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Japanese Film Festival 2012

Hieu Chau

Tue Nov 27 2012

Afro Tanaka

HIEU Chau discovers the humble beginnings of the Japanese Film Festival and introduces you to a few of the films that will be showing at the now popular and successful cinematic event. 

When the Japanese Film Festival first began back in 1997, Japanese distributors were rather reluctant to allow JFF festival director, Masafumi Konomi, the rights to screen their films overseas.

“Japanese distributors are very closed and they only think about the domestic market. They never think about the overseas market, so even though they are making over 400 films per year, I could only get a few every year,” he says.

At the inaugural Japanese Film Festival, Konomi was only allowed to screen three free films for the public. It wasn’t the most glamorous start for the festival but as time passed, the festival gradually grew larger both in volume and in focus. Distributors started becoming more trusting of Konomi, once they noticed audiences were turning out in large numbers to revel in the wonders offered by Japanese cinema.

And in time, the festival would expand outside of its humble beginnings in Sydney. It now tours all across Australia each year.

Konomi, who has lived in Australia for over 20 years, explains one of the reasons why he first began the festival was due to the lack of Japanese film programming in Australia.

I saw very few Japanese films showing in Australia and I saw a few on SBS but they were very ‘cult’ type of films,” he recalls.

“I thought, ‘I have to do something about [the lack of Japanese film programming in Australia] and so that’s why I started [the Japanese Film Festival]’”.

This year, the Japanese Film Festival boasts its largest number of programmed films with a total of 39 new Japanese films screening in Melbourne.

There’s certainly a large amount of varying films, some more original than others, which Konomi expresses is a selling point for Japanese cinema.

“Unlike in Hollywood, comparatively speaking, directors in Japan enjoy a large amount of creative freedom without having to give up their unique talents in the name of high volume film,” he says.

It’s this creative freedom that has allowed Japanese cinema to thrive and produce films most studios would be afraid to touch.

Take for instance, Tenchi: The Samurai Astronomer. Directed by the Academy Award-winning director of the 2008 film Departures, the film is an autobiographical period piece about a man charged with the burdensome task of creating a new calendar for Japan.

It isn’t exactly captivating by traditional means of story and character, nor is it a truly original story, but there is something to be gained from the fact a film like this was made at all. And trying to make a movie about calendar-making interesting is an achievement in itself.

In addition to the 39 films already screening at this year’s festival, Melbournians can expect an additional six films which will be part of an exclusive retrospective screening dedicated to Japanese director, Yasuzo Masumura.

A free, six-part retrospective of Yasuzo Masumura's films will be held at ACMI during the Japanese Film Festival.

Masumura’s name might not be as well-known as famous Japanese directors like Akira Kurosawa or Yasujiro Ozu but one look at his oeuvre of films and it becomes readily apparent he was quite an established talent. Unfortunately for Masumura, his works have gone largely unnoticed in the Western world. Even in Japan, his films aren’t discussed as much as they could be.

I think that, at the time, [Masumura] was an outsider in the Japanese film industry. He had a very unusual style that he made for himself in Japan,” concedes Konomi.

Screening as part of the six-part retrospective on Masumura is Seisaku’s Wife. It tells the story of a beautiful but disgraced woman in a small village who seduces the pride and joy of the village – a decorated war hero. The two fall in love but their love is tested when he is called back to duty.

You certainly get a sense of the “unusual style” that Konomi refers to in Seisaku’s Wife, yet it’s this very aesthetic that makes the film such a compelling feature. It displays love as both a gift and a curse, but perhaps what’s more interesting than the film’s depiction of the cruelty that comes with love, is how Masumura criticises the blind nationalism of the Japanese. The film’s political agenda comes as quite a welcome surprise and makes Seisaku’s Wife quite an impressive feature.

The best part about this retrospective is the fact these six films will all be free of charge, a more than courteous proposal for those looking to get introduced to the films of Yasuzo Masumura and Japanese cinema.

Of course, the Japanese Film Festival isn’t all about the serious dramas or samurai period pieces. There’s plenty of the usual Japanese fare like anime, romantic melodramas and bizarre comedies on the pallet. Konomi admits he is a fan of original dramas but also enjoys the sillier films like Afro Tanaka.

Afro Tanaka is certainly quite a bizarre film with an equally ludicrous premise. It follows Tanaka, a guy with an out-of-control afro who is desperate to find a girlfriend and lose his virginity before the wedding of one of his old high school chums.

The film is not without it’s laughs as there are a handful of funny moments. Having said this, the humour can come off as being quite crass and it’s certainly not going to entertain everyone.

But as Konomi says, “A large amount of Japanese films have [the capacity] to reach into people’s hearts.”

With so much to choose from at this year’s Japanese Film Festival, he hopes everyone coming into the festival will gain something out of their experience with JFF.

The 16th Japanese Film Festival begins on 29 November and will be running through to December 9. Sessions will be screening at both Hoyts Cinemas in Melbourne Central and at ACMI. To find the complete list of films at this year’s festival, visit their official website. For further information about the Japanese Film Festival, visit their Facebook and Twitter pages.