Japan’s filmmakers expand their idea of overseas opportunity

18 May


The Japanese film industry has long been insular, making films by and for Japanese with little input from, or concern for, the outside world.

One reason is that its home market is large — Japanese moviegoers buy more than 100 million tickets annually — and makers of even big-budget commercial films can recoup domestically. They thus have less incentive to sell their products abroad than their counterparts in Hong Kong and other, smaller Asian territories. Freed from the perceived need to please outlanders, it makes films that cater almost exclusively to the local audience. You’ve never seen the hit TV show to which the movie is little more than a “special episode”? You’re not a fan of the idol star, better known for her TV commercials than her acting chops? Too bad, the film is not for you anyway.

But ever since Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” won the Golden Lion award at the 1951 Venice Film Festival — and made the world aware of Japanese cinema, then at its creative peak — directors and producers here have set their sights on the “Big Three” festivals: Cannes, Venice and Berlin. Not a few have succeeded, including this year’s Cannes invitees Naomi Kawase (“Radiance”), Kiyoshi Kurosawa (“Before We Vanish”) and Takashi Miike (“Blade of the Immortal”).

An international sales staffer at a major distribution once told me, half- jokingly, that he and his co-workers had standing instructions to only answer mail from Cannes, Venice and Berlin. Invitations from other festivals were to be round-filed. The only exceptions? Envelopes containing a large check.

Today, however, the old dichotomy between the many films for the domestic masses and the handful of “prestige” titles for the festival classes has broken down. Major Japanese media companies, such as the TV networks that produce so many commercial films, are paying more attention to the overseas market. And though Japanese filmmakers still dream of a Palme d’Or from Cannes, they are finding that other festivals can launch their films internationally, including theatrical distribution and package media deals.

Meanwhile, more overseas festivals are screening Japanese and Asian films in a range of genres, from arty dramas to splashy effects spectacles.

As the Japanese program adviser to the Udine Far East Film Festival — Europe’s largest showcase of Asian popular cinema — I’ve had a front row seat to these changes over the past 18 editions. I’ve also watched Udine FEFF grow from its beginnings in a rundown theater near the town’s train station to an eight-day festival presenting more than 80 films in two theaters, with the main venue being the 1,200-seat Teatro Nuovo. The festival now also hosts a film and genre project market, as well as nearly 100 cultural events. This year’s edition, the 19th, recorded 60,000 admissions — more than half the population of Udine, a town in Italy’s northeast Friuli province.

Asian films, as festival co-founders Sabrina Baracetti and Thomas Bertacche have repeatedly pointed out to the media, are a hard sell in the Italian market. (Nonetheless, they have released some successfully, through their distribution company Tucker Films.) By all rights, Udine FEFF should have stayed small or, like so many other niche festivals, folded after a few editions. Why did it survive and thrive?

From the start the organizers decided to present the kinds of films Asians themselves enjoyed watching, with no jury serving as a filter. That is, only the audience would decide the prizes, now three in number: the Audience Award, voted on by general ticket buyers; the Black Dragon Award, selected by special pass holders; and the My Movies award, chosen by users of Italy’s biggest film website.

This did not mean, however, simply programming the event based on box-office rankings. Instead, the festival has tried to select quality films that will entertain, provoke and enlighten our audience, from every budget level and genre. (One exception, though, is animation, which is rarely screened.)

This populist, but selective, programming approach marked Udine as different from the many festivals that focused on Asian films from either the art house or exploitation ends of the spectrum. Our audience has responded enthusiastically to this approach, filling the Teatro Nuovo screening after screening, year after year.

Many other festivals now show a wide range of films from Japan and Asia, though it’s hard (not to mention arrogant) to say Udine has been a direct influence. One is Nippon Connection, whose 17th edition will unspool between May 23 to 28 in Frankfurt, Germany. Director Marion Klomfass and her team have assembled a program of nearly 100 features and shorts, from recent releases to a selection of Nikkatsu Roman Porno classics.

Another is Japan Cuts, the showcase of contemporary Japanese film presented by the New York Japan Society. From July 13 to 23, the 11th edition will offer an eclectic selection that features “Anti-Porno,” Sion Sono’s cheeky, mind-bending deconstruction of the pornography genre, Masatoshi Kurakata’s gently flaky, thoroughly delightful comedy “Nekoatsume House” and Nobuhiro Yamashita’s gritty romantic drama “Over the Fence,” with star Joe Odagiri in attendance.

Still another example is Chicago-based Asian Pop-up Cinema, the brainchild of veteran festival manager and adviser Sophia Wong Boccio. Launched in September 2015, the festival screens biweekly programs of Asian films at two Chicago theaters in two-month seasons. This unusual schedule is designed to give fans more opportunities to see their favorite Asian films. Among the highlights of the latest season, from March 1 to May 3, was the post-apocalyptic comedy “Survival Family.” Director Shinobu Yaguchi appeared for a post-screening Q&A to a packed house, with this writer serving as master of ceremonies.

Finally there’s the Hawaii International Film Festival. Founded by Jeannette Paulson Hereniko in 1981, HIFF has had a strong Asian focus from the beginning. In addition to the main festival, which will be held this year from Nov. 2 to 12, HIFF presents a week-long Spring Showcase and a three-day Korean film festival. Among the Japanese films in the most recent Showcase (March 31-April 9), was “Hamon: Yakazu Boogie,” Shotaro Kobayashi’s quirky action comedy that was also an audience favorite at this year’s Udine FEFF.

The ability of these and other Asian and Japanese-themed festivals to generate fan interest, media attention and, ultimately, international sales, has not gone unnoticed by the Japanese industry.

Appearing at an Udine FEFF meeting with the public and press, Fuji TV film production head Hirotsugu Usui acknowledged that the Japanese film market “has been stagnant since the start of millennium,” as the population declines and the younger audience finds other ways to spend its leisure time. “To develop our film business we are trying to aggressively promote our films abroad,” he said.

That included the three Fuji TV titles at Udine FEFF: the romantic drama “Hirugao — Love Affairs in the Afternoon,” the high school comedy “Teiichi: Battle of Supreme High” and the aforementioned “Survival Family,” the Udine opening film.

The winner of the Audience Award and the Black Dragon Award, however, was “Close Knit,” Naoko Ogigami’s gentle-spirited, tough-minded drama about a transgender woman (Toma Ikuta) and her unconventional family. Made with no sex, violence or effects, “Close Knit” relied instead on excellent acting and masterful storytelling to cross cultural barriers and provoke laughter and tears.

In other words, the perfect Udine film.

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