The Tokyo International Film Festival, now in its 26th edition, has had its share of detractors, dissing it for everything from competition lineups of major festival castoffs (no longer true since TIFF stopped insisting on world premieres) to a Special Screening section that is essentially a PR showcase for upcoming commercial releases (still and forever the case). And yet foreign critics, bloggers and fans keep turning up at TIFF for at least one reason: The festival offers a rare chance to see large numbers of new and not so new Japanese films with English subtitles, in better-than-average screening conditions.
There is also the glamor element, especially for the Special Screening films that feature butai aisatsu (“stage greetings”) by popular stars. But the extended Q&A sessions, with a fawning presenter serving up softball queries that the talent on stage bats away with cute quips, can also be tiresome. Since all the seats are reserved, however, you can spend this time in the lobby posting photos of your hotdog-and-Coke dinner to Facebook. (Menu choices in the Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills multiplex, TIFF’s main venue, are not wide.)
My own must-see list among the Japanese films is headed by the two in the Competition. The first is “Sutegataki Hitobito (Disregarded People),” Actor-director Hideo Sakaki’s take on the George Akiyama manga of the same title about a socially awkward former trucker who returns to his hometown and starts an affair with a woman who shares his inferiority complex. The English title may make this sound like a downer, but as Sakaki proved in his previous film “Yukai Rhapsody (The Accidental Kidnapper),” he can make funny, warm-hearted drama with none of the usual drippy theatrics.
Another is “Hotori no Sakuko (Au Revoir l’Ete),” Koji Fukada’s coming-of-age drama about an 18-year-old girl (Fumi Nikaido) who spends an eventful summer at her aunt’s rural home. Since her breakthrough role as the serially abused teenaged heroine of Sion Sono’s 3/11 drama “Himizu,” Nikaido has added eight entries to her filmography while establishing herself as her a talent to watch. Meanwhile, scriptwriter/director Fukada garnered rave reviews (including one from this writer) for his 2010 culture-clash drama “Kantai (Hospitalite),” which also had its world premiere at TIFF, winning the Best Film prize in the Japanese Eyes section.
The new Japanese Cinema Splash section continues its predecessor’s policy of presenting indie films by new directors, with one standout being “Jibun no Koto Bakari de Nasakenakunaru yo (How Selfish I Am!),” a “musical coming of age film” by Daigo Matsui.
Not yet 30, Matsui still deserves the “new” label, though his previous wacky comedy “Afro Tanaka” became a word-of-mouth hit in Japan while getting a warm response abroad — including at the 2012 Udine Far East Film Festival, where it had its international festival premiere. Completely over the top, beginning with its Afro-coifed hero, the film was nonetheless directed with fine comic precision and skewed inventiveness. The new film looks to be a complete change of direction, but knowing Matsui, it is not likely to obey formula rules.
Also worth checking out is a special program of five Japanese animated shorts from the 1920s to 1960s by early anime masters Noburo Ofuji and Kenzo Masaoka. All were filmed in 35 mm, including newly restored prints of Masaoka’s “Kumo to Tulip (The Spider and the Tulip)” (1943); Ofuji’s “Kujira (Whale)” (1952), which Pablo Picasso praised after seeing it at Cannes; and his “Yureisen (The Phantom Ship)” (1956), winner of a special award at the Venice Film Festival.
The aforementioned Special Screening section features a total of 11 Japanese films, including the festival’s closing film, Koki Mitani’s spritely period comedy “Kiyosu Kaigi (The Kiyosu Conference).” One that looks promising is “Sakasama no Patema (Patema Inverted),” Yasuhiro Yoshiura’s animated feature about boy living in a postapocalyptic society who rescues a frightened girl falling (or rather ascending) from an upside-down underground world. Together they encounter that world and learn its secrets. The exhilarating shots in the trailer of this pair airborne are reminiscent (perhaps deliberately?) of many similar ones in the films of Hayao Miyazaki. Scheduled to open on Nov. 9, the film is a theatrical version of a four-part ONA (original Net animation) series that Yoshiura released last year.
Another from this section on my to-see list is “Bilocation,” horror specialist Mari Asato’s psychological thriller about the doppelganger phenomenon. This is something of a genre staple, inspiring both the Edgar Allan Poe story “William Wilson” and the 2003 shocker “Doppelganger” by Asada mentor Kiyoshi Kurosawa. I hope to finally see a new Japanese horror pic that lives up to the promise of its white-knuckle trailer, but as always, I offer no guarantees.
At the very least you’ll be able to see stars Asami Mizukawa, Kento Senga and Sho Takada on stage, perhaps answering the same questions for the 100th time — and wishing they could have sent in their own doppelgangers.
Tokyo International Film Festival will be held Oct. 17-25 at Roppongi Hills and other locations in Tokyo. For information, visit tiff.yahoo.co.jp/2013/en or call 03-5405-8686.
Giovanni Fazio and Kaori Shoji’s picks
Captain Phillips (Opening Film): This ripped-from-the-headlines tale stars Tom Hanks as a freighter skipper whose ship is seized by Somali pirates. Directed by Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) with his usual doc-like energy, this is way more thrilling than it has any right to be. (G.F.)
Behind the Candelabra (Special Screenings): Even men can become the trophy girlfriend, as Steven Soderbergh shows in this portrayal of the love life of entertainer Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his bisexual lover Scott (Matt Damon) — whom he forces into plastic surgery and more. (K.S.)
Jodorowsky’s Dune (World Focus): Alejandro Jodorowsky gave us two of the 1970s’ most psychedelic cult films — “El Topo” and “The Holy Mountain” — but his career derailed after a futile attempt to make a film of Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. This doc gives a fascinating glimpse of what Jodorowsky’s version would have been like. (G.F.)
The Best Offer (Special Screenings): Geoffrey Rush plays slimy art auctioneer Virgil Oldman, who has an eye for masterpieces and money. But Virgil’s perception becomes clouded when an obsession with an heiress collector takes over. Worth seeing for its collection of works from the Italian masters. (K.S.)
Paradies: Liebe (Paradise: Love) (World Focus): What would a modern film fest be without feel-bad movies? In this look at middle-aged white “sugar mamas” on a sex-tourism holiday in Kenya, director Ulrich Seidl is as misanthropic as Michael Haneke, but with a strain of uncomfortable humor. (G.F.)
Boolgeun Gajok (Red Family) (Competition): A story of a South Korean family fronting for spies from the North addresses stifling family ties and the North-South divide. Kim Ki-duk penned the screenplay, so be prepared for brute violence, gushing sentiment and pockets of wry humor. (K.S.)