KYOTO – Film festivals don’t take place in isolation: An interesting city makes for a more interesting festival, unless you are the sort of movie nerd who sees six films a day and lives on convenience store sandwiches.
This is especially true of the Kyoto International Film and Art Festival, whose fourth edition took place from Oct. 12 to 15 at venues around the city. It’s not only that Kyoto itself was long a center of the Japanese film industry and is still a trove of art, both ancient and modern: With the backing of Yoshimoto Kogyo, a major talent agency with deep roots in the Kansai region, KIFF stages only-in-Kyoto experiences that set it apart from the festival run.
Plenty of festivals, for example, screen silent films, but this year KIFF presented a program of Japanese and Hollywood silents with benshi (film narrator) and keyboard accompaniment in a century-old theater, the Oe Noh Gakudo. Watching a teenaged Setsuko Hara in the 1935 baseball melodrama “Tama o Nagero” (translation: “Throw the Ball”) and Matsunosuke Onoe, Japan’s first movie star, in the recently discovered 1925 tokusatsu (special effects) film “Jiraiya,” while sitting on tatami in the noh theater I had both a rare movie and a time travel experience (and my legs, a numbness experience).
Also, KIFF held its opening ceremony at Nishi Honganji Temple, a Kyoto landmark that is listed as a World Heritage site. Producer Jiro Shindo, whose director/scriptwriter father Kaneto Shindo got his professional start in Kyoto, received the Shozo Makino Award for lifetime achievement and Tadanobu Asano, the Toshiro Mifune Award as a Japanese actor with a Mifune-like international potential. But the true Kyoto touch was provided by a geisha (locally called geiko) troupe performing traditional songs on flute, drums and shamisen on Japan’s oldest noh stage.
Under the directorship of veteran producer Kazuyoshi Okuyama, the festival also offered new films that had nothing to do with Kyoto whatsoever, such as “Kokoro,” a moodily atmospheric drama by Belgian director Vanja d’Alcantara that features a solid performance from Jun Kunimura as a former cop who helps the suicidal.
Another KIFF highlight was a three-film section dedicated to Hideo Gosha, a director whose films, starting in the 1960s and continuing into the 1990s, were notable for their artfully staged action and ripe sensuality. The former was especially prominent in “Goyokin,” a 1969 period actioner starring Tatsuya Nakadai as a samurai who takes up arms against his former master (Tetsuro Tamba) over the latter’s plotted murder of innocent peasants. Presented on a huge screen on the Yoshimoto Gion Kagetsu, a theater that first opened in 1936, the film’s bravura action sequences, including a life-or-death battle in the deep snow between a grim Nakadai and wily Tamba, had an impact impossible to replicate in the usual multiplex. Or was that just me slipping back in time again?