Tenth Tokyo FilmEx Symposium: Towards the Future of Cinema

I've been busy with Tokyo FilmEx this week, Tokyo's best film festival (the slap against the TIFF is intentional). It opened on Saturday, November 21, with its annual symposium, this time dedicated to the theme "Towards the Future of Cinema." The guest list was impressive: Kitano Takeshi, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, Koreeda Hirokazu, Nishijima Hidetoshi, and Terajima Susumu. But unfortunately, the event didn't get very deep into what could be the future of cinema in Japan.

The first hour was a "master class" with Takeshi, who was interviewed by Yamane Sadao and accompanied by his producer, Mori Masayuki. He didn't talk about much that he hadn't mentioned in previous interviews, or that I hadn't discussed in my book on him. But he did drop one bombshell (Yamane-san and I agreed on that afterward): he suddenly declared that his work on TV involves no compromises, but that he has been compromising with film all along. This stunned Yamane-san and even prompted a response (his only statement in the event) by Mori-san: hasn't it been the other way around with Takeshi? But Takeshi insisted this time that since TV can be viewed for free, he could do anything he wants, but since people pay to see films, he has had to compromise with the audience in mind. This reminded me a bit of his logic for why Zatoichi is a different film: since this was a project for hire, he had to do a decent job for those hiring him. But it doesn't hold water: TV may be for free, but viewers are sold by the networks to advertisers, and thus the variable measure of viewers - ratings - is central to the payment system that pressures performers. Takeshi's statement reinforced my sense that he can be moody at times and can say quite different things about his career depending on that mood. This, it seems, was not a good time and he spoke badly of most of his films. He mentioned that his new movie will be a yakuza film - as if returning from where he got started - and again may involve the death of his character (he mentioned this while criticizing Eastwood's Gran Torino), but in a cast composed of newcomers to his cinema. The only time he got onto the symposium topic was when he mentioned that new editing technologies are making the editing process much faster, which is convenient but problematic: he prefers time to think when editing.

Kurosawa-san and Koreeda-san talked a bit more about the topic on hand. Both spoke about the shift towards digital, but both made it clear that for many in the art or independent film world in Japan, digital makes little difference. Kurosawa said it is no different on the set (probably because both directors are more interested in space/time integrity than post-production manipulation) and noted that many just use digital to try to approximate what they get with film. Both hoped to do something in digital sometime that pursued the unique qualities of that medium, but they also feared that with increased image and projector quality, digital allows you to see too much. For someone working with ambiguity and horror, Kurosawa found digital too clear. Beyond that, the two directors registered fears about what will happen to the Japanese film industry in the next ten years. The previous ten years have seen a greater internationalization of Japanese cinema, with Koreeda in particular noting that that the different reactions he has received abroad to his films, ones different from what he expected, have helped him hone his work. But now domestic problems reign. Both waxed nostalgic about earlier days when they could cross genres and do art and entertainment at the same time; now it seems that young directors must choose one or the other. But with the current distribution system not supporting the long runs that proved vital to art cinema, every film must make its money quickly, and thus open at commercial and art houses. That only undermines the special quality of the latter, which are starting to close down. Koreeda opined that a new distribution and exhibition system is needed.

The last talk session, which included Kurosawa and Koreeda and added Nishijima and Terajima, tried to expand on these future problems, but was largely unsuccessful. Moderator Hayashi Kanako, who is the director of FilmEx, tried to pursue the issue of the importance of developing not only good viewers, but ways of viewing that can see something interesting in a film that may at first seem boring. She brought up the example of Yodogawa Nagaharu, the now deceased Japanese film critic, who was great at doing that. But I'm afraid she wasn't that good at drawing out discussion on the topic. Kurosawa-san reminded us of the influence of Hasumi Shigehiko, who stressed attention to those moments in any film where one asks, "What is that?" Those, to him, are the most cinematic moments. Both Hayashi and Ichiyama Shozo, the festival programmer, tried to put forward film festivals as an important aspect in promoting film viewing, but I was left with the impression that even with that topic there was a lot they could have pursued that they didn't: the critical state of film criticism in Japan, the lack of film education in schools and universities, the role of proliferating viewing platforms from DVD to the internet, etc. The last session left you hungry for more substance, and perhaps a bit anxious at the lack of detail over the future of cinema in Japan. 

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