High in the snow-capped mountains of Hokkaido, the sleepy town of Yubari plays host each spring to a frenzied gathering of student and independent filmmakers specializing in the most exploitative echelons of genre cinema.
Now in its 27th year, the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival (Yubari Fanta) ran from March 2-6, delivering a five-day celebration of blood-splattered, lo-fi mayhem, where scantily-clad schoolgirls readily share the screen with alien zombie cannibals and fringe filmmakers like Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police) and Noboru Iguchi (Dead Sushi) are fêted like rockstars on the red carpet alongside rubber-suited kaiju and “Melon kuma,” the city’s iconic half-bear, half-melon mascot.
Dedicated to the discovery and development of new talent, Yubari Fanta, devotes large sections of its program each year to short films, while the central off-theater competition recognizes first or second features made entirely outside the Japanese establishment, and often clocking in at around the one-hour mark.
“Many of this year’s nominees are students still in film school,” says Tokitoshi Shiota, the festival’s veteran program director, “which is pretty great for the filmmakers as well as the universities. They’ll be happy that they succeeded in sending someone to Yubari.”
With his oversized quiff and devilish grin, the diminutive Shiota has been the face of Yubari Fanta since its inception in 1990 and remains dedicated to creating a festival where mainstream and micro-budget filmmaking are given equal recognition.
Defining a typical Yubari film is simple, according to Shiota: “Sex and violence. Eros and Thanatos. These are the important factors in a film, if used in the pursuit of something greater. Fundamentally I look for films that don’t avoid showing life and death in all its forms.”
That certainly seemed to be true this year. Competition highlights included Colonel Panics from Australian-Korean director Cho Yin-seok, a cyber giallo-infused ode to legendary Japanese director Nagisa Oshima, sees a frustrated Neo-nationalist unravel in spectacularly misogynistic and murderous fashion. Conversely, Shoichi Yokoyama’s The Road to Love follows a similarly infatuated young man in search of a missing porn star, but is played mostly for laughs.
Both films were in the running for the festival’s 2 million yen (US$17,500) Grand Prix, to be used toward production of a follow-up feature to debut at next year’s festival.
Both lost out to Tadashi Nagayama’s Journey of the Tortoise, a playful coming-of-age road trip musical, starring the director’s son as its young lead.
Meanwhile, last year’s winner, Yuki Kobayashi, returned with TERRORIST, a punk rock riff on Yojimbo, about a wronged yakuza’s vengeful return from the grave.
A once-prosperous mining town, Yubari City couldn’t be a more innocuous setting for the festival, especially since being almost deserted since declaring bankruptcy in 2006.
In its 1990s heyday, Yubari attracted big-name guests such as Dennis Hopper, Steve Martin and Quentin Tarantino – who was so taken by the town he named Chiaki Kuriyama’s character in Kill Bill after it.
After 2006, however, the festival lost its public funding, and has faced serious financial woes ever since.
How does Shiota stay motivated in the face of such obstacles?
“I don’t have much of a personal life or any children,” he says, after a long, wistful pause. “So all these young filmmakers feel like my own. My motivation comes from nurturing them, and passing on the Yubari genes to the filmmakers of the future.”
It’s a rare candid moment from a man celebrated as the personification of Yubari’s care-free anti-establishment ethos.
A moment later he regains his composure to add: “Every year I feel like I’m fucking Yubari Fanta, and from our love-making all these children are born. The day the festival stops turning me on is the day it will die. But for now, it still makes me very horny.”
And that is the Yubari spirit.