Back in May, the rumor among cinephiles in the Japanese media was that the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) wouldn’t happen this year. The mood was that it was too soon after the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11 to hold anything festive, especially in the visual-arts scene. All over Japan, souls were aching from watching the endless news of destruction and sorrow in the Tohoku region — intensified for many by the amount of first-hand footage of the disaster posted on video-streaming websites. However, it just seemed disrespectful to want to watch anything else.

TIFF programming director Nobushige Toshima maintains, though, that scrapping the event was never on the cards.

“A mere week after the disaster, my staff and I went to the Hong Kong Film Festival,” Toshima says, “and we were surprised and touched that so many people expressed such concern for Japan and even started a spontaneous fundraiser for Tohoku. So we set up a fundraising booth of our own and, in the process, discovered a trite but fundamental truth — movies do bring people together.”

Returning to Japan, reality presented a slightly different picture. Though warm wishes poured in from all corners of the globe, directors and performers canceled any or all commitments here. As spring turned into summer, a few stars trickled in (thank you Lady Gaga!), but the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant discouraged most celebrities from venturing to these shores.

“Speaking as an international film festival operator, Tokyo has the disadvantage of distance,” Toshima says. “And with the nuclear disaster, the red tape involving insurance suddenly tripled. A lot of stars said that even though they wanted to come, their insurance companies refused to let them. It was a time of some anxiety for us.”

Despite the circumstances, this year’s TIFF has a surprising sense of empowerment to it. There’s buzz that this year’s crop of films are good, and two big ones are opening the festival: “1911” and “The Three Musketeers.” Chinese actor Jackie Chan, who stars in “1911,” has publicly stated that he insists on being in Tokyo to show solidarity with both TIFF and Japan.

One category at TIFF, however, is turning out to look extremely empowering. Critics say the festival has shown both taste and insight in setting up the “Overcoming the Disaster” selection of postquake fare.

“For this category we took special care to select films with personal, hopeful tones,” Toshima says. “Seven months after that day, I knew it would be time to move forward and to look ahead.”

“Overcoming the Disaster” showcases three films related to March 11, and any money raised from the category goes toward TIFF’s “Arigato Project” fundraiser for Tohoku. But the support goes deeper than just financial aid. TIFF is using the festival’s unique program to acknowledge support from the international film festival community, and provide a bit of hope in stressing how far Tohoku has recovered since the slew of catastrophes.

Directed by Masahiro Kobayashi, “Giri Giri no Onnatachi (Women on the Edge)” alternates between pain and pathos as it draws the relationship between three sisters who reunite in their hometown of Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, after the disasters. Kobayashi, who lives in that same area, was hit badly by the disaster — his own home was swept away by the tsunami. He doesn’t let his own tragedy get in the way of telling the story though, and it’s a close, often cynical, observation of an estranged family that feel some discomfort at the sudden emphasis on blood ties piped into their home through the media.

Kobayashi is renowned for directing “Haru tono Tabi (Travels With Haru)” in 2010, and he has consistently aimed to chart the terrain between the Japanese ideal concerning family ties and the alienation that ferments beneath the surface.

“Haru tono Tabi” starred Tatsuya Nakadai, one of the last remaining giants of the Japanese acting world, as an old fisherman cared for by a reluctant granddaughter. “Giri Giri no Onnatachi” has no such luminaries but Kobayashi has put together a solid cast consisting of Makiko Watanabe, Yuko Nakamura and Miho Fujima, all of whom bring a rawness of emotion and explosive spontaneity to the story. If nothing else, “Giri Giri …” delivers a new perspective on the disaster. It’s rare that a family has no issues, but in this case the problems erupt and fester just as the world literally falls apart, and the three sisters have little choice but to stick together.

“Fukushima Hula Girls” is also about women in the wake of disaster. Director Masaki Kobayashi, who had long worked in Japanese TV, took the camera and a handful of staff to Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture — a city that he describes as “the most Latin in the Tohoku area.” Until the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdowns, Iwaki had been famed for two things: the Jyōban Hawaiian Center (later renamed the Hawaiians Spa Resort) and the Fukushima Hula Girls. An exotic flower that bloomed in a cold climate and a heavily traditional culture, Hawaiians is probably the Tohoku region’s most ingenious invention.

“The area had once prospered with coal mining and then coal was replaced by oil, leaving thousands of people out of work,” Kobayashi explains. “And we all know what oil was replaced with … and look what happened. Once again, thousands of people are left jobless and this time whole towns were forced to close down.

“Hawaiians was built in the transitional period between coal and oil, with the intention of bringing smiles to people who had never had the time or wherewithal to seek much joy.”

Kobayashi says he thought of the Hula Girls when the meltdown reports started coming out of Fukushima. “I know, and a lot of Japanese know this: the Fukushima Hula Girls are the treasure of Tohoku.”

When the Hula Girls first appeared on a little wooden stage back in 1965, many of the locals were scandalized. Where did these girls think they were, Hawaii? But that was precisely the point. The Hula Girls wanted to generate the illusion of pleasure and relaxation; they transported Fukushima audiences to a place where palm trees swayed in the breeze and the sun shone year-round. (It should be noted that Hawaiians has palm trees, too. Many of them are in pots, but so what?) Throughout Japan’s rapid growth period, the bubble economy and the subsequently lengthy recession, generations of Fukushima Hula Girls danced, smiled and inspired those who longed for a taste of Hawaii’s blue skies and grass skirts. “Fukushima Hula Girls” the movie, is Kobayashi’s tribute to the history of Hawaiians and the Hula Girls, as well as a celebration of its resurrection. Many of the facilities were damaged on March 11, and for months Hawaiians was a designated evacuation shelter for disaster refugees. But as of Oct. 1, they were back up and running — er, dancing.

“It’s not to say this is going to be easy for the girls, or for Iwaki and Fukushima,” Kobayashi sums up. “This is only the beginning of a long, arduous road. But at least they’re smiling.”

Meanwhile, quintessentially symbolic of the spirit of the “Overcoming the Disaster” category is a film made by, and starring, preteen children in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima prefectures.

“Ima Tsutaetaikoto: Kitto Waraeru” (“What I Want to Tell You Will Make You Laugh”) is a Panasonic-sponsored project called Kid Witness News — an educational program that originated in the United States and spread worldwide. KWN teaches children to hold cameras, record, act, speak out and participate — in short, it’s a program devoted to developing self-expression skills and building confidence. Producer Hironori Ide supervised and instructed the project, but otherwise the film is the children’s own and admission to it at TIFF is free.

Ide, who has long worked in the Japanese film industry as a producer, director and production artist, is excited about the project’s underlying message.

“I feel there’s a shift going on in the film industry,” he says. “Movies will become less like entertainment vehicles for one-way consumption and more of a forum for people to express themselves and communicate with the world. There’s Twitter and Facebook, yes, but creating and showing films touches upon a more holistic issue. And it’s very well demonstrated in this project — these kids have something to say, and by having a camera in their hands they become empowered to do so. Pundits have said there’s no future for film, but I say that film is an incredible enabler, and can make art out of a pile of rubble or a few words on a blackboard. And when you discover that at age 11 or so, the future feels limitless.”

Tokyo International Film Festival takes place at Roppongi Hills and other venues around Tokyo from Oct. 22-30. A special program will take place in Sendai on Oct. 25. For more information, visit www.tiff-jp.net. For extra coverage of the festival, check out the Re: Film page.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.