The Quality of Japanese Films Is Improving, Says Ichiyama Shozo, Tokyo Festival Program Director

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The bold assertion laid out by the organizers of the Tokyo International Film Festival is that this year’s fully in-person edition is not only bigger than before, it’s also better.

That applies at an organization level as the festival adds more screens and foreign participants after the COVID hiatus. It applies at a film quality level too, programming director Ichiyama Shozo, tells Variety.

Please summarize the main lines of your selection this year.

This year, we had more films submitted than last year, and I was confident that we could achieve a stronger competition lineup, that included seven world premiers and one international premier. One happy surprise is “Glorious Ashes” by Bui Thac Chuyen, which is the first Vietnamese film in our main competition in the history of Tokyo International Film Festival.

We have three Japanese films in our main competition, compared with two last year. The quality of Japanese films which are submitted is much higher than last year.

What was the thinking behind the choice of “Fragments of the Last Will” as this year’s opening film?

The main reason I selected “Fragments of the Last Will” is because it is directed by Zeze Takahisa, who I think is one of Japan’s most significant filmmakers. Zeze started his career as an independent filmmaker, then started to work with big studios. But he continues to direct independent films outside the studios, such as hos masterpiece “Heaven’s Story,” which won the FIPRESCI Prize in Berlin in 2011. “Fragments of the Last Will” is a commercial film, produced by a big TV station, but it contains a strong anti-war message and showcases Zeze’s cinematic style.

You have 10 Asian World premieres in Asian Future. How has the relationship between this section and Filmex settled down?

The programmer, Kenji Ishizaka, who is responsible for Asian Future, prioritizes those films which have not been shown in any other film festivals. The result is that all the films in Asian Future are world premieres. Meanwhile, Tokyo Filmex doesn’t require premiere status. Its competition section favors young filmmakers, including those whose films have been shown elsewhere, such as Cannes, Locarno and Venice. The result is, if you are in Tokyo in the end of October, you can watch most of the top Asian films by young filmmakers made this year.

TIFF has managed to program a mainland Chinese film in Asian Future. This is increasingly rare. What is your understanding of the problem?

I’m disappointed that I couldn’t find any Chinese film for the main competition this year. It’s very strange that submissions from the mainland China are very few this year. I don’t know the reason. People in China say that many films are waiting for permission from the government to present the films in international film festivals, but the [regulatory] committee is not operating properly. “The Cord of Life”, which was shot in Inner Mongolia, is the only Chinese film [we have] this year. It was submitted early and already had screening permission when we sent the invitation. I hope this strange situation will change and we can have more Chinese films next year.

TIFF has a large Japanese film contingent. What current trends, strengths BD weaknesses in Japanese filmmaking do you discern based on what has been offered to the festival for consideration?

Last year, I had a problem to find Japanese films which I would like to introduce at the Tokyo festival. And we did not program any Japanese film in the Gala Selection in 2021. This year, the situation changed dramatically, and we received many more good Japanese films. I’ve been able to select five Japanese films in Gala Selection, and three in the main competition.

Some studios and production companies were reluctant to release their films during the pandemic, but this year they are very active in producing and releasing films. Three Japanese films in competition shows that there are promising young independent filmmakers who can compete in the major competitive film festivals in the near future. Even in Nippon Cinema Now, the non-competitive sidebar for new Japanese films, I was able to select several strong Japanese films by new filmmakers, which may have deserved competition. One example is “Lightening Over Beyond,” a black and white epic, directed by Hanno Yoshihiro, who is better-known as a music composer for Hou Hsiao-hsien and Jia Zhang-ke’s films. The film is a totally independent, made outside any studio or TV broadcaster, but the scale is much bigger than most Japanese independent films. It’s very encouraging that such a brave film is made independently of the Japanese production system.

Why revive the Kurosawa Award now?

It’s Hiroyasu Ando, the chairman of the festival, who decided to revive Kurosawa Award. He believes that the festival should have this kind of honorary awards given to the filmmakers who contributed the film culture. I also think it’s very good that the festival has an award named after a prominent filmmaker, because it may encourage the recipients. And I know that the selection committee prefers to give these awards to those filmmakers who are still active, rather than those who are in the last stage of their career.

Cannes is resisting Netflix. Venice is embracing it. How is streaming affecting TIFF’s selection?

The reason Cannes doesn’t show Netflix films is simply because of the film law in France, which defines a very long holdback period after a film can move from theatrical release to streaming. There is no such law in Italy or Japan, and we are not restricted from showing films which are produced by streaming platforms. For us to select a film, the most important thing is whether it has a cinematic style or not. It’s not important if the film is produced by film studio or not. We will select films as long as they have not already shown on a streaming platforms before the festival starts.

Apart from feature length films, I created a new section ‘TIFF Series’ last year, which shows series produced by TV stations or streaming platforms. This has selected series that are directed by filmmakers. I think this section should be expanded in future, because many talented filmmakers are now working on such series.

The Quality of Japanese Films Is Improving, Says Ichiyama Shozo, Tokyo Festival Program Director

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