Tokyo International Film Festival 2009

Back when I was writing for the Daily Yomiuri, I found myself imitating a broken record when writing about the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF). Each year I would complain about the commercialized programming (where decisions about what was shown seemed to have been made by film distributors, not independent programmers) and the lack of a good retrospective section. The last was particularly infuriating for me, a film historian. It is usually the responsibility of a major international film festival to celebrate not just new movies, but the lesser known works that laid the foundation for what exists - or could have existed - today. Almost all the major film festivals do that, especially in countries with rich film histories, but the TIFF does not. After the early-1990s, when the TIFF had great retros in conjunction with the National Film Center, I saw the Japanese retrospectives get worse and worse until they were completely eliminated a few years ago. The TIFF has utterly abandoned its vital responsibility to celebrate and promote the rich historical culture of Japanese film, and given it over to Tokyo FilmEx, which is a much smaller festival. 

The main reason this has happened is because the TIFF is no longer a film festival, it is a "contents" market, so things like culture and history frankly do not matter. One can object to this on artistic grounds, but I also think this is also bad business. Most of those in the industry and the government these days think that "contents" denote products made only in the last few years. But the Japanese film industry was not only one of the most celebrated but also definitely the most productive movie business in the world for many decades in the twentieth century and thus has an enormous back catalog of films of quality and interest. This huge treasure is now mostly worthless because many in the industry and the government can't look beyond the short term and do what is necessary in the long term to build interest in - and thus market value in - these older works. When colleagues at the National Film Center report that barely anyone under 50 comes to see old movies there anymore, or when friends at Japanese universities report that almost none of their students have ever seen a classic Japanese film, I think that's partially the result of years of industry and government neglect in promoting the cinematic heritage. The lack of a retrospective at the TIFF, by far the most publicized festival in Japan, is just another example of Japan shooting itself in the foot and ruining the value (in multiple senses of the term) of its movie history.

Putting these thoughts aside, I did try to catch whatever recent Japanese films I could at TIFF 2009, in my first visit to the festival since 2006. I thus concentrated on the Japanese Eyes section (especially since it was not easy for the press to catch the special invitation films). I'm afraid I can't report that things have gotten better. It was nice to see a challenging independent film like Tochka (Matsumura Hiroyuki, 2008) being screened there - a provocative contemplation of looking and the problem of the trace that unfortunately should have been shot on film - but If Blessed (Masakiku araba; Okachimachi Kite, 2008) should never have been shown: it was one of the worst films in recent memory - a total failure in terms of believability and an insult to anyone who knows a little about Christianity (though it was nice to see Ono Machiko, the girl in Kawase Naomi's Suzaku, in the starring role). Our Brief Eternity (Fukushima Takuya, 2009) had a fascinating premise (what would happen to the world if we all forgot the one we love most?) and likable leads, but like many of the other works it suffered from poor execution and facile symbolism. Simplistic symbols also hampered Acacia (Tsuji Jinsei, 2008), the only Japanese film in the Competition: Antonio Inoki was not bad in the lead, but Tsuji can neither direct child actors nor save a story from cloying sentimentality in the way Kitano just barely managed to do in Kikujiro. The documentary Jungle-House Three-Farts (Janguru hausu suri-gasu: Hayashiya Sanpei; Mizutani Toshiyuki, 2009) was a serviceable introduction to the great rakugo and TV comedian Hayashiya Sanpei, but it did little digging either in terms of interviews or footage. A documentary I liked a lot more, Live Tape, by Matsue Tetsuaki, won the top prize for the section, and is worth a separate review (check back later), even though it had its own problems.

Palm of the Hand Stories (Tenohira no shosetsu; Tsubokawa Takushi, et al., 2009) was actually the film I wanted to see most, since "The Man Who Does Not Laugh" (Warawanu otoko) is one of the four short stories it adapts from Nobel Prize winner Kawabata Yasunari's famous collection. That story refers to Kawabata's experience helping make Kinugasa Teinosuke's A Page of Madness, and I actually talk about it in reference to the mask scene in my book on the film. The adaptation seemed typical, however, of both the TIFF and contemporary Japan's attitude towards its film history. The movie succeeded with a kind of surface Taisho romanticism, but utterly erased the real trace of cinema from "The Man Who Does Not Laugh" by completely excising the movie background from the narrative. Then the next story, "Mr. Thank You" (Arigato-san), seemed oblivious to the important fact this is also the source of one of the masterpieces of 1930s Japanese cinema: Shimizu Hiroshi's Mr. Thank You (Arigato-san, 1936 - read Jasper Sharp's review of this film). (FilmEx, at least, will be showing some Shimizu as part of their Nippon Modern retro this year.) The third, "Japanese Anna" (Nihonjin Anna), finally threw in some cinema, as the characters move in and out of a movie, but in again a typical fashion: one that remains ignorant of real film history (not even having a benshi present at a silent film screening, for instance). 

Perhaps this is nitpicking, ignoring a director's freedom of interpretation, but I can't help but feeling that Japan may be enacting in a peculiar way the narrative from Our Brief Eternity: forgetting of its cinematic history - perhaps Japan's real loved one - and suffering the consequences through superficial if not poor filmmaking. In Our Brief Eternity, forgetting leads to the world nearly falling apart. Is this what we will see with Japan's film world?

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