Japan’s biggest film festival and Hirokazu Kore-eda haven’t always seen eye to eye.

“Oh, I thought they should get rid of it,” says the acclaimed director, speaking a week before the opening of this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) on Oct. 30. “I was always saying that.”

Some years back, he submitted a detailed proposal to the festival’s then-director, suggesting ways in which the event could be improved.

“They included: ‘Why doesn’t TIFF have a philosophy?’” he recalls, laughing. “They were just one filmmaker’s suggestions, so I wasn’t expecting the festival to take all of them on board, but I thought I had to say something.”

The festival ended up not only embracing many of his ideas, but taking Kore-eda on as a collaborator as well. This year will see the return of the Conversation Series at Asia Lounge, a program of discussions between directors and actors from around Asia, which he helps curate.

First introduced in 2020 and co-presented by The Japan Foundation, Asia Lounge creates something that TIFF had previously lacked: a space where filmmakers can exchange ideas in a free-flowing fashion, without having to worry about promoting their latest flick.

Though Kore-eda describes it as a “side menu” to the main event, the program boasts a high-caliber lineup. Highlights this year include discussions between Isabelle Huppert and Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Bong Joon-ho and Mamoru Hosoda, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Hidetoshi Nishijima, all of which will be live-streamed online.

COVID restrictions mean that most of the international guests will participate remotely, though Huppert — this year’s festival jury president — and Indonesian filmmaker Kamila Andini are attending in person.

“I’d much rather be talking face to face,” Kore-eda says. “Holding a film festival online is better than not doing it at all, but it honestly loses half of the attraction. I think a really big part of the festival experience is about what happens when you can interact in the same place and at the same time.”

Asia Lounge is a welcome addition to an event that, for many years, seemed to be punching well below its weight by allowing commercial interests to dominate and having a competition section that struggled to attract top-flight talent. Busan International Film Festival, held in South Korea a few weeks before TIFF, has long been a more convincing claimant to the title of Asia’s premier film fest.

Years ago, Hirokazu Kore-eda submitted a detailed proposal suggesting ways to turn TIFF into Asia’s premier film festival. The organizers embraced his ideas and brought him on as a collaborator. | COURTESY OF TOKYO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
Years ago, Hirokazu Kore-eda submitted a detailed proposal suggesting ways to turn TIFF into Asia’s premier film festival. The organizers embraced his ideas and brought him on as a collaborator. | COURTESY OF TOKYO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

“I felt a constant sense of sadness and frustration that a country with such a long history of cinema — which is unusual even in Asia — couldn’t get a proper film festival happening in Tokyo,” Kore-eda says. “I was always thinking: Why can they do it in Busan, but not in Tokyo?”

Having made his name on the European festival circuit, Kore-eda says he was keenly aware of the need for a legitimate alternative in Asia. He got his international break at Venice Film Festival in 1995 with his fiction debut, “Maborosi,” and went on to become a regular at Cannes.

It was an enviable position, but not necessarily an equitable one. Why should Europeans be the main arbiters of taste?

“I started to feel really uncomfortable about the way these Asian directors were getting judged and discovered in Europe, like the balance was off,” he says. “In order to change that relationship, I think Asia needs to have a credible film festival of its own.”

Asia Lounge brings TIFF one step closer toward fixing the balance. This year’s program is based around the theme “Crossing Borders,” a phrase that could be used to describe Kore-eda’s recent career.

After winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes with “Shoplifters” in 2018, he made his first foray overseas with 2019’s “The Truth,” filmed in France with a cast including Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. His next project, which he’s been given strict instructions not to talk about in our interview, is the Korean-language “Baby, Box, Broker,” starring Song Kang-ho and Bae Doona.

“I’m crossing borders in a physical sense, but even making films in Japan requires overcoming some kind of barrier,” he reflects. “I think that’s true of any work that breaks through limitations and conventional thinking, even if it’s just me getting set in my ways. There’s a gap you need to cross to reach that place, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be between countries.”

As with many established filmmakers, he’s curious about the possibilities that streaming services have opened up, and says he’s interested in working with the format.

“Streaming probably has a wider reach than cinema, but I still have doubts about whether it connects with people as deeply,” he says. “I’m not sure if the experience leaves as much of an impression as when you watch a film in a cinema.”

The pandemic, however, has posed an existential threat for the traditional theater experience. Though cinemas in Japan have managed to stay open throughout much of the past 18 months, the impact of capacity limits, reduced opening hours and major releases getting postponed has taken its toll.

Independent cinemas have been hit particularly hard, but they were given a temporary reprieve last year by the crowd-funded “Save the Cinema” campaign, which raised over ¥300 million to support struggling theaters.

“I was honestly deeply moved by that,” Kore-eda says. “It gave me a kind of hope to realize there were so many other people who, like me, didn’t want to see small theaters go under, and that this could be turned into tangible financial support. But at the same time, if things continue the way they are, I think art houses are going to die out.”

He contrasts Japan with France, which has given generous state support to its cinema sector, or South Korea, where the movie industry is promoted by the government-backed Korean Film Council.

“Going to South Korea, the film industry is flourishing, and in a lot of ways they’ve progressed further than Japan,” he says. “Sometimes too far, actually.”

Like what?

“There are no bookstores!” he exclaims. “Print media is on the way out. With movies, too, there’s no film: Everything’s digital.”

He admits that his insistence on books needing bookstores, or movies needing theaters, is probably old-fashioned. But times are changing, and for TIFF at least, the future looks promising.

This year is the first overseen by newly appointed program director Shozo Ichiyama, a well-traveled producer and co-founder of the Tokyo Filmex festival. As with the 2020 edition, TIFF will be happening at the same time as Filmex; having relocated from the Roppongi area to Hibiya, it will be happening in the same neighborhood, too.

Kore-eda is positive about these changes and the influence that Ichiyama and senior programmer Kenji Ishizaka have had on the lineup, particularly the way it has tried to deepen relationships with filmmakers.

“An international film festival isn’t about which stars walk down the red carpet: It’s about building a relationship between the festival and artists,” he says. Now having won the cautious endorsement of one of its fiercest critics, TIFF seems to be heading in the right direction.

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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