In the wake of recent natural disasters, Japan’s wider culture is the focus of this year’s Japanese Film Festival.
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27 Sep 2011 - 10:54 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

Japanese Film Festival director Masafumi Konomi says that until this year, the film industry back home managed to produce as many as 400 titles annually. “And that only counts films that have had a theatrical release of a few weeks,” he told SBS, speaking from his office in Sydney at the Japan Foundation. “There are still more made that play in venues, for sometimes only a day or two, which aren't counted – these films are very low budget and independent.” But, he says, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that hit his homeland in March this year completely changed the face of production in Japan. “After that things just stopped almost all major projects and we are working on the process of a long recovery.” Konomi says that an essential part of the rebuilding process is the promotion and celebration of Japanese culture, which for Konomi and his small staff and team of volunteers makes this year's festival especially important.

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“We want to remind people of Japan and we want to show its cultural scope, which is why the films chosen are so diverse,” he says. In Japan, certain genres dominate or are maybe thought of as 'typical', he says, like sci-fi and anime, which have a strong fan base here in Australia thanks to the support of local DVD labels like Madman. But there are other much loved sub-genres in Japanese cinema, like, say, “the doctor drama” that are not quite as well known outside its borders. “We try to program films that seem a bit 'different', or say less 'typically' Japanese. So in this way the festival is for a 'foreign' or non-Japanese audience,” he says.

A cineaste from a young age, Konomi remembers his film buff parents would interrupt his study so he could catch an important classic on TV. His first degree was in town planning but he pursued his passion for film when he directed the very first JFF 15 years ago. (He's programmed each festival since.) That debut festival was, he says, a low-key hand-made affair, run more on enthusiasm that any sense of marketing savvy or event management know-how. “Our venue was Film Australia at Lindfield and I personally cut out each ticket.” Now the festival screens in mainstream entertainment precincts in Melbourne and Sydney and most other states where it attracts strong media and strong box office. “Last year we had over 8,000 admissions alone in Sydney,” he says.

To complete this year's program Konomi says he watched about 150 films. His final selection of 30 features includes a number of very recent releases that also happen to be domestic box office hits like Gantz (and its sequel), Arrietty from Studio Ghibli and co-produced by Miyazaki Hayao, famous for popular titles like Laputa and Spirited Away, and Yoshihiro Fukagawa's In His Chart aka Kamisama no Karute, a medical drama starring actor/musician Sho Sakurai, from popular band Arashi.

“We're very worried about piracy, so that's why I selected a number of films that have only just finished their theatrical run in Japan,” he explains, “and our opening night film Rebirth will not open there until October.”

He describes the program as eclectic and broad in terms of style, content and target audience, though he says ultimately the selection is tilted toward what he calls “mainstream” Japanese cinema. “From a non-Japanese point of view, mainstream Japanese film may seem more 'artistic', an impression based on the script,” he says. “I think many of the films seem to be [focused] on things that are very human.”

Konomi's Highlights

Honeymoon in Hell, directed by Ryuichi Honda, is a bizarre fantasia about a bored couple whose experience of Hell turns into a resort package gone mad complete with wacky tour guides and weird food. “It's very imaginative, but it's also very serious about modern marriage,” says Konomi.

Abacus and Sword is despite what the title may imply an “action-less” samurai pic and a perfect example of Konomi's ambition to program variations on classic genres. It's a comedy drama, based on fact, though the narrative itself is fiction, the plot gimmick he explains is authentic. Apparently there were a group of samurai who devoted themselves exclusively to accounting. Directed by Yoshimitsu Morita and based on a novel by Michifumi Isoda, it's set during the era when the samurai were beginning to lose relevance. It stars Masato Sakai as a samurai who saves a family business by imposing discipline in a period of economic uncertainty.

Oba: The Last Samurai, says Konomi, offers a unique perspective for a Japanese produced film concerning WWII. “There have been great taboos [in Japan] surrounding WWII stories,” he says, “and this has meant that the current younger generation know little of the period.” Based on the book by US WWII GI Don Jones, director Hideyuki Hirayama portrays the bitter and bloody battle for Saipan from both sides of the conflict. Starring Yutaka Takenouchi as Capt. Sakae Oba, the film, says Konomi, eschews the traditional theme of “suicidal glory” for a story about leadership and honour through survival and tenacity, with Oba leading a guerilla war against the US even after the official Japanese surrender of August 1945.

Ninja Kids!!!, says Konomi, is a blast of unexpected and free-wheeling craziness from 13 Assassins director Takashi Miike, who has a reputation for making ultra-violent epics. This movie, about kids who join up at a school for ninjas, explains Konomi, is as relentlessly wacky and sweet as Miike other pics are scorchingly nasty.

The Japanese Film Festival will screen in Perth (29 September – 7 October), Hobart (16 – 19 October), Brisbane (1 – 4 November), Sydney (17 – 27 November) and Melbourne (29 November – 6 December). For more information see http://15th.japanesefilmfestival.net/