The 34th Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF), set to run from Oct. 30 through Nov. 8, will feature a section dedicated to Japanese animation for the third year in a row.

The creation of the section in 2019 was the festival’s overdue nod to Japan’s biggest cultural export, the worldwide market for which has grown steadily for the past decade (OK, there was a small dip in 2020, for obvious reasons).

Like the previous two editions, this year’s section is made up of three segments: a retrospective, recent and upcoming films, and a look at a live-action tokusatsu special effects franchise.

For my money, this year’s most interesting piece is the retrospective, which focuses on legendary animator Yasuo Otsuka. Otsuka, who died this year at age 89, isn’t a household name in the same way as Hayao Miyazaki, but he should be. About a decade older than the “Spirited Away” director, Otsuka had both worked with and influenced Miyazaki and fellow Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, as well as generations of other animators.

Otsuka was a part of Japan’s postwar animation industry from the beginning, working as an animator at Toei Animation on “Hakujaden” (“The White Snake Enchantress” 1958), Japan’s first color animated film. Toei was where Otsuka met and mentored Miyazaki and Takahata, championing both young creators. The trio later left Toei, but kept working together on classics such as “Lupin III” and “Future Boy Conan.”

The festival will feature two films on which Otsuka worked as an animator: “The Little Prince and The Eight-Headed Dragon” (1963) and “Chie the Brat: Downtown Story” (1981), the latter of which was directed by Takahata. It’ll also screen “Hyouhyou: Haikei, Otsuka Yasuo-sama,” a 2015 documentary about Otsuka. The TIFF site, however, lists the movie as “without English subtitles,” which seems antithetical to the spirit of an international film festival.

The modern-day segment of the section, meanwhile, is set to feature four films, three of which are premiering for the first time in Japan: “Inu-Oh,” “Goodbye, DonGlees” and “Hula Fulla Dance.” The fourth, “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko,” was released in Japan earlier this year.

My pick for this section is “Inu-Oh,” the latest feature film from Masaaki Yuasa (“Ride Your Wave,” “Devilman Crybaby”). Based on a story by Hideo Furukawa, it’s about a singing and dancing pair of outcast friends in 14th-century Japan. Yuasa rarely disappoints, and the film already has good buzz coming out of the Toronto and Venice film festivals.

As for the remaining two premieres, “Hula Fulla Dance,” about hula dancers working in to revitalize an area hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, isn’t especially interesting visually, but is helmed by the dependable Seiji Mizushima (“Fullmetal Alchemist”). “Goodbye, DonGlees,” about a trio of high schoolers who go on a life-defining adventure, is the debut feature from Atsuko Ishizuka, whose series “A Place Further than the Universe” impressed back in 2018.

The Tokyo International Film Festival will screen two films Yasuo Otsuka worked on as an animator, one of them being 'The Little Prince and The Eight-Headed Dragon' (1963). | © TOEI COMPANY, LTD.
The Tokyo International Film Festival will screen two films Yasuo Otsuka worked on as an animator, one of them being ‘The Little Prince and The Eight-Headed Dragon’ (1963). | © TOEI COMPANY, LTD.

If there’s anything that ties these four films together (aside from their 2021 vintage), it’s their adherence to a recent trend of anime aimed beyond hardcore anime fans, telling stories that could, aside from a few magical realist elements, just as easily work in live-action. This trend, kicked off by the success of films like Makoto Shinkai’s “Your Name.” in 2016, isn’t the whole story when it comes to theatrical anime films in 2021 — after all, this year’s biggest anime hit was sci-fi fan-favorite “Evangelion.” But it feels as if this “general audience” trend is one that will continue — and, based on TIFF’s selections this year and last, it’s the kind of animation it’s interested in presenting.

Finally, this year’s featured tokusatsu franchise is “Kamen Rider,” the long-running series about superheroes who ride motorcycles and wear insect masks. On air since the early ’70s, it’s a staple for generations of kids in Japan and throughout Asia. For me, though, the tokusatsu segment of this section has always felt a bit shoehorned in. Yes, anime and sci-fi series like “Kamen Rider” and “Ultraman” have influenced each other and sometimes shared cast and crew, but it’s the animation section, man. I’d rather see more Yasuo Otsuka films than a few episodes of TV-sized tokusatsu projected onto the big screen. Sorry, “Kamen Rider.”

From 2014 to 2018, before Japanese animation had its own dedicated section, TIFF held director-centric tributes to folks like Yuasa, Hideaki Anno (“Evangelion”) and Mamoru Hosoda (“Belle”). While this format has its limits (there are only so many name-brand anime directors), it did feel a bit more focused. If I were running this section, I’d cut out the live-action stuff and increase the number of retrospective films. Yasuo Otsuka is a perfect choice this year, but maybe future editions could focus on certain anime studios or talent like screenwriters or composers. And how about making sure every film has subtitles?

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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