The Japanese Film Festival (Australia) celebrates its 20th anniversary this year with a huge tour of screenings that covers the cities of Adelaide, Brisbane, Caanberra, Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney. Running from October 14 to December 4, the festival gives Australian audiences the chance to catch-up with the latest auteur projects and popular hits from Japan while also developing an appreciation for the rich history of this complex national cinema through its retrospective strand.
The main program for the 2016 festival is highly eclectic with a range of genres, styles, and subjects on display. It includes critically acclaimed new titles by such festival favourites as Hirokazu Kore-eda (After the Storm), Shunji Iwai (A Bride for Rip Van Winkle), Miwa Nishikawa (The Long Excuse), and Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Creepy) while also showcasing emerging talents like Hitomi Kuroki (Desperate Sunflowers) and Kazuya Shiraishi (Twisted Justice). There’s also kinetic escapism on display with Assassination Classroom – Graduation and Takashi Miike’s adaptation of the manga series Terraformars. Genre thrills are delivered by Yuichiro Hirakawa’s murder mystery Erased and Yoshihiro Nakamura’s chiller The Inerasable with the lighter side of Japanese life being represented by comedy-dramas like The Actor, The Mohican Comes Home and Sing My Life. Those seeking to learn more about Japanese culture should check out the documentaries Kampai! For the Love of Sake and Tsukiji Wonderland, the latter of which surveys the bustling environment of the world’s largest fish market. Meanwhile, the JFF Classics program focuses on Tadashi Imai and Kaneto Shindo, offering a rare opportunity to see some their still vital signature works on the big screen.
John Berra talked to Festival Program Coordinator Margarett Cortez via email about this year’s tour.
Tell us about your background and how you became involved with Japanese Film Festival Australia?
I joined The Japan Foundation, Sydney as a program coordinator for Arts & Culture and look after both programming and marketing. We hold various events throughout the year, with JFF being our largest annual event. I’ve previously worked in digital media and business development.
One of the challenges facing film festivals, particularly those that focus on a specific national cinema, is to make the event sufficiently attention grabbing while respecting and communicating national culture. How does Japanese Film Festival Australia negotiate these occasionally conflicting requirements?
Film festivals in Australia are fortunate because there is such a strong interest in foreign films. We don’t have to do anything crazy or gimmicky and can focus on our aim, which is to introduce current Japanese cinema by showcasing fresh film releases. We also pay homage to classic Japanese cinema by including a free classics program at select cities, all screened in 16mm and 35mm.
The festival is held across a number of cities. Do any have particular characteristics in terms of the crowd that Japanese Film Festival attracts? Are some cities trickier than others in terms of piquing audience interest?
We get a pretty uniform crowd across the board, with the majority of the audience being working people in their 20s and 30s. We do come across challenges in attracting certain audience in each city— for example, we would love to have more students coming in to see films in Canberra where the audience is older than other cities.
In recent years, critics and international distributors have expressed disillusionment with the Japanese film industry based on its perceived over-reliance on branded properties and limited opportunities for independent talents to break through. Do you feel such frustration is valid?
Film production in Japan has its own quirks, just like any other country. Personally, I think we can get over that frustration by understanding their local screen industry instead of trying to fit them into our description of what is independent. So technically, a filmmaker may be categorized as ‘independent’ in terms of style or past filmography, but their film could be backed by a group of film studios, distributors and corporate organisations. Examples from this year are Kazuya Shiraishi with Twisted Justice and Satoko Yokohama with The Actor.
Although I also wish more independent filmmakers will take up the challenge of creating their own film and joining international film festivals so we see more of their work! Looking at the titles screened at JFF Australia over the past years, I think there was only one film that can truly be considered as independently produced, which was Shinya Tsukamoto’s Fires on the Plain.
High profile titles in this year’s festival include Shunji Iwai’s A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After the Storm, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest thriller Creepy. These directors were amongst the breakout names of the international Japanese cinema boom of the 1990s and early 2002s. What is it about their films that have continued to captivate audiences?
I find that these high profile directors stand out because they’ve established a trademark style—whether it’s in their visual approach or in their focus themes. You can visually tell that A Bride for Rip Van Winkle was made by Shunji Iwai, while the storytelling in After the Storm is unmistakably Kore-eda. Seeing these directors’ films is always a treat since you can see their hand in almost every aspect, from the lighting down to the script!
The main program includes comedies and slice-of-life pieces, such as The Actor, The Mohican Comes Home, and Sing My Life, alongside the thrillers or horror films that are still strongly associated with Japanese cinema. Is this a conscious effort to shift the perception that Japanese cinema is primarily concerned with darkness and extremity?
Japanese filmmakers have always been adept at themes of human tragedy, particularly with earlier films from the 1950s to the 1980s. Japanese films are well associated with darker genre films, but so are they with slice-of-life, such as Hirokazu Kore-eda’s films and Yasujiro Ozu’s family dramas. A lot of people are surprised when I tell them that the most sought after films amongst JFF fans in Australia are drama and comedy.
The JFF Classics strand offers the chance to see works by Tadashi Imai and Kaneto Shindo, directors whose artistry has been recognised in the West but are arguably still not as widely known as they should be. What do you hope that an audience seeing such films as A Story from Echigo and Children of Hiroshima, perhaps for the first time, will take away from this experience?
That’s right, Imai and Shindo are not as well known as their other contemporaries like Akira Kurosawa or Kenji Mizoguchi. We hope that this year’s Classics program will enrich people’s existing knowledge of classic Japanese cinema. For those who are seeing Japanese classics for the first time, we hope it will be an exciting experience! More than learning or discovering about film, these classics are an excellent window into the social climate of the time, particularly post-World War II Japan.
See the Japanese Film Festival website for full program details, touring schedule, and ticket booking facility.