In today’s world of visual entertainment, it’s hard to argue that Japan has any stronger export than animation.
The Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF), which this year ran from Oct. 28 to Nov. 5, seems to be waking up to that fact. From 2014 to 2018, the festival ran special anime retrospectives focused on a single director or franchise, from Hideaki Anno (“Neon Genesis Evangelion”) to Keiichi Hara (“Miss Hokusai”).
But this year, TIFF tried something different, creating a permanent Japanese Animation section. It’s an acknowledgement that anime isn’t going anywhere soon (and, perhaps paradoxically, that they’d run out of working anime directors with large bodies of work to spotlight).
The inaugural Japanese Animation section featured past and present, the former represented by films like “The White Snake Enchantress” (1958), Japan’s first full-length feature animated in color, and “Akira,” a 1988 epic about Tokyo in the far distant future of, uh, 2019.
The present, meanwhile, was represented by films released in the past 12 months. The headliner was “Weathering With You,” the massive hit from Makoto Shinkai, director of 2016’s “Your Name.” But the lineup as a whole highlighted what an exceptional year 2019 has been for theatrical Japanese animation, from the meditative, mind-bending “Children of the Sea” to the crowd-pleasing action flick “Promare.”
The latter was shown in an ōen jōei, or audience participation screening, at which filmgoers could wave glow sticks, cheer and yell out lines of dialogue. It’s these screenings that have kept the sleeper hit in cinemas since it debuted in May and launched it past ¥1.4 billion at the Japanese box office — no small feat for an original anime film.
“Promare” director, Hiroyuki Imaishi, and screenwriter, Kazuki Nagashima, appeared on stage before the film and were welcomed with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for rock stars. “Screenings like this are the way we beat Netflix,” said Nagashima to cheers, hinting that the future of theatergoing may be in “experiential” events.
One memorable appearance saw Mitsuo Iwata and Nozomu Sasaki, the voice actors who played leads Kaneda and Tetsuo in “Akira,” regale the audience with stories of the film’s production and even reproduce one of its most famous scenes in character, a huge treat for fans.
Also in the lineup were remastered episodes of “Ultra Q,” the 1966 live-action monster-of-the-week series by special effects legend Eiji Tsuburaya that served as the precursor to “Ultraman.” Organizers justified its inclusion in the section by explaining that the young Japanese audience of the day didn’t make much distinction between anime and shows like “Ultra Q” and that it eventually inspired robot anime series like “Mazinger Z.” Maybe, but it still felt a bit shoehorned in.
Otherwise, with a hearty selection of old and new and an impressive lineup of guests, the inaugural edition of the section felt like a success.
It’s not clear whether TIFF will repeat this method next year, but by establishing the section, it has made a commitment. There is so much anime history still waiting to be explored, but what’s less certain is whether 2020 will see as many notable releases as 2019.