Japan’s main film festival has come a long way from the days of ‘bubble era’ excess

the japan times

The Tokyo International Film Festival, which begins on Oct. 25, will celebrate its 30th edition this year. It was first held in 1985 and I started attending it, as a reporter, in 1991.

Back then I wrote a glowing report about the Tokyo Grand Prix winner, the John Sayles urban drama “City of Hope,” but I better remember the extravagant parties that reeked of “bubble era” excess — and announced TIFF’s ambition to be the Asian equivalent of Cannes.

That hasn’t happened yet, though the festival, now in its 30th edition, is Japan’s largest film event by far. One obstacle was the 1990s recession that forced cuts, reducing many of the parties to unremarkable corporate events, with salarymen scrambling for sandwiches.

Most seriously, the festival program was notoriously uneven, with commercial dross and rejects from other festivals outnumbering the occasional gems. In 1995 the Competition jury declined to award a Grand Prix, with the jury chairman essentially telling the closing night crowd that none of the competing films were worthy.

Even so, with major distributors as prominent backers, TIFF attracted its share of Hollywood glamor, with stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio (“Titanic”) and Tom Hanks (“Captain Phillips”) showing up on the opening night stage. But they usually vanished the day after.

Change came in 2004, when TIFF began shifting the core of the festival from the Bunkmura shopping and entertainment complex in Shibuya to the new Toho Cinemas multiplex in Roppongi Hills. This move concentrated more of the screenings in one location, while giving TIFF more the atmosphere of a real film festival.

Also, with long-serving programming head Yoshi Yatabe and his team in the lead, TIFF has upped the quality and breadth of the festival sections. One addition, in 2004, was Japanese Eyes (now called Japanese Cinema Splash), a section devoted to Japanese indie films. I served on the jury for the first three editions, when the selections were patchy (to put it politely), but the section has since become a launching pad for the international festival circuit, while boosting the careers of winning directors.

Among other welcome additions are World Focus (foreign films that have played at major festivals but have yet to find a Japanese distributor), Japan Now (recent Japanese films of note, both commercial and indie) and a stronger classics section, highlighted by a special screening of a Japanese classic at the Kabukiza theater, together with a kabuki performance. It’s not quite partying like it’s 1991, but Cannes has nothing like it.

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