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Hiroyasu Ando, the Tokyo International Film Festival’s new chairman, has undergone a trial by fire in his first full year on the job. Brought in to bolster the 33-year-old festival’s finances and to boost its global relevancy, Ando instead found himself contending with a pandemic that would cut the event off from the world, while also undercutting much of its corporate sponsorship.
But Ando was perhaps uniquely equipped to steer the large Tokyo festival through the challenges of a pandemic — and beyond. Fluent in English, he served in Japan’s Foreign Service as a diplomat for 41 years, with stations in Washington D.C., New York, Rome and the Philippines. Following his worldly diplomatic career, he became the president of the Japan Foundation, the government-aligned agency tasked with promoting Japan’s soft power overseas and fostering intentional cultural exchange. During his tenure, Ando worked closely with the Tokyo government and the heads of Japan’s major studios to negotiate the country’s first film co-production treaties with Italy, France and China. The increased cooperation with China, in particular, helped pave the way for Japanese studios’ ongoing market growth at their neighbor’s enormous theatrical box office.
So when the pandemic was at its local peak in April, Ando engaged familiar government contacts and industry leaders to seek a consensus on how the Tokyo festival might continue in 2020. With local infection rates in Tokyo at a low plateau by the Fall — around 100-200 confirmed infections per day — the government advised the festival that it could go ahead with no limits on cinema seating capacity. The event’s international film competition would have to be scrapped, however, as it was unfeasible to invite an A-list collection of film figures to serve on the jury in light of Japan’s mandatory two-week quarantine requirements. Several high-profile components of the festival were salvaged or even added, though, such as a new eight-day panel discussion series organized by Japan’s most recent Oscar nominee, Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose most recent feature, Shoplifters, won the 2018 Cannes Palme d’Or.
With the 2020 festival underway, Ando is already looking towards the years to come — with a bold ambition of building the Tokyo event into Asia’s premiere celebration of cinema. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the tireless septuagenarian to discuss his vision for how Tokyo can elevate its game.
In the time since you joined the festival in mid-2019, what have you assessed to be the festival’s needs and what changes have you tried to undertake?
First of all, let me say that the Tokyo International Film Festival is a great attempt in the film industry. It’s fairly well known — but it is not as well known as we would like.
Let me put it another way: Our festival is based in Tokyo, which is a very unique global city, which people from all around the world love visiting. Our culture, our food, the unique atmosphere, the high-quality shopping — the city has so many attractions. People love it. But even in view of the special nature and popularity of Tokyo, the Tokyo International Film Festival has not attracted much attention from abroad yet.
If you look at France or Italy, they have marvelous filmmaking traditions, and they also have excellent film festivals — Cannes and Venice — which the whole world respects. Japan also has a great film history. We produced Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizuguchi and so many others. And we still produce many great films. But we don’t have a film festival that matches the level of our history, like our European colleagues do.
So I would like to work very hard to make our Tokyo festival into an event worthy of comparison to Cannes, Berlin and Venice. It is only an ambition; I may not succeed. But we must try.
What are the steps that you believe need to be taken to reach that bold ambition?
Well, there are so many things to be done. Fundraising is a big part, of course. In this world, everything seems to come down to money — no one is naive about that anymore. [Laughs] But how wisely you use the money once you raise it? That’s the next part.
In Japan we have an expression, “Silence is gold.” If you say something and then you cannot accomplish it, that’s far worse than saying nothing. So, about the steps, I would like to do them and then we can talk about them. Actions, not words.
Well, obviously, the pandemic has thrown a wrench into your plans for 2020, as it has for every major film festival since Berlin in February.
We really held out until the last moment to decide whether or not we should go ahead with the festival this year. But the government said we can open the theaters, and then later their guideline was that we can accommodate the audience at 100 percent of seating capacity in theaters. So we decided to go ahead, while doing everything we can in terms of sanitation and guidance inside the theaters to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Masks are required and temperatures will be taken. I should point out that baseball stadiums in Japan are welcoming back crowds too, so cinemas are not an exception. This is the trajectory in Japan right now. The infection rate was serious in Japan in April but it came down; we had a second wave, and it came down again. Now we are at a plateau, or a very slight uptick, with very low infection rates compared to the U.S. or Europe. We are very lucky and I only hope it continues. As we celebrate cinema, we should also remember to be grateful.
Even still, from our Hollywood perspective, there are several new things to be excited about. First of all, a solid lineup of films being show in cinemas. And you have Hirokazu Kore-eda, one of Japan’s leading auteurs, planning and moderating an all-new panel discussion series featuring esteemed filmmakers from around the world, and then people like Paramount chairman Jim Gianopolis giving a keynote at the TIFFCOM market. What are some aspects of the lineup that you’re most pleased about, despite the scaling-back you had to do in response to COVID-19?
Well, thank you very much for saying that. It’s a very unique year, so some changes had to wait. This year, we raised three goals. First, we wanted to convince the audience to come to the theaters, to enjoy cinema on the big screen and with good sound, in the company of other people. You can enjoy films at home over the internet perfectly well — it’s true. But the big screen, with strangers — this is the joy and essence of cinema. So above everything, we wanted to help get Tokyo film lovers back in our theaters, to help the Japanese film industry recover.
Second, since the challenges we are facing are global, we wanted to strengthen our solidarity with other international film festivals and the global film community. At our opening ceremony, we have messages of solidarity from people in Hollywood like Robert De Niro and Christopher Nolan, from the great European festivals in the form of Cannes’ director Thierry Frémaux, to the very fine Thai director and artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul representing Southeast Asia, and so on. We are also including in our lineup a lot of the best films from Cannes, Berlin, Venice and Toronto, which fewer people were able to see because of the pandemic.
And finally, the third point was that we want to host useful discussions about the future of Japanese filmmaking in world of cinema, especially in relation to themes all filmmakers are dealing with, such as the pandemic and the changes caused by online streaming services. This will be one of the topics at our talk series.
Were there any big changes that you had to sacrifice because of the pandemic?
This year, we really wanted to invite more film people from Hollywood, Europe and around Asia to create a more exciting atmosphere, to have many good discussions and amicable conversations among Japanese and foreign guests. We know that this is what brings life to a film festival, and it is something we have been missing. I actually secured a venue, a big space where people would be able to gather, to eat and drink and meet people spontaneously throughout the festival. But we had to let that go this year. It will continue to be our goal though — we need to create that excitement and energy at our festival. This is one of the things that Mr. Kore-eda has urged us to do.
Yeah, how did he become involved? In the past, Kore-eda had been somewhat critical of the festival at times.
I had a hard time convincing him. [Laughs] No, I’m partly kidding. We met, had the lot of great discussions and we found that we had many similar wishes for what the festival should become — and what it should do for filmmakers. And then he decided to come in and create this talk program for us. He designed the talk series as the “Asia Lounge,” recognizing that we are within Asia, and we are part of a community of great filmmakers from Korea, China and throughout Southeast Asia. I’m very pleased and grateful for Mr. Kore-eda’s positive posture to cooperate with the film festival. I really hope he will continue. A film festival should be a community of mutual support.
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