Image: @2017 Miho Shimao / Toshio Shimao / humanite Co. Ltd.
Twenty years ago, the annual Japanese Film Festival started in Sydney. It was developed by Masafumi Konomi, with three films offered for free, to zero interest from audiences.
The Japan Foundation was run from Tokyo, which kept sending him classics or obscure arthouse pictures. Over the next eighteen years he built a festival based on the idea of screening pictures which mirrored the Japanese exhibition sector, as an insight into ordinary life. It was a battle to even get distributors to donate films because they had no interest in breaking out of the domestic market. He learnt about the really unusual shape of the Japanese funding and audience system, which he summarised in a 2015 phone interview from Tokyo.
Read more: Japanese Film - the triumph of the subculture.
Though his programming strategy was admirably clear, it tended to highlight domestic comedies and teen romances, which disappointed audiences fascinated by Tokyo Gore Police, Godzilla v King Kong, Ichi the Killer and Dark Water.
He was employed locally in Sydney and headhunted by the central office in Tokyo, so he went back to work in Japan after 25 years outside the country, to develop a pan-ASEAN program starting in Cambodia. Two years later, the single Australian version of the festival has morphed into a travelling showcase called The Japanese Film Festival: Asia Pacific Gateway Initiative which unspools in Indonesia, Cambodia, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Philippines, Brunei and Laos.
It has a variety of versions in Australia. The mini-fest is wending its way around regional Australia, while shorter versions have already run in Canberra, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth. A free classics program has run in Sydney. The major festival, with a bunch of international guests runs from 16- 26 November in Sydney and starts for a similar period in Melbourne from 23 November, which gets less guests but the classics program on top.
With Masafumi Konomi presiding over a burgeoning empire from Tokyo, responsibility for curating the Australian version has moved to Margarett Cortez, herself a remarkable transnational person - born in the Philippines, raised as a third country kid until she was six in Japan, with an anthropology degree from the University of the Philippines, a BSc in International Relations from the University of London, and a Graduate Certificate in Art Administration from the University of NSW.
'The Sydney Festival remains the largest one', she said, 'and is still independently curated by a team of four locally based staff, including myself. We have 36 films and other countries have less - although there are way more fans of Japanese pop culture in South East Asian countries than in Australia.'
They have been moving away from the interest in conventional domestic Japanese films, although they are still around half the festival. Mainstream Japanese films are moving into the Australian market of their own accord, propelled by the international festival movement. As she pointed out, Blade of the Immortals is about to get a national release after it ran at the Sydney and Melbourne festivals. Madman, too, feeds a growing and stable anime audience.
'We are showing more international film festival titles, and independent films as well. We are finding a growing audience. The more independent titles bridge the cultural gap around issues we are not aware of in Japanese society. If you look at the list you will find a good mix of arthouse as well as mainstream.'
Her favourites for an industry audience?
'Since I am curating them I like them all equally, although they are not all for everybody. We have two animations which are not Ghibli titles or straight anime either.
'In This Corner of the World is a beautiful hand-drawn animation set towards the end of the Second World War in Kure City, in Hiroshima Prefecture, which is a city where many Australian troops were stationed after the war.'
In 1944, 18-year-old Suzu goes to Kure City in Hiroshima Prefecture to wed naval officer Shusaku Hojo. As the intensity of the war heightens day after day and food supplies dwindle, Suzu manages to resolutely carry on with daily life through her ingenuity, that is, until the summer of 1945.
Ancien and the Magic Tablet is a family-friendly film that works for all ages, if you can read subtitles.
This sweet film alternates between Konoke’s science fiction-inspireddreams and the glimmering beauty of her life in Okayama. With nods to the story of sleepy but brave Okayama folk hero Momotaro, Ancien and the Magic Tablet is a multilayered story of spirited adventure as Konoke realises her dreams may hold the key to unlocking the mystery behind her present.
Snow Woman is made by the female director Kiki Sugino', said Cortez. 'She started out as an actress in Korean films and went on to produce and then direct. She has kept acting all through it. This is her third feature and it is a really unique, modern retelling of a classic ghost story presented as a romance and a mystery. It is absolutely fantastic.'
Sugino creates a unique period piece set in an alternate reality where antiquity and modernity co-exist. Snow Woman is a visual and aural feast best enjoyed by surrendering to the mystery and the ghostly, electrifying soundtrack by music composer Sow Jow.
'A Double LIfe took Best Director and Best Actress awards at the Vladivostok Film Festival, and screened at Raindance, Shanghai and the New York Asian Film Festival. It is the first feature by a documentary filmmaker which makes it a really interesting synthesis of doco filmmaking techniques and narrative features.'
Shot in a voyeuristic documentary style, the audience becomes as much an accomplice to Tama’s surveillance as they are a witness to the consequences that unfold. Will you be entranced or ashamed of the words and deeds that unfold?
'Love and Other Cults is a bit of a wildcard. It has an English producer, Adam Torel [the Japan Times covered his crowdfunding] and is the second feature by Eiji Uchida. It is a tour of the backwaters of Japan, an introduction to the underbelly of Japanese society, ' said Cortez.
... a different kind of coming-of-age film. It portrays the lives of young people struggling in a place where there is no way out. Director and writer Eiji Uchida manages to pack a punch with this darkly comedic and gritty coming of age film, tackling social issues such as child neglect, teenage gangs and the sex industry.
'The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue premiered at Berlin and I think is the most interesting because its based on a book of poetry. It really captures the melancholia of city living and is a great portrait of Tokyo that tourists might not know of.'
Yuya Ishii (The Vancouver Asahi, The Great Passage) directs a distinctly unconventional romance based on a melancholic book of poetry of the same title by Tahi Saihate. Delve into the lives of Tokyoites Mika and Shinji, as their relationship glacially evolves, and other invisible city dwellers—labourers, nurses, immigrant workers—that keep the city alive.
I'll add this film on my own behalf. Before We Vanish is a science fiction film about aliens taking over the world, with no spectacle or flashy props, but telepathic aliens who look exactly like humans.
Phase 1: Information Gathering. Three aliens seize the bodies and memories of three people in the outskirts of Tokyo in order to gather intel on humans. They must decode our language, by connecting words to concepts they symbolise, before they can start an invasion...
With the fate of the Earth in their hands, what choices will Narumi and Sakurai make before humanity is extinguished? Will the aliens gather enough information to launch an invasion?
More about the festival here.