Okinawa film fest gives fans an up-close view of the stars

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Why go to Okinawa for movies? For anyone familiar with the international festival circuit, especially at its higher, artier end, the Okinawa International Movie Festival may well prompt this question — and a negative answer. “It’s not a real film festival!” a fellow foreign journalist exclaimed to me on the cab ride back from the closing party on Sunday.

Granted, the 11 films in the main Laugh and Peace competition section for the festival’s 6th edition, which ran March 20-24, were mostly commercial entertainments, not typical festival fare. The winner of the Golden Shisa Award, the fest’s top prize, went to “Sanbun no Ichi (One Third),” comic-turned-director Hiroshi Shinagawa’s love letter to the talky, violent films of Quentin Tarantino and other Hollywood flicks about robberies gone wrong.

For all the head-scratchers in the competition, however, such as “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa,” star Johnny Knoxville’s latest essay in lowbrow prank comedy, there were also films that would not be out of place in a regular festival, as long as it accepted the proposition that genre fare can also be good.

One example was “Fukufukuso no Fuku-chan (Fuku-chan of FukuFuku Flats,” Yosuke Fujita’s low-key, laugh-till-you-cry comedy about a lonely house painter (comic Miyuki Oshima) who is allergic to women from a long-ago trauma. The casting of Oshima as a guy is no stunt: Her air of not being quite who she seems fits her odd-squad character. She also implicitly understands Fujita’s comic vision, in which the best laughs come not from broad TV-skit clowning but from real emotional pain, as well as the occasional pratfall.

While pointing to this and other “real films” on the program, I also had to admit that my colleague was right. Sponsored by Yoshimoto Kogyo, a powerful Osaka-based talent agency that has made the Kansai brand of manzai duo comedy a TV staple, the Okinawa festival is quite obviously a multimedia showcase for Yoshimoto talents, from the nationally famous to the still obscure. They fly down by the plane-load for not only the festival’s two Red Carpet events (Yoshimoto stalwarts Shinagawa and Oshima both paraded at the one I attended on Sunday) but also to entertain audiences in Q&As at festival screenings, as well as at shows on the open-air Beach Stage, with the Pacific only a few meters away, and at Laugh & Peace Town, a spacious event hall at the Okinawa Convention Center in Ginowan, the main festival site.

In recent years, Okinawa’s involvement has expanded from hosting the five-day festival to serving as the permanent core of Yoshimoto’s international expansion strategy, with Asia the main focus. At the Okinawa Contents Bazaar, a two-day event with Yoshimoto’s Asian and U.S. partners in attendance, this strategy was explained in detail, highlighted by the announcement of a joint venture tie-up between Yoshimoto and two Hong Kong-based companies: Media Asia, a film, TV and music producer and distributor; and Content Land, a TV program producer and network operator. The plan is for Yoshimoto and Media Asia to make audio-visual content and for Content Land to distribute it through its extensive Asian network.

What is Okinawa’s role in all this? Basically to serve as a production location and meeting site for Yoshimoto and other Japanese content companies and their Asian partners, with the enthusiastic support of the Okinawa Film Office and other local government bodies. Naha, a Yoshimoto rep pointed out to me, is within 1,000 km of Taipei and Shanghai and within 1,500 km of Seoul, Manila and Hong Kong. “We see Okinawa as our Asian gateway,” he said.

None of this much mattered to the thousands of local teenagers enjoying what amounted to a huge corporate-backed matsuri (festival) catering to their every junk-food appetite and pop-culture interest. “If I were 15, I’d love it,” I told my skeptical colleague in the cab. Wandering through Laugh & Peace Town, I saw kids playing anime-hero-themed pachinko machines, browsing Yoshimoto character goods, lining up for audience-participation stage shows and chatting with staff at the booth of the Yoshimoto Okinawa Entertainment College, which offers a yearlong course for future TV comedians and production staff.

They also thronged Kokusai-dori, Naha’s main drag, for the Red Carpet parade on Sunday. A total of 58,000 people, according to festival organizers, saw 371 guests make their way down the carpet, including local megastar Masaki Okada and Johnny Knoxville, the only Hollywood celeb in sight.

Most of the fans at the barriers, however, were teenage girls who had been patiently waiting for hours. Watching the reactions of these youthful pop-culture experts, I could get an instant read on the popularity of the various talents who were parading by or dipping into the crowd to slap palms and sign autographs.

I also had the thought that their squealing enthusiasm for their favorites, which the festival cultivates with its many in-the-flesh and up-close events, might carry over into not only lifetime fandom, but future careers. Whatever the quality of its films, the festival’s offerings are at least accessible to these kids, while encouraging them to dream the show-business dream.

A decade or so down the road, Yoshimoto’s talent roster may well be a little less Osaka, a little more Okinawa. Or the teenage “Bad Grandpa” fan of today may become the big-deal director of tomorrow, telling an enthralled interviewer that it all started on a sunny afternoon in Naha, with a fist bump.