The Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) typically offers a smorgasbord for movie fans to dig into, but for director Keisuke Yoshida, his experience this year was a bit of a bust.

“When I looked online, most of the screenings had sold out,” he says, speaking a few days before the end of the event on Nov. 8, where he was being honored as Director in Focus. “I only found out yesterday that you could watch things if you had a guest pass.”

He’s disappointed to have missed “Payback,” a scuzzy crime drama by Filipino director Brillante Ma Mendoza, which was playing in the main competition.

Yoshida discovered Mendoza’s work while shooting “Come On Irene” (2018), based on an effusive recommendation from his lead actress, Natileigh Sitoy, and has since become a devoted fan.

“I saw him at Busan (International Film Festival), and we had our picture taken together,” he says.

Yoshida, 46, was an interesting choice for this year’s Director in Focus. Unlike the filmmakers showcased at previous editions of TIFF, such as Shunji Iwai and Koji Fukada, he isn’t a regular fixture at overseas movie festivals, nor does he have a significant cult following.

“It may be because I’ve made most of my films with companies that were mainly thinking about business,” he says. “They’re looking to make a return on each film, so there isn’t much reason to try to get it shown overseas. If anything, it just uses up the marketing budget. There isn’t much upside for the film company: It’s only the director who benefits.”

He’s also heard Japanese producers complaining about some of his well-known contemporaries.

“It’s like, ‘I hate that idiot, they’re always going on about film festivals.’ When I hear things like that, it’s hard for me to speak up,” he says with a laugh.

Keisuke Yoshida’s 'Intolerance' centers on a gruff father (Arata Furuta, left) whose grief over the sudden loss of his daughter turns to rage against the people he holds responsible for her death. | © 2021 ‘INTOLERANCE’ FILM PARTNERS
Keisuke Yoshida’s ‘Intolerance’ centers on a gruff father (Arata Furuta, left) whose grief over the sudden loss of his daughter turns to rage against the people he holds responsible for her death. | © 2021 ‘INTOLERANCE’ FILM PARTNERS

Yoshida took a while to find his niche in the Japanese film industry. His self-financed debut, “Raw Summer,” became a word-of-mouth success after premiering at Hokkaido’s Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival in 2006, but he’s also delivered more workmanlike efforts like the 2014 manga adaptation “Silver Spoon.”

“I had 11 projects fall through in the space of three years,” he says, recalling a particularly rough stretch. “I went to watch a Japanese movie at that time, and it got me riled up. ‘If something this dull can get made, why are mine going down the tubes?’”

Yoshida’s persistence eventually paid off. The three films screened at TIFF — “Himeanole” (2016) and this year’s “Blue” and “Intolerance” — rank among his finest work.

If forced to pick one, he says he’d choose “Intolerance”: “Every time, I’m trying to make my latest film the best thing I’ve done.”

It is certainly Yoshida’s most mature movie to date. Inspired by a real-life incident, it traces the repercussions of a tragic accident, in which a schoolgirl gets run over by a car while fleeing a supermarket where she’s been accused of shoplifting.

The girl’s father, a brutish fisherman played by character actor Arata Furuta, escalates quickly from grief to all-consuming rage. The main target of his wrath is the supermarket’s weak-willed manager (Tori Matsuzaka), who also has to face media criticism and the opprobrium of the local community.

As with a lot of Yoshida’s movies, these characters aren’t necessarily likable.

“I think they’re normal people,” he says. “I don’t know whether they’re good or bad; they have strong points and weak points.”

The director’s films can feel like stress tests, both for his characters and the viewer. They are full of emotional tipping points, where people who had seemed unremarkable suddenly snap.

Yoshida mentions some recent news stories, such as the stabbing attacks that took place on Tokyo trains in August and October this year.

“The people who do things like that must essentially be pretty normal, right?” he says. “But maybe because of some change in their environment, they’ve been forced into a corner … So I think it could happen to anyone.”

Such empathy is typical of the director’s work. Even his most obnoxious characters, such as the thuggish older brother played by Hirofumi Arai in “Thicker Than Water” (2018), are treated with compassion. He says he hopes his films can at least encourage viewers to consider other perspectives.

“Things are kind of polarized right now,” he says. “There’s a huge amount of people who won’t listen to someone with a different opinion … I think that if you just made a little effort to imagine the other person’s point of view, it could make a difference.”

Despite the hardships that his characters endure, Yoshida can’t be accused of indulging in gratuitous misery.

“Basically, I always want to see some love, light or kindness at the end of it all,” he says. “But that’s not going to come across unless I put the characters through some grief … When I’m thinking up stories, I spend the majority of the time asking, ‘How can I mistreat this person?’”

Yoshida’s early films worked in a more straightforwardly comedic mode. Yet even as he’s turned to more serious subject matter, he’s found ways to inject some unexpected — and uncomfortable — humor.

“If the film is just about the message, that’s a bit heavy — and also, I don’t think I’m particularly smart,” he says. “I wasn’t good at studying and I didn’t go to university. … I realize that I’ve been using comedy as a way of expressing that point of view — of how the world looks to someone without much education.”

Yoshida isn’t one of those cinephile directors who pepper their conversations with references to the canon. He admits that he doesn’t go to the cinema much, explaining that he’s generally too preoccupied with his own work to be able to concentrate on someone else’s.

“A lot of the time I’m in writing mode,” he says. “It’s mentally exhausting, and watching a movie at times like that just wears me out. I’d rather watch some anime, or something that doesn’t require much thought. With the kinds of films that win the Palme d’Or, for instance, you don’t want to watch them if you’re feeling worn out, right?”

Yoshida has written or co-written all of his films to date, though says the amount of time this requires has varied from project to project.

“‘Intolerance’ took me about a month to write,” he says. “With the one I’m working on now, I spent a year writing it, and then started again from scratch.”

The reason: He realized he needed to change the main character.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says of the creative process. “It feels like I’m getting fooled by the script in the course of writing it, which is part of the fun.”

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