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Hirokazu Kore-Eda, arguably Japan’s most esteemed contemporary auteur, is again a ubiquitous presence at the Tokyo International Film Festival. After years of frustration over the fact that Japan’s flagship cinema event didn’t seem to have the international influence to match his country’s storied film legacy, Kore-eda got directly involved in the festival last year as a consultant and hands-on advocate for change.
Kore-eda’s first effort at the 2020 Tokyo festival was the creation of the new Asia Lounge program, a hangout space and public conversation series featuring leading filmmakers from around the region. In its impressive second iteration this year, the program features public dialogs between Oscar winner Bong Joon-ho and Japanese anime legend Mamoru Hosoda, French screen icon Isabelle Huppert (chair of Tokyo’s jury this year) and Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi (winner of Cannes’ 2021 best screenplay award for his latest feature Drive My Car), Thai Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Japanese actor Hidetoshi Nishijima, along with five other inspired pairings. The discussions were also streamed online, with many of them hosted or introduced by Kore-eda himself.
The Hollywood Reporter sat down with the director on a brilliantly clear autumn afternoon in the Japanese capital for a brief chat about recent trends in the country’s film industry (Kore-eda declined to discuss his next film, his first Korean-language feature, Baby, Box, Broker, which will star Song Kong-ho and Bae Doona).
For quite a few years, you have been advocating for change at the Tokyo International Film Festival, and it seems some of those ideas are now being implemented. What’s your assessment of the changes made so far, and what else do you think would be helpful?
It’s true that I often criticized the Tokyo International Film Festival before, offering my thoughts on what should change or what was necessary to improve the festival for the future. But because I was criticizing, the staff of the festival said, “Okay, well, then work with us.” So, I did; I started to cooperate with them beginning last year. I’m not selecting the films that screen, of course, but I’m kind of a member of the festival staff now. So I don’t think it’s really appropriate for me to publicly critique things anymore; I’m actually in the position to receive criticism from other people now. But I think things are getting better. I feel that, finally, big changes are happening, which might invite even more criticism, but that’s actually a good thing. Of course, there are many more things we need to do. Even this Asia lounge program I created, we are still in the test phase. If we can finally be recovered from COVID by next year, I think the festival will finally begin taking the shape we’ve hoped for.
The whole world has been marveling at the success of the Korean industry lately, whether it’s Bong Joon-ho’s historic Oscar wins or the enormous global popularity of Squid Game and other Korean series. I know you’re not ready to talk about your new Korean-language film, but I wondered what some of your impressions were while working there on Baby, Box, Broker. As a leading figure of the Japanese industry, do you feel there are any lessons that can be learned and imported from Korea’s model?
Of course, there are many things we can learn from the Korean film industry. One thing we can learn from is the success of the Busan International Film Festival, which I think is closely connected to the success of the whole Korean industry. That festival was launched and cultivated in a very good way — the way they supported young Korean directors over the years and cultivated the whole Korean audience’s appreciation of cinema. Busan is actually a much younger festival than Tokyo, but they have built it into one of the world’s most important festivals. That’s another one of the factors that made me want to get involved in improving the Tokyo festival.
In general, though, when we look at the current success of the Korean entertainment industry, we should think about how many decades it took for them to get to this moment of success, and all of the things their filmmakers, film companies and supporting organizations did to carefully nurture and grow their industry. I don’t think we can simply take things from Korea today and directly apply them to Japan — our situations are different — but we can think about their overall approach over the years and learn from it.
When I look at our film industry in Japan, the ages of everyone involved is very different from Korea. In Korea, there are so many young people making films, getting involved in filmmaking. There are repeated waves of great creators in their film industry.
In Japan, I think there needs to be a change in the generation of people who are making films. I think we should all take steps towards assisting and supporting that generational change. It’s the same situation for politics in Japan, other culture industries, and the manufacturing and business world. We have to get a new, young generation involved in these industries. Until that happens, I don’t think much change will occur in Japan. When we get a new generation in positions of leadership, then we will start to see some positive changes occur from the inside.
What changes would you like to see made in the broader Japanese film industry outside of the festival sphere? What would help create a more constructive environment for the next generation of filmmakers? The introduction of unions, a more centralized and empowered film commission, government subsidies or incentives? I know you’re an artist, not a technocrat, but you’ve been such an effective advocate for change here at the festival.
(Sighs audibly, then laughs) Okay, there are so many things necessary for us to improve our Japanese movie industry. I could talk to you about this for an entire day. As a filmmaker, I can say we have nothing in Japan to support us. Compared to other countries, we have no significant support in Japan for the creation of films. One point is that none of our directors are working together to really study the industry. It makes me wonder if our industry is actually willing to come together to study the issues and have a conversation with the government about what’s needed. The Japanese film industry is very old and vertically integrated and I’m not sure if this system is actually helping the industry. Are we, as an industry, thinking about the coming 10 to 20 years beyond COVID and the future of Japanese film culture? Are we thinking about how to use this new streaming technology to our advantage as an industry? Is anyone thinking about the plan for how to pass Japan’s film rich film legacy to the next generation? This is partly why I started getting involved in the Tokyo festival.
I can’t say that I’m doing much now for the industry — I’m making my own films too — but I will eventually do something about these issues. It’s very difficult because this Japanese film industry is very old and these companies, like Nikkatsu, Toho or Shochiku, these same companies have been making our films for more than one hundred years in Japan. But I don’t know if they have actually made any effort to pass the rich film culture that they are the stewards of to the next generation. These big companies make the films, they market and distribute them, and they own most of the theaters — it’s all done internally, top-to-bottom. If you’re working independently, I don’t know if it’s even possible to compete with them, and whether this lack of competition is a good thing for the industry. This is one of the things we need to look at. But it’s difficult for individual filmmakers to talk about the important issues, because we need to have partnerships with these companies too. As a filmmaker, I want and need to partner with these giant companies, but I also want to complain about them. It’s a very tough position to be in. But somebody has to say these things, so I will say them. Of course, it’s easier for me to just make my films and stay quiet, but I think things need to change, so I’m going to speak up.
You mentioned briefly the local arrival of the global streaming companies. Japan has become Netflix’s biggest revenue market in Asia and they have a large slate of Japanese-language content in development to lure in more users. Disney+ and Warner Media’s HBO Max are beginning to follow the same strategy. So it seems there is a wave of outside capital and producer interest coming to the country to produce Japanese content. What do you make of this trend? Do you think it will be good for Japanese creators? Do you have apprehensions?
Of course, it’s a big opportunity, but at the same time it is a threat. I don’t see it as simply good or bad. I think we have to properly assess the trend for what it is. We shouldn’t be overly protective but we shouldn’t be naive either. I do believe that creative works are coming into the world that probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to take shape without these streaming companies, so there have been many benefits for creators.
As a creator myself, I think that when you make a film or a series for one of these companies, you have to think about how it will be received in 100 countries. Simply thinking about that fact could have a big impact on what you make — it could be a negative influence or a positive one; it depends what you do with it.
So, I don’t know; but I’ll give it a try. I do feel I’ll have to change the way I work when I do a streaming project. I won’t be making a film anymore for people who are going to go into a dark cinema to sit in silence for two hours together. So I’m not sure exactly what choices I would make, but I think I’ll have to work in a different style. I’d like to give it a try and then compare what I like best: Working for a streaming company with more resources in some new style, or making films for theaters with a low budget as I have before.
There is one thing that I really hate about the streaming companies though. I hate the way they don’t show a series or a film’s credits — they just jump to the next episode. From a creator’s point of view, I really don’t like that. They shouldn’t take that away from everyone who worked so hard together to create the film.
Okay, I had better ask at least one question about actual films or filmmakers. It’s always fun to hear directors thoughts about their peers. So to that end: Who are some of your contemporaries here in Japan whose work you’ve been most impressed by lately?
First, in Korea, I actually like many of the small indie films better than the big-budget ones. Kim Bora’s House of Hummingbird and Yoon Dan-bi’s Moving On are two films that impressed me. Those are good films.
In Japan, just the day before yesterday I saw [Ryusuke] Hamaguchi’s Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy. That film made me envious as a director and I just loved it. When I woke up the next morning, I found that I was still thinking about it. Sometimes when you see a film, you forget about it immediately; other times, you want to forget about it (Laughs). But this film really stayed with me. That scene at the end, on the escalator in front of Sendai Station… it’s still in my thoughts. What a wonderful experience.
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