoto-produced films, such as “Geinin! The Movie,” a school comedy based on a Nippon Television network sitcom featuring members of the Osaka-based NMB48 girl group. But, living up to the fest’s “international” label, there are also foreign entries, including “Mental,” an Australian girl-power comedy directed by P.J. Hogan (“Muriel’s Wedding”) and starring Toni Collette (“United States of Tara,” “Little Miss Sunshine”).

Over in the Peace section, veteran director Shusuke Kaneko, of “Gamera” and “Godzilla” series fame, turns to teenage lesbian love in “Jeri Fisshu (Jellyfish),” while Ki Kitano stars in the biopic “Jyokyo Monogatari” (“Moving to Tokyo Story”) as “Everyday Mom” manga artist Rieko Saibara. Among the foreign entries is the drama “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” for which 9-year-old star Quvenzhane Wallis was the youngest ever nominee for a best actress Oscar and first-time director Benh Zeitlin was awarded the Camera d’Or prize at Cannes.

The president of the Laugh & Peace competition jury will be “Batman Forever” director Joel Schumacher, assisted by actress Kaori Momoi, director Claude Gagnon and rocker-cum-sumo-commentator Demon Kakka. The festival’s new executive director, Okuyama, is a producer and director and the former Shochiku studio president. Speaking at a press conference on Feb. 19, he said, “I hope that, as a festival devoted to nurturing talent, we can give birth to many great masters and creators who will make wonderful films.”

This year, the fest has added two new only-in-Japan competition sections. One is the Pachinko Movie Award 2013, which presents videos from both the general public and pachinko-machine maker Kyoraku Sangyo to be displayed on the LCD screens of its cabinets. Another is the Nibichi Film Festival, which will screen 10 Okinawan wedding videos from entries submitted by local cameramen.

Seeking to further strengthen its ties with Okinawa, the fest has beefed up local participation in both in its Community-based Project, which supports the production of films around Japan using regional talent as well as locations. This year, five of the section’s 12 films were shot in Okinawa, while the suspense flick “Blue Bird,” a coproduction between Yoshimoto and Hong Kong-based Salon Films, was shot in Hong Kong with local and Japanese actors.

A similar initiative is the Jimot CM Competition, for which Yoshimoto selected community promo ad proposals from 41 Okinawan municipalities and 46 prefectures, excluding Okinawa, and then shot them with Yoshimoto staff and the proposal makers themselves. The Grand Prize winner for the municipalities gets ¥410,000; for the prefectures, ¥470,000.

Among other offerings are the Sakurazaka Movie University, which presents lectures on films and music by Yoshimoto talents, and the Deru-cine project, in which festivalgoers can appear as extras in shorts that are then completed in a matter of hours and shown. The extras can then see themselves on the screen — and dream of being scouted by a Yoshimoto producer.

The Okinawa International Movie Festival runs March 23-30 at venues around Ginowan, Naha and other locations in Okinawa. For further information, visit www.oimf.jp.

Tips for festivalgoers

Prepare for bad weather. Okinawa may have a rep as a semi-tropical holiday destination, but in late March the weather is still blustery, especially near the festival’s Beach Stage, where chilly winds and rain showers can send the tropical-shirted scurrying for cover.

Become a locavore. The many food stalls in the beach area offer takoyaki (octopus dumplings), okonomiyaki (cabbage pancakes) and other festival food found anywhere in Japan — and attract long lines of locals — but others serve good, basic Okinawan grub, from Americanized comfort food such as taco rice and Blue Seal ice cream to pork delicacies from exotic regions of the animal.

Shop for geinokai gewgaws. The Exhibition Building in the Okinawa Convention Center will host booths promoting shows from television networks and other entertainment entities, as well as free stage performances. This is where you can get your Yoshimoto talent coffee mugs and help fund, however indirectly, next year’s edition.