Laughs, tears at comedy film fest

The third Okinawa International Movie Festival opens with a minute's silence

by Mark Schilling

The third Okinawa International Movie Festival held its opening ceremony on Tues., March 22, after going through a traumatic week in Japan and coming out of it dramatically changed.

In the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, sponsor Yoshimoto Kogyo, an Osaka-based powerhouse in comedy-talent management, considered canceling the festival. Dozens of entertainment events were then being scratched in the name of jishuku (self restraint), and one more cancellation would have struck no one as strange.

But Yoshimoto CEO Hiroshi Osaki decided that, as he put it to the press, Japan needed “not jishuku, but action.” Yoshimoto would hold the festival as scheduled, but as a charity event to raise money for the victims and to send them a message of support. Since the latter can be phrased eru o okuru, with “eru” being a katana version of the English “yell,” the festival slogan was changed from Laugh and Peace to Yell, Laugh and Peace.

By the time the festival’s red-carpet walk began on Tuesday afternoon at the Okinawa Convention Center complex in Ginowan City, everything from the programs and posters to the gift T-shirts had been emblazoned with the new slogan.

Also, despite gray skies, drizzling rain and chilly winds, thousands of fans — mainly young and female — turned out to greet the celebrities and stars, most of whom hailed from the Yoshimoto stable, as they walked the carpet. The screams and pleas for autographs that greeted comedy duos Ameagari Kesshitai and Oriental Radio, comics Sekai no Nabeatsu, Kendo Kobayashi and Gori, and actors Satomi Ishihara, Saki Aibu, Aoi Nakamura and Tsuyoshi Abe were more “eru” than “jishuku.” Directors of films playing at the festival, including Hiroshi Shinagawa of the opening film “Manzai Gyangu (Manzai Gang),” also appeared, but the level of fan excitement the celebs generated depended on their level of TV exposure, not filmography.

Once the opening ceremony began, on an open-air stage on a white-sand beach, the mood became solemn, as the wind whipped harder and the temperature dropped further. The Japanese MC, with translations in Chinese and English, called for a minute of silence for the disaster victims. Then, Yoshimoto President Osaki, Yoshimoto Chairman Isao Yoshino, Okinawa Governor Hirokazu Nakaima and Ginowan City Mayor Yoichi Iha addressed the crowd with a seriousness more suited to a memorial service than a film festival with “laugh” in its title.

Yoshino recalled witnessing the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake with his own eyes and the virtual blackout on entertainment that followed, with Yoshimoto theaters shuttered and the TV appearances of its talent canceled. This time, he added, “we wanted to find something positive that we could do” — hence the festival.

Once the dignitaries were off stage, the shivering audience was finally ready for entertainment, which came in the form of Kanpei Hazama, a 61-year-old comic who completed a three-year 40,000-km “Earth marathon” in January. Dashing into the arena in a multicolored hat, he bounded up to the stage as the crowd roared. Hazama, as everyone knew, fought off prostate cancer to finish his epic run. “Now is the toughest time,” he said. “But I’ve come to give you energy.”

The main energy source of the festival itself, which runs till March 27, is its program of competition screenings in two categories: Laugh (12 comedies) and Peace (12 noncomedies), with the winners of each receiving the Uminchu Grand Prize, decided by audience vote. One film in the latter section, the hit Chinese earthquake disaster epic “Aftershock,” was quietly dropped from the program after March 11.

The festival is also presenting sections of classic foreign and Japanese comedies, as well as seven films made in various regions of Japan in partnership with local communities. But a television coproduction market had to be scrapped when Yoshimoto’s Hollywood partners CAA and Notional decided not to send representatives.

In fact, only a handful of foreign guests made the trip, including Taiwanese director Yeh Tien Lun with the comedy “Night Market Hero” and British comic/writer Tony Hawkes with the comedy “Round Ireland with a Fridge.”

At the opening party, Hawkes told this reporter that the no-shows had probably canceled because “their families were worried and talked them out of it.” He, on the other hand, had come with his trusty fridge, which he actually did lug around Ireland on a bar bet before writing the book on which the film is based.

This festival, prepared with days and nights of ceaseless work and presented with a mix of solemnity and silliness, somehow seemed the right place for it.