In 1997 I was living in the UK and my only experience of Japanese cinema up until then was the legendary ‘Akira’ and the masterpiece that is ‘The Seven Samurai’. It’s not that I was naïve of the culture that existed; there weren’t many cinemas screening Japanese films. Sure, I could rent the latest anime films from my local video store to watch with my geeky friends, but there wasn’t a market for other genres. You could only see them if your local video store rented them or pay a fortune to buy them from HMV on import. Late night TV screenings were the other viable option to watch a film, but I always fell asleep half way through because they were on so late! The situation was the same in Australia back then as well until the inaugural Japanese Film Festival started to change that.
Fast forward 15 years and once again the Japanese Film Festival screens an eclectic mix of films for your (and my!) viewing pleasure. Many people have misconceptions that Japanese films are just about sword-wielding samurais and giant robots knocking the hell out of each other, but as Festival Director Masafumi Konomi reveals, there is more to Japanese cinema than meets the eye.
Music Feeds: Congratulations on the Festival’s 15th year! How did the festival begin and what were some of the first films screened?
Masafumi Konomi: Thank you very much. I did not expect the festival to become so big. This is an amazing experience in my life. When I came to Australia 20 years ago, there were only a few cult films shown on SBS. I often asked my Australian friends what their favourite Japanese film was. They all said without fail: ‘The Weather Woman’. I knew there was a lot of work to be done. Considering that approximately 400 films are produced in Japan each year, I believed that we ought to show a wider range of Japanese films to the public, otherwise Australian people would have very limited knowledge about Japanese society or culture through Japanese cinema and therefore would not be able to judge it fairly. That was the reason I started this Japanese film festival. In the 1st Japanese Film Festival, we screened only 3 films with free admission: ‘A Class to Remember’ (Dir. Yoji Yamada), ‘Kids Return’ (Dir. Takeshi Kitano) and ‘Haru’ (Dir. Yoshimitsu Morita).
Music Feeds: Do you think that Australian audiences will support the festival even more given the tragedies that have recently struck Japan?
Masafumi Konomi: Yes, I believe so. Obviously, Australian people still remember these tragic events with your strong images, but now there seems to be much less exposure about this issue in any media in Australia. Eventually, you will forget about it or be much less concerned about it. It is important for us to share a part of the responsibility in restoring hope to our broken nation. So this year I have included in the program films such as ‘Yamakoshi’ and the ‘Town’s Children’. I try to include some special screening program related to these issues in The Japanese Film Festival every year.
Muisc Feeds: Cinema often challenges the viewer to think about their own lives. How do you think that Australian audiences will relate to the ‘Finding Hope Through Films’ screenings?
Masafumi Konomi: In film, we see stories and insights into the human spirit and our ability to fight adversity under the worst conditions as well as lighter things such as love and comedy, all of which promote healing. Film can also bring hope by illustrating a bright future by inspiring us all, bringing us all together under one roof in hope for a new beginning. I believe that we will be able to achieve this common thread of hope through films.
Music Feeds: The Festival programme has an excellent transport icon that lets you ‘Travel Japan By Film’. This is a great idea for those of us planning a trip to such a beautiful country. Was there a conscience decision to include this in the programme to help encourage tourism?
Masafumi Konomi: Film is the composite art, so what I am trying to do in this film festival is to provide any related knowledge about Japan to an audience. I have had this idea since 2006 when we expanded the festival program from 8 to 20 titles. However, we did not have any chance to make it possible due to our budget restriction and lack of other supporters. Ironically, since we have faced big problems, we now have enough supporters to make this event possible.
Music Feeds: Why are Japanese films different from their worldwide counterparts? What sets them apart?
Masafumi Konomi: I need a day to explain that! Generally, Japanese films are unique in that artistic direction and expression is not so direct; everything is very considered and details are often focused on in great depth. There is also a great deal of thought in the artistic use of space and expression without dialogue. These factors are based on any storylines from traditional to modern. The traditional storyline that always pursues the complexities of human relationships is still dominant in many modern Japanese films. I believe that it is this focus on people and human nature that makes Japanese films unique.
Music Feeds: What is THE quintessential Japanese film?
Masafumi Konomi: In terms of the complexity and harmony of human relationships, ‘Tokyo Story’ directed by Yasujiro Ozu is the best example.
Music Feeds: Hollywood may have the bigger budgets, but Japan does animation like no other. Why do you think that there has been an increase in Anime distribution and increase of fanbases in Australia? Can you also tell us a little about the superb Anime films screening this year: ‘Arrietty’ and ‘Buddha: The Great Departure’. There’s never enough of these gems!
Masafumi Konomi: This is a bit of a complicated issue. On the surface, it seems that there is a big success in Japanese animation because you see the increase of the core anime fans all over the world. However, overall profit for the anime industry has not been a good figure in general terms of actual box office or DVD sales since 2009. In Japan, many anime companies have suffered from shortage of budgets. Actually, you see only a few anime companies such as Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli and Mamoru Oshii’s Production IG being dominant in the market. However, there will be a good movement for the anime industry in Japan this year or the next few years since there is a huge increase of cooperate sponsors As you know, Hollywood has already given up producing 2D animations and shifted to 3D animations and been predominant in the world market. On the other hand, most of Japanese anime is still 2D. This is simply because they do not have enough budget. But again, I think the uniqueness in terms of the storyline of human nature and human relationship has supported the industry. In this meaning, I can tell you that ‘Arrietty’ and ‘Buddha’ are two of the masterpieces in recent Japanese anime industry now, which do not depend on 3D anime.
Music Feeds: There is a truly unique Japanese sense of humour. Please tell us a little bit more about the ‘King of Comedy’ Koki Mitani mini retrospective.
Masafumi Konomi: I have really wanted to introduce Koki MItani’s works to Australia for a long time. This is because I would like to see how much Australian people can understand or laugh at the Japanese sense of humour. Mitani Koki’s works are based on so called ‘the situation comedy’, which would be equivalent to a live TV show recorded in a studio. I think that comedy is one of the most difficult works in film in terms of storylines and dialogue since people’s cultural background and social values are different by each generation and country. Koki Mitani is very popular in Japan but has not been introduced to other nations so often. I look forward to seeing the reaction of Australian audience.
Music Feeds: What are the highlights of this year’s festival?
Masafumi Konomi: All of our special events, including the event which invites a very popular actor to his first ever Japanese Film Festival! Actually, I really appreciate that Australian people have supported this festival for 15 years and made it possible to be the biggest ever. I believe that the highlight of this year’s festival will be the ambiance of the cinema at the festival and the togetherness that you experience from watching a film, attending any special event with other people, sharing the exciting or touching moments, and of course ‘HOPE’ through films.
Music Feeds: One Five (you’ll have to check the website to see what that means!) Mr Konomi and thank you very much for your time.
The Japanese Film Festival screens in Sydney from 17th to 27th November 2011.
For full programme, venue and ticket information visit: http://15th.japanesefilmfestival.net