Muses of Japanese Cinema, Photographed by Mika Ninagawa
Muses of Japanese Cinema, Photographed by Mika Ninagawa

The Tokyo International Film Festival has always drawn crowds, but it has long struggled to position itself as a major player.

By the time TIFF makes its entrance in late October, the Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Toronto (and in recent years, Busan) film festivals have already premiered the year’s most buzzed-about films.

But TIFF, which runs for 10 days from October 25 to November 3, has something the others don’t: location, location, location.

Is there any filmmaker or film fan on earth who doesn’t want to visit Tokyo — the world’s cleanest, safest, coolest, tastiest megacity — especially in fall, its most pleasant season?

Against such a backdrop, it’s no wonder that TIFF has been shoring up its reputation by hyping exactly what makes it both cinematic and cultural catnip.

30th TIFF Visuals

Although there will be plenty of international titles and luminaries, including this year’s jury president, Tommy Lee Jones, the festival will be spotlighting a cavalcade of acclaimed Japanese directors and stars, and showcasing a lineup that skews toward hotly anticipated local offerings.

The most memorable line of dialogue from last year’s TIFF came courtesy of the Watanabe Brothers’ award-winning Poolsideman, in which a character complains that Japan’s vaunted hospitality (omotenashi) is hogwash. “The f*** is that about?!” he asks a companion. “I’m from Japan, and no one’s ever omotenashi’ed me!”

But there are plenty who have been amply omotenashi’ed, and many of them are going on record to share their fond memories of TIFF — and of Tokyo.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the festival this year, an impressive roster of past and present participants is currently appearing on TIFF’s YouTube channel.

They include Juliette Binoche, whose latest film will be screened in TIFF’s World Focus section; Ryuichi Sakamoto, recipient of this year’s TIFF Samurai Award; Cannes favorite Naomi Kawase, who will lead a TIFF Master Class; and actors Masatoshi Nagase and Fan Bingbing, both serving on the Competition jury.

The YouTube messages are just one of many subtle TIFF rebranding ploys, starting with the splashy new posters featuring the words “Tokyo Film” atop dramatically colorful photos of iconic Tokyo, taken by Mika Ninagawa.

The renowned photographer-filmmaker is also responsible for the stunning images of the four celebrated actresses who have been named TIFF’s Muses of Japanese Cinema: Sakura Ando, Yu Aoi, Hikari Mitsushima and Aoi Miyazaki.

Muses of Japanese Cinema, Photographed by Mika Ninagawa

Festival Director Takeo Hisamatsu, a veteran of Shochiku and Warner Bros. Japan, is helming his first TIFF and has unveiled a variety of expanded programs and collaborations for 2017.

These are primarily aimed at achieving a better balance between commercial and arthouse films, attracting younger audiences, nurturing emerging filmmakers and assuring that TIFF becomes an essential highpoint on the world film festival calendar.

The noticeable shift toward featuring more homegrown product began under Hisamatsu’s predecessor, and Japanese films will be screened in nearly every section of this year’s 200-plus film lineup, including TIFF’s three competition sections: International Competition, Japanese Cinema Splash (for independently produced films) and Asian Future.

A Beautiful Star © 2017 A A Beautiful Star Film Partners. All Rights Reserved

In Japan Now, which highlights recent and upcoming Japanese releases, international audiences have a chance to see the buzziest titles (last year, these included Your Name and Shin Godzilla).

The tremendously popular Animation Focus is devoted to the oeuvre of one director, and there will be dozens of Japan-centric special screenings and related events, almost all with English subtitles and interpretation.

For TIFF 30, the local highlights begin with the Opening film, Fumihiko Sori’s Fullmetal Alchemist, the long-awaited live-action adaptation of the global manga favorite, and a special presentation of footage from Chen Kaige’s upcoming Legend of the Demon Cat, the largest-ever Japan-China co-production.

Fullmetal Alchemist © 2017 Hiromu Arakawa: 2017 SQUARE ENIX FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST €Film Partners

Also to be savored are the Godzilla Cinema Concerts (the original 1954 film accompanied by live orchestra) and the third-annual Special Night Event at Kabukiza (Ebizo Ichikawa performing live, plus the 4K digitally restored classic, The Gate of Hell).

Equally anticipated in the Special Screenings section is Stephen Nomura Schible’s heralded documentary portrait of a beloved Oscar winner, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda. The film traces the singular musician’s journey from 1980s pop icon to leading anti-nuclear activist, as he battles cancer and returns to create a major new work.

Acclaimed director Sabu’s Mr. Long, with Asian star Chang Chen as a gangster who hides out in Japan and rediscovers his heart, finally hits Japan after premiering at Berlin; and Gu Suyeon (Hard Romanticker) returns from a 6-year hiatus with the comedy Miko Girl, about a shrine maiden who learns a thing or two from a 5-year-old boy.


There are two Japanese titles in TIFF’s 15-film Competition section (selected from over 1,500 submissions), both world premieres.

Zeze Takahisa returns to his pinku eiga (softcore porn) roots with The Lowlife, based on adult-film actress Sakura Manami’s novel about three women of different generations who are affected by the softcore industry, and whose lives begin to overlap following the death of a patriarch.

The Lowlife © 2017 KADOKAWA

The other Japanese title, also based on a novel by a female writer, is the deliciously off-kilter dramedy Tremble All You Want, directed by Akiko Ooku. It features a star-making turn by Mayu Matsuoka as a rambunctious young woman who’s never had a boyfriend, but suddenly finds herself torn between two, neither of them Mr. Right.

In the Japanese Cinema Splash section, nine indie films will compete for the Best Film prize and a payday that probably exceeds most of their budgets.

Don’t miss Ambiguous Places, another uniquely fantastical dramedy from Akira Ikeda, Rotterdam Grand Prizewinner for Anatomy of a Paperclip; and UK-based Hikaru Toda’s Of Love & Law, a documentary about the couple who started Japan’s first openly gay law firm but are legally powerless to raise a family of their own.

Of Love Law © Nanmori Films

There is also new work from Splash returnees Hirobumi Watanabe (Poolsideman) and Eiji Uchida (Lowlife Love).

Watanabe injects his trademark mix of melancholy and folly into Party ’Round the Globe, about two Beatlemaniacs traveling to Tokyo for a Paul McCartney concert; while Uchida adapts Junichiro Tanizaki’s semi-autobiographical Between Men and the Gods, about a trio trapped in a love triangle.

Among the not-to-be-missed recent titles in the Japan Now section, which will screen career-defining work starring the four Muses of Japanese Cinema as well as films by four female directors, are the unfortunately named but timely Dear Etranger by Yukiko Mishima. This has international star Tadanobu Asano as a doting family man getting pushback from one of his second wife’s daughters.

Dear Etranger © 2017 DEAR Etranger Film Partners

Naomi Kawase’s Palm d’Or nominee Radiance, with Jim Jarmusch favorite Masatoshi Nagase, focuses on a photographer who’s losing his sight.

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s hit thriller The Third Murder, with his Like Father, Like Son star Masaharu Fukuyama and the always superlative Koji Yakusho, tackles the nature of truth.

And Kei Ishikawa’s Gukoroku – Traces of Sin, a grim exploration of class warfare cloaked as a murder mystery, stars Hikari Mitsushima and Satoshi Tsumabuki as siblings with a secret.

Gukoroku: Traces of Sin © 2017 Gukoroku Traces of Sin Production Committee

Also in Japan Now is Daihachi Yoshida’s stellar adaptation of Yukio Mishima’s A Beautiful Star, about a family of aliens who tries to save the Earth.

Veteran arthouse maestro Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hanagatami is a deeply felt antiwar extravaganza that he’d been wanting to make for 40 years.

The lone anime work in Japan Now is Masaaki Yuasa’s cult film The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl, an endlessly inventive coming-of-age story set in Kyoto, featuring a loser who’s in love with his black-haired classmate.

Marking the 100th anniversary of Japanese animation, TIFF has selected Keiichi Hara (Miss Hokusai, Colorful), multiple award-winner at the Annecy Film Festival, to receive a retrospective tribute in this year’s Animation Focus section.

Keiichi Hara © Koichi Mori

Providing a rare opportunity to see Hara’s early TV work, including memorable episodes of Mami the Psychic, there will also be two highly hyped Crayon Shin-chan features. The Adult Empire Strikes Back, in particular, is considered a masterpiece. Hara recently teased his current project and is sure to divulge more details during his TIFF appearances.

Finally, in one of TIFF’s many subsections, look for the encore screening of this year’s Skip City International D-Cinema Festival Award-winner, 3ft Ball & Souls, by Yoshio Kato.

3ft ball and souls © 3ft Ball & Souls 2017

A taut comedy-thriller with just four characters and essentially a single set, the film has proven to be a crowd-pleaser on the overseas festival circuit due to a superlative script and spirited performances.

In a nondescript warehouse, a group of strangers gathers to commit suicide via a giant, spherical firework, but when it explodes (as it does repeatedly over the next 90 minutes) the characters find themselves back where they started … with diminishing chances to escape the destructive loop.

Tickets for the 30th TIFF went on sale Saturday, October 14. The festival runs October 25 – November 3 in Roppongi, Tokyo.