Tokyo film festival ups its domestic fare

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

The 28th edition of the Tokyo International Film Festival, which began yesterday, is the biggest event on the Japanese film calendar. And like any such event, TIFF has had its share of critics over the years.

One frequently heard complaint has been about the lack of a festival head with a clear vision and the clout to implement it over a long period. TIFF director generals are typically drawn from the ranks of film company executives and serve an average of three years before returning to their corporate home base. Any impact they make in their brief tenure tends to be fleeting.

Another target for critics is the large number of upcoming domestic and foreign commercial releases, which the local entertainment media covers to the exclusion of much else on the lineup. While adding a needed glamor, these films can make the festival feel like a giant industry promo extravaganza.

Now in his third year as director general, Yasushi Shiina may fit the standard profile for the job — he has been an executive and producer for the film arm of major publisher Kadokawa — but he and his programming team have thoroughly revamped TIFF for its latest edition, giving it a stronger focus on Japanese live-action films and animation, both new and classic.

“We’d been thinking of how we could send information about Japanese films abroad, and what we came up with was the Japan Now and Japanese Cinema Classics sections,” Shiina told the press at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on Oct. 9. “More than 500 local films are released in Japan annually but if you see the films being shown at TIFF, you’ll get an overview on all of them.”

The 16 films in Japan Now include both recent domestic releases and five films by veteran director Masato Harada, starting with his 1995 yakuza-on-the-run thriller “Kamikaze Taxi” and concluding with his World War II drama “The Emperor in August,” which became his biggest-ever hit following its August release. An eclectic filmmaker who trained in Hollywood and speaks fluent English, Harada told reporters that he was honored to be selected, but wryly added that all five films being screened at TIFF were rejected by Cannes. Japan Now programmer Kohei Ando, a much-awarded experimental film director, jokingly countered, “We beat Cannes.”

“We selected Harada because we wanted everyone in Japan and abroad to re-evaluate his talent,” Ando added.

Second looks of another sort are on the program of the Japanese Cinema Classics section, including 4K digital restorations of Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 period drama “Ran” and Kon Ichikawa’s 1958 drama “Conflagration.” Also on the program is “Yowamushi Chinsengumi,” a recently unearthed 1935 animated short that Ichikawa made at the start of his long career.

Back again this year is Japanese Cinema Splash, whose eight films are mostly by young up-and-coming indie directors.

TIFF’s retrospectives this year have a pronounced domestic slant as well, including a section devoted to the enduringly popular “Gundam” animation franchise, a 10-film section honoring late action icon Ken Takakura and a four-film tribute to postwar experimental filmmaker, playwright, poet and provocateur Shuji Terayama. Finally, on Oct. 28 TIFF will present all-night screenings of four J-horror classics: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Cure” (1997), Takashi Shimizu’s “Ju-on” (2002), and Hideo Nakata’s “Joyu-rei” (“Don’t Look Up,” 1996) and “Gekijourei” (“Ghost Theater,” 2015), his first and most recent films, respectively, both featuring female ghosts with grudges.

Yet another indication of the festival’s focus shift is the relatively low number of entries, 11, in the Special Screenings section, the repository of the aforementioned commercial films. This includes the opening film, Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk,”and the closing film, Tetsuo Shinohara’s romantic drama “Terminal.” The only other Japanese film in the section, “Mozu,” is the feature iteration of a police thriller TV series.

By contrast, three of the 16 films in the Competition section are Japanese, the largest local representation ever and all distinctly different from each other.

Kohei Oguri’s “Foujita” is a biopic of Tsuguharu “Leonard” Foujita (played by Joe Odagiri), a painter who became the toast of Paris in the 1920s, known as much for his playful, eccentric persona as for his paintings of cats and white-faced nudes, drawn with firm-but-delicate ink strokes like nothing else in the Western art of the time. His wartime propaganda paintings were heavily criticized after Japan’s defeat, however, and Foujita spent his final years in France.

Though produced by French veteran Marie-Claude Ossard, whose credits include “Amelie” (2001) and “Betty Blue” (1986), “Foujita” is getting its world premiere at TIFF, rather than a major European festival. Oguri is no stranger to such festivals, his marital drama “Sting of Death” (“Shi no Toge”) won the jury prize at Cannes in 1990 and his surreal drama “Umoregi” (“The Buried Forest”) screened in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight section in 2005.

“(Foujita) didn’t impress overseas festivals,” Oguri tells The Japan Times. “The subject is not Japan, is it? They may not have had much interest in a big-scale biopic of a Japanese guy who encounters modernism and Europe and reaches the halfway point of his life in 1945.”

Also in the competition is “Sayonara” by Koji Fukada, a director born one year before Oguri released his acclaimed first film, “Muddy River” (“Doro no Kawa”) in 1981. Based on a 2010 short play by Oriza Hirata about an android robot’s interactions with a dying girl, played by the Japanese-fluent Bryerly Long, “Sayonara” fleshes out Long’s character, while setting her last days in a near-future Japan that has been devastated by a series of nuclear terrorism incidents.

Fukada insists that the film’s story of life and death in a post-apocalyptic world is not just sci-fi: “I feel it’s very contemporary,” he says. His big, obvious influence was the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and its ensuing nuclear disaster, which he says reaffirmed his decision to make his heroine non-Japanese.

“To put it simply, Japanese were not the only ones to suffer from the disaster,” he explains. “Foreigners were impacted the same way. Even so, there was this big emphasis on Japanese as the only ones living in this country, as in the slogan ‘Ganbaro Nihon‘ (‘Keep fighting, Japan’) … I felt that was really strange. So I depicted (Long’s character) as a minority and a refugee who has nowhere to go.”

Caught up in a different kind of web is the college student heroine (Ai Hashimoto) of “The Inerasable,” (“Zan’e: Sunde wa Ikenai Heya”) Yoshihiro Nakamura’s return to the horror genre after a decade away. Based on Fuyumi Ono’s best-selling novel, the film is as much a mystery as it is a shocker. Disturbed by the creepy sounds and sights in her apartment, the heroine writes a horror novelist (Yuko Takeuchi) about them. Intrigued, the novelist responds and together the two women begin to investigate — and discover a long, ghostly history.

Nakamura admits that he was “totally surprised” when “The Inerasable” was selected for the TIFF competition, a personal first. “It’s not that type of film,” he says.

Perhaps not, but its emphasis on psychological dread rather than obvious shocks sets it apart from the general genre run.

“That wasn’t my idea, actually,” Nakamura admits. “It all comes from the novel.” He also denies that the film marks a return to genre form he displayed in co-writing the 2002 J-horror classic “Dark Water” (“Honogurai Mizu no Soko Kara”) or writing and directing the intricately plotted 2005 shocker “The Booth.” “It’s not something I’m suited for really,” he says with a laugh. “But 10 years ago there was a horror boom — that’s all they were making.”

False modesty aside, Nakamura’s film is representative of a festival that selects from the broad range of films being made in this country, not just ones self-consciously selling art. No, it’s not Cannes and never will be, but TIFF is now the best place for seeing what one of the biggest film industries on the planet has accomplished — and where it’s going next.

The Tokyo International Film Festival runs through Oct. 31 at various locations. For more information on schedules and tickets, visit

A visitor’s guide to attending TIFF

How can I buy tickets?

A standard adult ticket is ¥1,300, available through Ticket Board (, a mobile ticketing service. Telephone reservations are also possible at Ticket Board (0570-009-300). Additionally, tickets can be purchased at the reception desk of the venue each film is being screened at.

Where are films being shown?

The Tokyo International Film Festival has expanded from its usual Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills venue to also include Toho Cinemas Shinjuku, Shinjuku Wald 9, Shinjuku Piccadilly, National Film Center, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, and the Kabukiza theater.

What about subtitles?

Most films are subtitled in English, but check the festival’s website ( for details about specific screenings and translations at Q&A sessions. Films featuring French and Thai dialogue will be subtitled in both Japanese and English. (Keijiro Ohata)

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