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The job of festival ambassador at the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) is somewhat like the role of a brand ambassador for a fashion house — it’s for a person who is required to both use the brand’s products and sell the image of the brand itself to the media. She (or on rare occasions, he) must be a shining representative of the brand to its fans and potential buyers.

So far, Ai Hashimoto has played her role splendidly for this year’s event, not only lending TIFF her star cachet but speaking glowingly of the festival to the press. In a statement for the media, she said she has “watched the utter commitment” of the festival organizers year after year. “I have always wished to work with such people and take action for the future of cinema,” she added.

TIFF will officially kick off on Oct. 30 with Clint Eastwood’s “Cry Macho” as its opening film, and run through Nov. 8 with online showings and events as well as physical screenings at various locations around the Hibiya, Yurakucho and Ginza areas, closing with the Stephen Chbosky musical, “Dear Evan Hansen.”

The 10-day film festival will screen a variety of films from Japan and around the world in nine main sections including Nippon Cinema Now, Japanese Animation, Asian Future, World Focus and its principal section, Competition.

Although the annual film festival switched things up last year by choosing veteran actor Koji Yakusho as its ambassador, TIFF has restored tradition for its 34th edition with Hashimoto, who follows the footsteps of previous actress/ambassadors such as Mayu Matsuoka, Alice Hirose and Kanna Hashimoto.

At age 25, she is already an in-demand veteran with a long list of credits and awards, from her breakout in the 2010 Tetsuya Nakashima thriller “Confessions” to her starring role in this year’s NHK taiga (long-form) drama “Reach Beyond the Blue Sky.”

Speaking with Hashimoto before the Sept. 28 press conference for the 2021 TIFF line-up announcement, I realized that her cinephilia is real and deep.

“Basically, since the time I debuted (in films) I have been on a lot of sets and I myself really love movies,” she says. “I want to be in the movies even when I’m an old lady — I feel that strongly.”

She adds that TV dramas also have their appeal. “Some dramas have really interesting scripts and some are made like films and some have a lot of substance,” she explains. “If I can be associated with projects like that, I don’t care if they’re films or dramas.”

Ai Hashimoto (right) stands with Director in Focus Keisuke Yoshida (left) at a press conference on Sept. 28 ahead of the festival. | © 2021 TIFF
Ai Hashimoto (right) stands with Director in Focus Keisuke Yoshida (left) at a press conference on Sept. 28 ahead of the festival. | © 2021 TIFF

Her taste in films ranges far beyond what mainstream streaming services provide, though. For one, she is a fan of classic pinku eiga (literally, “pink films,” a tag for softcore pornography) and “Roman porno,” an erotic film subgenre started by Japan’s oldest major film studio, Nikkatsu, in the 1970s. She also admires the work of Takashi Ishii, a director known for his erotic thrillers, telling one interviewer that his 2007 film “The Brutal Hopelessness of Love” brought her to tears.

Pre-pandemic, Hashimoto also haunted mini shiatā (literally, “mini theaters,” or arthouses) in Shinjuku and elsewhere, checking out the latest independent films from Japan and abroad.

What is the attraction?

“When I was 17 and 18, I watched a lot of pink films and Roman porno made in the postwar period but, of course, I wasn’t so interested in seeing sexy movies,” she says. “Instead, I wanted to see what directors who are active now were shooting in the past and how they became what they are.

“What I saw surprised me. I got a sense of their free spirit, how they could do whatever they wanted as long as they put in a certain type of (erotic) scene at certain times. Some were having fun, enjoying what they were doing, but many were after something more. I saw a lot of really creative work.”

That experience, she says, made her “see things about myself I didn’t know before and get deep inside types of people I had never seen before.”

”I learned a lot about myself by being exposed to such things,” she continues. “I also learned a lot about others. Those movies really taught me a lot.”

In the course of her career, Hashimoto has worked with such internationally acclaimed directors as Ryuichi Hiroki (2018’s “It’s Boring Here, Pick Me Up”) and Daihachi Yoshida (2012’s “The Kirishima Thing”), as well as newcomers like Hana Matsumoto, the director of “Low Resolution, High Emotion,” a segment of the 2018 all-female-directed omnibus “21st Century Girl.”

“(Matsumoto) is really young, probably about my age, but she has a highly refined approach to films,” Hashimoto says. “For me, a director is a director. We’re making a movie together, but the director is the one who’s leading us. Even if she’s younger than I am, I still somehow respect and admire her. That feeling doesn’t change no matter who the director is.”

One thing that has changed with the pandemic is Hashimoto’s viewing habits: She had to greatly cut down on her visits to mini theaters in Shinjuku, and the time she has spent interacting with screens at home has become longer, albeit begrudgingly.

“I like seeing things on the internet, but at home I can’t watch movies on the TV or on my phone,” she says. “It’s not that I believe movies always ought to be watched in a theater, it’s something a bit different. I just feel that I can’t watch them (at home). I’ve noticed that the space I’m in is the most important factor for me (when watching).

“When I’m at home or on the phone, I can see what’s going on in the space around me, right? So I can’t concentrate. A theater, where a film is being shown in the dark, is the kind of space that suits me best.”

And the Shinjuku mini theaters?

“To be honest, I haven’t been going (to the mini theaters),” she says. “But I want to go again once the coronavirus has settled down. That’s for sure.”

This film-going drought suggests another reason why she agreed to the ambassador job: A chance to finally see movies in real theaters. And, this way, she won’t have to stand in line for a ticket.

Tokyo International Film Festival runs from Oct. 30 through Nov. 8 online and at various locations in Tokyo. For more information, visit 2021.tiff-jp.net/en.

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