As a film producer and critic I can say one of the most enjoyable events in the field is the film festival. The quality of film may vary but the offerings are usually far more diverse than your local megaplex (though Netflix is starting to give the fest a run for its money). The oldest of these in the world is the Venice Film Festival, which was founded in 1932. It along with Cannes and Berlin are considered the most important of such fetes, but Toronto, founded in 1976, is also massively important these days. These events, along with the US Academy Awards, are crucial in determining what are considered the most important films of the year.
Japan also has a host of film fests of course, the best known of which is the Tokyo International Film Fest (TIFF). Most festivals are founded by cinephiles or cinema clubs but TIFF was different. The Japan film industry got together in 1985 and decided the city need a major film event, so instead of appointing some experts they sent representatives from all the major film companies (like Toho, Toei and Shochiku, etc.). So instead of the organizers simply trying to make the best fest they could, they were at least partly concerned with representing the interests of their company at the fest. Not surprisingly TIFF was beset by problems at the start. The films for the premier section, the Competition, were chosen by committee, not by a programmer as other festivals. This led to uneven results. In fact, in 1995 the jury of experts chosen by the festival refused to award a Grand Prize because they said no film was of high enough quality to merit it. TIFF has come a long way since then. Now a single expert programmer chooses the films for each important section, as it should be, and fest concentrates heavily of Asian film, an excellent idea.
Part of the reason that TIFF was forced to up its game was that in the late 1990s programmer Shozo Ichiyama broke away from TIFF and co-founded Tokyo FilmeX, a film festival dedicated to independent, art house film. FilmeX has been a godsend to the Tokyo film community, screening films that have scooped up awards at the big four fests mentioned above (by international rules TIFF is forbidden from screening films in competition that have been shown at previous fests). FilmeX has championed independent directors from Japan, the rest of Asia, and Iran, offering work that would otherwise be impossible to see in Japan.
This year FilmeX, in addition to screening great Chinese, Cambodian, Filipino and Japanese film, among others, did a tribute to eminent Japanese filmmaker Junji Sakamoto. This was a long overdue honor. Standout films included Chinese director Lou Ye’s classic from 2000, Suzhou River; the Taiwanese-Malaysian-Myanmar coproduction Nina Wu by cutting edge director Midi Z; and this year’s Grand Prize winner Balloon by Pema Tseden. It portrays the complexities of life today in Tibet and clash between Buddhist beliefs and state policy.
FilmeX is indeed a jewel in the Tokyo film schedule and should be prominent on any local film-lovers calendar in late November.
Other film fests worth mentioning include the Okinawa International Film Festival, which has turned into an overall entertainment celebration on the islands, and focuses on great Southeast Asian film. The Kyoto International Film Festival, which just finished its 6th edition, is an excellent chance to see film in the historic city. It’s especially fitting to have on the film calendar since Kyoto is the birthplace of the great Japanese film tradition which has produced a myriad of heralded filmmakers.