While sifting through the movies submitted for this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF), competition programming director Yoshihiko Yatabe says he noticed a recurring theme.
“I was struck by the number of films involving immigrants and refugees,” he says. “It’s become such a big issue, especially in Europe, and that was reflected in the movies I was seeing.”
It’s also an issue that has had little discernible impact on Japan so far — which is where the power of cinema comes in handy.
“I think films are a way of learning about the world, and I’d hope that the Competition films can give people a better understanding of these issues,” Yatabe continues. “These films aren’t just about entertainment: I think all of them also touch on the kinds of serious themes that help us understand the times we live in.”
It may sound a tad prescriptive, but that’s what film festivals are supposed to do: provoke us, surprise us and drag us out of our comfort zones.
With the cinema market in Japan growing increasingly homogenous, dominated by a few major chains that all seem to be screening the same mainstream fluff, an event such as TIFF feels all the more precious.
Many of the movies being screened at the festival, which runs from Oct. 25 through Nov. 3 at Roppongi Hills and a handful of other venues, would never stand a chance of gaining a proper theatrical release in Japan. And for non-Japanese speakers, there’s an added perk: Almost everything is being shown with English subtitles.
In the 10 years that he’s spent overseeing the Competition section, Yatabe has worked hard to increase the number of movies making their world premieres at TIFF. This year, that includes six of the 16 Competition films, with an additional five getting their international premieres in Tokyo.
A few of these are by filmmakers who could be considered TIFF regulars at this point. Turkey’s Reha Erdem returns with a typically inscrutable drama, “Big Big World,” while the multi-talented Kiki Sugino unveils her third film, “Snow Woman,” based on the same ghost story featured in Masaki Kobayashi’s “Kwaidan” (also known as “Kaidan”) — a hard act to top, you’d think.
Some of the other Competition titles are particularly attuned to contemporary concerns. The immigrant experience is tackled head-on in “Paris Prestige,” the directorial debut by rappers Hame and Ekoue, of political hip-hop group La Rumeur; “The Fixer,” by Romanian director Adrian Sitaru, focuses on the subjects of teen prostitution and journalistic ethics; and Jun Robles Lana’s “Die Beautiful,” from the Philippines, is the bittersweet tale of a transgender woman facing death.
Outside the Competition section, there are also films dealing with the Arab Spring (Mohamed Diab’s “Clash”), jihadi recruitment (Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar’s “Heaven Will Wait”), domestic terrorism (Bertrand Bonello’s “Nocturama”) and illegal immigration (Matthew Newton’s “From Nowhere”). But that’s a very selective reading of the lineup — there’s plenty of frivolity to be found alongside the weightier “issue movies.”
Speaking to The Japan Times recently, Yatabe says he has never correctly guessed the winner of the Sakura Grand Prix, the festival’s top award. Much of that unpredictability comes down to the jury, which this year is headed by French director Jean-Jacques Beineix. He’s an interesting choice: Although highly regarded for his epochal 1980s movies, “Diva” and “Betty Blue,” he abandoned his filmmaking career in 2001, citing terminal disillusionment. His fellow jurors include Italian actor Valerio Mastandrea and American producer Nicole Rocklin, who co-produced this year’s Best Picture winner, “Spotlight.”
As seems to happen every year, there have been some tweaks in the TIFF format. After trying to establish an extra hub in Shinjuku and Nihonbashi in recent years, the festival has found somewhere closer to home: EX Theater Roppongi, which sits right across the street from Roppongi Hills and has an auditorium that can seat over 900 people. It will be used for a variety of screenings and events, including the closing film, shōgi (Japanese chess) biopic “Satoshi: A Move for Tomorrow” on Nov. 2 and the closing ceremony on Nov 3.
In a notable addition to the program, the festival is presenting the first in a proposed series of pan-Asian omnibus films, co-produced by TIFF and the Japan Foundation Asia Center. Asian Three-Fold Mirror 2016: Reflections features segments by Filipino auteur Brillante Ma Mendoza, Japan’s Isao Yukisada and Cambodia’s Sotho Kulikar, and the results are juicier than the project’s bland theme of “Living together in Asia” might suggest.
Once again, TIFF will be holding a glitzy gala at Ginza’s Kabukiza Theatre, featuring a performance by kabuki actor Onoe Kikunosuke (better known, to this writer at least, as actress Shinobu Terajima’s kid brother) and screenings of a pair of 1920s silent samurai movies, including a digitally restored version of Tomiyasu Ikeda’s “Chushingura,” accompanied by traditional live benshi narration. This event has already sold out, but The Japan Times has two pairs of tickets to give away to readers. (See the end of this article for details on how to enter the lottery.)
On a less rarified note, Roppongi Hills Arena will be hosting open-air screenings of popcorn fodder including “Top Gun” and “The Martian,” which promise to provide a focal point for curious passersby. In previous years, it’s sometimes been hard to detect much of a buzz while the festival was happening — this should help.
The Tokyo International Film Festival runs from Oct. 25 to Nov. 3 at Roppongi Hills, EX Theater and other venues. Ticket prices vary from ¥1,000 to ¥4,500 (for adults) depending on the screening. For more information, visit 2016.tiff-jp.net/en or call 050-5405-8686.The Japan Times has two pairs of tickets to TIFF’s Special Night Event on Oct. 27 at the Kabukiza Theatre. Please apply online at jtimes.jp/film before Oct. 23.
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