Festival Programmer On Revamping Event During Pandemic

If the organizers of the Tokyo International Film Festival could have selected the backdrop to a major revamp of the event, a global pandemic likely wouldn’t have appeared high on their list of choices. But sometimes life gives you lemons.

Last year saw new chairman Hiroyasu Ando take the reins for a hybrid edition impacted by the coronavirus. This year the event has relocated to the Hibiya-Ginza district in the hope of creating a more festive feel, while the man tasked with overhauling the content side is new programming director Shozo Ichiyama.

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A film festival veteran, Ichiyama is also known for his work as a producer with Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke, celebrated Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien and Japan’s own Takeshi Kitano.

For Ichiyama, the move away from the Roppongi Hills complex after nearly two decades is something of a return to the feel of the festival’s roots.

“In Shibuya, where it was held until the early 2000s, when you went to watch films, you could also enjoy the town. As well as the theaters, there were was a stage in front of the station, flags and banners on the street, and coffee shops where people would get together,” recalls Ichiyama.

“Roppongi was convenient, but isolated from the town; for a festival, you need to connect with the town. Like in Cannes or Berlin, where the venues are scattered within walking distance,” says Ichiyama, who has hopes that such an atmosphere can be fostered in its new home.

However, this year’s new-look fest is going to be something of a dry run. Despite the fact that more than 70 percent of Japan’s population is fully vaccinated, daily COVID-19 cases in Tokyo are in the low double digits and cinemas open at full capacity, travel restrictions mean only a handful of overseas guests will be in attendance.

Those who received special government permission to enter Japan, such as French actress and jury president Isabelle Huppert, will quarantine for three days and then have their movements restricted – the same rules as were applied to Olympic athletes and officials.

In terms of a silver lining, the pandemic has led some festivals to reduce the number of films screened, giving Tokyo access to a wider choice for its competition.

“We tried to keep a [regional] balance for the competition, but it ended up with a very strong Asian lineup,” explains Ichiyama. “Then again, that is as it should be, we are an Asian festival.”

On the other hand, Hollywood productions will open and close the festival – Clint Eastwood’s Cry Macho and Stephen Chbosky’s musical Dear Evan Hansen, respectively – something of a departure from recent years, when Japanese films often filled those slots.

Ichiyama is overseeing and rejigging the programming for all of the fest’s sections, which he says in the past were “not well connected.” As part of the new look, the screenings of very mainstream fare that were launched in an attempt to draw in local audiences have been axed, though he says there is still a place for “good commercial films.”

The Tokyo fest faced criticism in the past that it was run mostly by, and for the benefit of, the “big four” Japanese studios. Ichiyama is a former employee of major Shochiku, and first worked at the festival in that capacity in the 1990s. But he has since established impeccable indie and international credentials through running the Tokyo Filmex festival (which is unspooling alongside its bigger counterpart as the two events continue to deepen their cooperation) for 20 years and his extensive work with overseas directors.

“I’m trying to exclude films that only work for Japanese audiences,” says Ichiyama.

For the international sections, he has “included a few genre films,” which Ichiyama says, “may have people asking why I did that, but I think these are films that can succeed at the festival.”

Ichiyama says he is curious to find out how both audiences and programmers from other fests react to his selection.

As for the future, once the pandemic is over, he plans to carry on leveraging his international connections to raise Tokyo’s profile on the festival circuit.

“If influential people from the industry come, then that gives another reason aside from the films for other people to make the journey,” suggests Ichiyama.

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