Film | Wide Angle

Japan takes a backseat at Cannes

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

The Cannes Film Festival, the world’s premier film event, has long been a holy grail for Japanese filmmakers. Selection for the main competition is the ultimate goal for many, though screenings in other sections convey prestige at home that other festivals, in Japan and elsewhere, can’t match.

But at Cannes’ 72nd edition, which is being held until May 25, Japanese films are conspicuous by their absence. There are none in the competition, which was won last year by Hirokazu Kore-eda’s dark family drama “Shoplifters,” despite pre-festival speculation that Kore-eda’s first foreign language film, “The Truth,” would vie for Cannes’ top prize, the Palme d’Or. (The official explanation was that the film was not ready, but a festival insider told me it was not considered up to snuff.)

I heard of other Cannes submissions filmed in Japan, but only two by Japanese directors are being screened. One, in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, is Takashi Miike’s “First Love,” a return to the violence-soaked, outrageously over-the-top genre exercises that first made Miike a global cult sensation nearly two decades ago.

Reviews of the film, in which a battered prizefighter (Masataka Kubota) helps a ghost-haunted sex worker (Sakurako Konishi) escape a Japanese-Chinese gang war, have been positive, though reviewers noted that Miike is recycling often-seen tropes rather than inventing new ones. But as familiar as his brand of cinematic outlawry may be by now — his filmography as director has long since passed the 100 mark — foreign critics and fans never seem to tire of it.

The other selection from Japan is “Tenzo,” Katsuya Tomita’s film about two Zen Buddhist monks who become friends but take separate paths: One returns to his family temple in Yamanashi Prefecture, where he helps run a suicide helpline, the other to his native Fukushima Prefecture, where he joins the search for bodies after his temple was destroyed in the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011.

Screened as a short in the International Critics’ Week section, despite its 59-minute running length, “Tenzo” had an unusual genesis: The All-Japan Young Soto Zen Buddhist Priest Association commissioned Tomita to make a promotional short, but the director, whose mother’s family home was a Buddhist temple, ended up with a feature. The version of “Tenzo” shown at Cannes is a fictionalization of actual people and events, with real monks serving as actors.

The May 20 screening, according to Japanese media reports, ended with a warm round of applause. Tomita, whose previous work includes the rap-flavored comedy “Saudade” (2011) and the road movie “Bangkok Nites” (2016), told the Cannes audience that “something changed in Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, when there was fear that Eastern Japan might be totally destroyed. Buddhist monks started to realize that Buddhism was needed. They saw that Japanese had to change and that Buddhism had to change. I made the film with those thoughts in mind.”