TOKYO–The ongoing Tokyo International Film Festival has almost 100 Japanese movies in various sections, but most importantly three in the main international competition. This is first time since 2004 when there are three Japanese titles competing for the festival’s top honors along with 13 others from different countries.

Koji Fukada's Sayonara grips us with its tale of a radiation-contaminated Japan
Koji Fukada’s Sayonara grips us with its tale of a radiation-contaminated Japan

While Kohei Oguri’s Foujita narrates the dilemma of  a Japanese painter who returns home post-World  War II after having led a Bohemian life in Paris, drawing naked women and delighting the Montparnasse art lovers, Koji Fukada’s Sayonara grips us with its tale of a radiation-contaminated Japan and the resultant racial prejudices at work.

The third Japanese movie by Yoshihiro Nakamura, The Inerasable, is based on a horror novel, ghostly and frightening.

In fact, the festival has a special section on horror cinema, and the chilling works of three of the most renowned directors in the genre, Hideo Nakata, Takashi Shimizu and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, will be featured here.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Japanese horror films — with Nakata’s Don’t Look Up having hit the screens in 1995.  Since then, the director has been terrifying audiences the world over with movies like Dark Water (2002), Ringu (1998) and Ghost Theatre (2015).

The festival has introduced this year some more sections to highlight Japanese cinema. Japan Classics and Japan Now will include the works of the some of the legendary auteurs like Akira Kurosawa and Kon Ichikawa as well as modernists, such as Hirokazu Kore-eda (Our Little Sister) and Sion Sono (Love and Peace).

Part of Japan Now will focus on Masato Harada, and five of his celebrated films, including his Yakuza thriller Kamikaze Taxi and World War II drama The Emperor in August.

Trained in Hollywood, Harada speaks fluent English, and wryly commented in a recent chat with journalists that these five movies were precisely those that Cannes had rejected.

Yoshihiro Nakamura's The Inerasable is based on a horror novel
Yoshihiro Nakamura’s The Inerasable is based on a horror novel

Now, it appears that this festival in Tokyo wants to beat Cannes by highlighting Harada’s importance as a filmmaker. Japan Now programmer Kohei Ando, quipped jocularly “we beat Cannes” and added in a note of seriousness, “we selected Harada because we wanted everyone in Japan and abroad to re-evaluate his talent.”

He is indeed highly gifted, and is noted for his socially relevant pictures, including the likes of Bounce Ko Gals on the disturbing phenomenon of schoolgirl prostitution in Japan and its links with rabid consumerism. But Harada has never been able to reach out to a world audience — much like many of his contemporaries. And the reasons are not far to seek.

Japanese cinema suffered many years of eclipse after a brilliant post-war run that saw masters like Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse.

These directors styled their cinema on Hollywood — with its dramatic sequences, neat editing, strong characters and gripping stories narrated with power and punch. In short, they used American technique to tell us essentially Japanese stories, and it was not surprising that Kurosawa’s Rashomon should win the top Golden Lion at Venice in 1951.

The world saw the country’s cinema for the first time and could also identify with it — because these Japanese works used Hollywood grammar, so to say.

However, the period after these masters went saw the decline in popularity of the country’s movies. I remember in the early 2000, when I spent six months in Tokyo researching into contemporary Japanese cinema, the patronage for home-bred fare was pathetic. While there were long queues for Hollywood biggies like Harry Potter and James Bond, fresh-from-the cans Japanese films were attracting abysmally low numbers.

I remember a few occasions when there were just three or four people among the audience for an opening movie.

Kohei Oguri's Foujita narrates the dilemma of a Japanese painter
Kohei Oguri’s Foujita narrates the dilemma of a Japanese painter

An important reason for this was the concerted attempt by young Japanese directors to move away from the Hollywood style of filming that men like Kurosawa and his ilk followed with amazing results.

So, as the Tokyo festival’s director-general Yasushi Shiina told the media the other day, it was high time to give a strong boost to Japanese cinema. It was imperative to take this cinema beyond the country’s shores.

“We’d been thinking of how we could send information about Japanese films abroad, and what we came up with was the Japan Now and Japanese Cinema Classics sections,” he added.

What better platform than an international movie festival to try and accomplish this goal?

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Time — and is now covering the Tokyo International Film Festival.

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