Film festivals have multiplied like bamboo shoots in Japan over the past two decades, from Okinawa in the south to Sapporo in the north. But the country’s biggest is still the Tokyo International Film Festival, whose 30th edition takes place from Oct. 25 to Nov. 3 at venues centering on Roppongi Hills.
Movie buffs can choose from a wide menu of events, including a kabuki performance, seminars, symposiums and workshops, but the main focus will be on the films, more than 200 altogether.
The opening film, which screens on Oct. 25, is Fumihiko Sori’s “Fullmetal Alchemist,” a fantasy actioner based on a mega-hit comic. The TIFF audience will also get a taste the same night of “Legend of the Demon Cat,” a big-budget historical epic from renowned Chinese auteur Chen Kaige and starring Shota Sometani as the legendary monk Kukai (this is only a 10-minute clip, however, as the film is still in post-production).
On Nov. 2, another much-talked about screening is Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” which won the Golden Lion at this year’s Venice Film Festival.
These and other highly anticipated films are often hard to impossible for Joe Public to see, though — tickets to the Sori and Chen films are available by lottery only and del Toro’s has long-since sold out — which may give people the impression that TIFF is too much trouble save for the most committed or the best connected.
Not so, especially if you range beyond the much-hyped commercial flicks in the Special Screenings section, which typically draws fans eager to see their favorite stars on stage and consequently sell out quickly. Besides the Special Screenings picks often consist of movies that are scheduled for theatrical release in upcoming months, and many of those same stars will once again trot out on stage for fans.
Instead, movie buffs should see TIFF as an opportunity to catch low-profile films that lead to new discoveries. My own go-to section in this regard is Japanese Cinema Splash, which specializes in independent works by up-and-coming Japanese filmmakers. (It’s also important to note that all the films have English subtitles.) The quality can range from the entertaining to the unwatchable, but many films that premiere in this section are later selected for festivals around the world.
High on my must-see list at this year’s Japanese Cinema Splash is “Party ‘Round the Globe,” a road movie about a factory worker in the provinces who journeys to Tokyo with a fellow Beatles fan for a Paul McCartney concert. This is the fourth film by director Hirobumi Watanabe to screen in the section, which includes last year’s prize-winner “Poolsideman.”
I’m also looking forward to “Between Men and the Gods,” Eiji Uchida’s black comic take on a classic novel by Junichiro Tanizaki about a troubled love triangle. Uchida’s two previous films — “Lowlife Love” (2015) and “Love and Other Cults” (2017) — examined the fringes of contemporary Japanese society with a sharp comic bite. This new film promises more of the same, if with a more universal story.
Both new and classic Japanese films can be found throughout the TIFF schedule, however, from the Competition — where veteran pink film director Takahisa Zeze’s erotic drama “The Lowlife” and Akiko Ooku’s romantic comedy “Tremble All You Want” are screening — to the Japan Now section, which specializes in recent Japanese films that have made a critical or commercial impression. Among the current selections that I’ve reviewed glowingly for The Japan Times are Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “The Third Murder,” Yukiko Mishima’s “Dear Etranger” and Momoko Ando’s “0.5 mm.”
One Japan Now film I have yet to see, but plan to, is “Hanagatami,” a World War II drama by veteran filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi, who is battling cancer and views this film as a “last testament.” Others in the section feature films starring this year’s “festival muses”: Yu Aoi (in Shunji Iwai’s “hana and alice”), Sakura Ando (in Yang Yonghi’s “Our Homeland”), Hikari Mitsushima (in Michio Koshikawa’s “Life and Death on the Shore”) and Aoi Miyazaki (in Shinji Aoyama’s “Eureka”). These four women are among the best actors in the Japanese film industry today and their Japan Now features showcase some of their best work.
Previous TIFF director Yasushi Shiina made Japanese animation a big part of the festival and current director Takeo Hisamatsu and his programming team have continued this tradition. This year TIFF is honoring anime director Keiichi Hara with a six-film section that includes installments in the “Crayon Shin-chan” family comedy series that first brought him to critical attention, and “Summer Days With Coo,” which is a gorgeously animated and emotionally grounded fantasy from 2007 about a boy and his kappa (water spirit) companion partly set in Tokyo’s Higashi Kurume city (which I also happen to live in, a fact duly noted in my four-star review of it).
Japanese classics were once a weak spot in TIFF’s lineup, but this year the festival is making amends rather spectacularly with special screenings of four digitally restored masterpieces: Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Bailiff” (1954), Akira Kurosawa’s “Kagemusha” (1980), Shohei Imamura’s “The Ballad of Narayama” (1983) and Teinosuke Kinugasa’s “Gate of Hell” (1953).
That last film, an Eastmancolor period drama that won the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix, will be presented at a gala screening at the Kabukiza theater in Chuo Ward alongside a performance by kabuki actor Ebizo Ichikawa.
While tickets for things in Tokyo tend to move quickly, hope is not lost for those who leave things to the last minute. TIFF will present free screenings for its Open-Air Cinema Arena 30 section at the Roppongi Hills Arena.
One recommendation I have here is “Hospitalite,” Koji Fukada’s black comedy about a scam artist (Kanji Furutachi) who inserts himself into the life of a small Tokyo printing shop. Filled with everything from slapstick gags to incisive observations on the darker side of humanity, the film was the well-deserved winner of TIFF’s Japanese Eyes best film prize in 2010. No actors will be present at the screening, but given that it takes place on Oct. 26 when all of Roppongi starts to get in the Halloween spirit, you may spot a decent substitute.
The Tokyo International Film Festival takes place from Oct. 25 to Nov. 3. For more information on film screenings and times, visit www.tiff-jp.net.