Film Festival Follow-up: Looking Back at TIFF 2014


Those who didn’t breeze straight past on their way to work may have paused to marvel at the billboards festooning the walls of Roppongi Station this fall. With their stark monochromes and striking, Sano Kenjirō–designed logo, the adverts for this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival were certainly the most handsome in recent memory. But the tone was a bit off.

“Oh, to see the day that Tokyo stands alongside Cannes, Venice, and Berlin,” ran one tagline. “Lest we forget; our nation gave birth to some of the world’s most respected directors,” declared another. Director Matsue Tetsuaki (Flashback Memories 3D) wasn’t alone in finding the latter particularly objectionable: when he took to Twitter to call it “shameful” for a country to take credit for an individual’s achievements, the comment was retweeted more than 3,000 times.

A New Direction for TIFF?

It would be unfair to judge a film festival by its marketing, but there was something odd going on at TIFF this year. Just shy of its thirtieth birthday, Tokyo’s biggest cinematic summit suddenly wants to be cool—or, rather, to be “Cool Japan,” a phrase that popped up repeatedly in the festival brochure. Director General Shiina Yasushi spoke of how TIFF needed to “proactively promote close cooperation with quality contents as a part of ‘Cool Japan’ initiatives.” And as if on cue, AKB48 producer Akimoto Yasushi—an inescapable presence these days—was brought in to act as “executive producer.”

While the exact nature of his involvement remained hazy, maybe it was Akimoto who prodded the organizers to put more anime on the menu, most notably a retrospective devoted to Evangelion creator Anno Hideaki. Perhaps he was also the one who encouraged them to branch out: this year’s action was split between TIFF’s regular home in Roppongi Hills and the new Toho Cinemas multiplex in Nihonbashi, doubling the number of screenings from 2013. Meanwhile, the events included a cosplay summit, a kabuki performance, and a “Tokyo Cinema Cuisine” fair (think: fancy food trucks). These aren’t substitutes for good films, of course; most felt more like unnecessary distractions.

High Points for Film Fans

Actress Miyazawa Rie with her Best Actress award for Pale Moon. (© Jiji)

To give kudos where due, the organizers did at least manage to snag a high-profile domestic production for the Competition section: Pale Moon, Yoshida Daihachi’s follow-up to his Japan Academy Award–winning The Kirishima Thing. Adapted from the hit novel by Kakuta Mitsuyo, this tale of a bank clerk (Miyazawa Rie) who starts living the high life using embezzled money was well acted and handsomely shot. It was also a bit ordinary. The drama felt low-stakes, and it lacked the structural ingenuity of Kirishima, though that didn’t stop it from picking up the Audience Award and a Best Actress gong for Miyazawa.

Okita Shūichi, who won the runner-up Special Jury Prize at TIFF in 2011, made a welcome return with Ecotherapy Getaway Holiday. The director’s talent for ambling, low-pressure comedy worked well with this tale of a tour group of middle-aged and elderly women who get lost in the woods. Working with a cast of little-known actors who’d responded to an open audition call, Okita achieved something rather charming here, while giving a welcome voice to one of the most poorly represented demographics in Japanese cinema.

In a different vein, Sakaguchi Katsumi’s documentary Walking with My Mother was powerful stuff: an intimate portrait of the director’s elderly mother, Suchie, shot over the course of four years as she grieved for the deaths of her daughter and husband. Though wrenchingly sad in places, it also was surprisingly rich with humor, no more so than in the scenes of Suchie and her younger sister.

There was plenty to relish in 100 Yen Love, which took home the main prize in the Japan Cinema Splash section. Take Masaharu’s grungy comedy-drama provided ample laughs, and Andō Sakura was on knockout form as a slobby layabout who tries to make it as a professional boxer. However, the audience’s enjoyment was contingent on forgiving the film’s glib treatment of a grisly rape scene, not to mention some occasionally amateurish direction.

Plenty of Room for Improvement

Still, it was considerably better than many of the other films featured in Japan Cinema Splash. There’s no fun to be had in taking pot shots at no-budget indie flicks as half-formed as Ohuchi (Ōuchi) Shingo’s Unknown Town, as rambling as Kazama Shiori’s 160-minute Chokolietta, or as self-absorbed and shoddily executed as Ōta Shingo’s Fragile. But, in a festival that presents such an incomplete sample of current Japanese cinema to start with, does it really make sense to devote so much space to such mediocre work?

It’s ironic that TIFF’s main Asian rival, the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea, offers a far richer selection of Japanese films: this year’s featured the latest works from directors including Sono Sion, Kawase Naomi, Tsukamoto Shinya, and Ishii Yūya (most of which, admittedly, had already been released at home). And for all the talk of “respected directors” in TIFF’s publicity, it’s striking that there’s no program of classic Japanese cinema. The “Nippon Cinema Classics” section was quietly dropped in 2009—lest we forget.

(Originally written in English. Banner photo: Traditional Japan takes the stage at the October 23 TIFF opening ceremony at the Roppongi Hills Arena. © Jiji.)

Tokyo movies cinema Evangelion TIFF film festival