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Tokyo International Film Festival chairman Hiroyasu Ando is finally free to make some of the big changes he believes will revitalize Japan’s oldest cinema event.
A career diplomat who spent over 40 years in Japan’s Foreign Service, Ando joined the Tokyo festival in the new role of chairman midway through 2019. But the pandemic threw a wrench into his early ambitions to shake up the festival last year, and the event’s outgoing former director, Takeo Hisamatsu, still retained operation control over many of the event’s functions.
In 2021, Ando sits alone at the top of the Tokyo film festival’s leadership ranks, and he has wasted no time in implementing many of his big-picture ideas for how the 34-year-old festival can begin to attain the global relevance and prestige befitting Japan’s rich cinematic heritage.
In March, Ando replaced the festival’s longstanding artistic director Yoshi Yatabe with industry veteran Shozo Ichiyama, who is known for a lengthy career as a producer on works by Takeshi Kitano, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien and celebrated Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke. At the same time, Ando announced that the festival would be relocating from its former home in the Roppongi Hills development to Tokyo’s historic, high-end culture district of Hibiya-Ginza. He also belatedly signed the 5050×2020 gender parity pledge, which commits the festival to improve the female representation of its executive boards, compiling statistics on the gender of the filmmakers and crew for all titles submitted to the festival, and increasing selection transparency along gender lines. The pledge has been signed by 156 film festivals, including Cannes, Berlin and Venice, but Tokyo is still the only major Asian event to board the charter.
Ando also has made an ally of Japan’s most internationally celebrated contemporary director, Palme d’Or winner and Oscar nominee Hirokazu Kore-eda. With Ando’s support, Kore-eda created for the festival a new conversation series and event space dubbed the Asia Lounge. Returning in 2021, the program will feature public dialogs between Oscar winner Bong Joon-ho (Parasite) and Japanese anime veteran Mamoru Hosoda (Mirai), French screen goddess Isabelle Huppert 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 Hollywood Reporter sat down with Ando last week to discuss his bold ambitions for the Tokyo festival’s future.
Tell us about the logic behind some of the changes you made to the festival this year?
Well, this is actually only my first year as effective chairman of the festival, so I started making changes right away. One year is not sufficient. Although I have done certain things, I still have a lot I want to do next year.
First of all, we moved locations to Hibiya-Ginza district in order to make the festival atmosphere more energetic and active. This area is rich with facilities — hotels, restaurants, great shopping, bars and, of course, movie theaters. Historically, this area was a cinema town. When I was a small boy, I used to come to the district to see films with my family, and afterwards we went to dinner and walked around in the evening. Many residents of Tokyo have these kinds of memories of this area. It’s also a very convenient area, with lots of subway stations and access from various train lines, so it’s easy to get in and out from any area of Tokyo. We want to enlarge the Japanese audience of the festival, and also make it more friendly and appealing to international visitors. It’s time we make this festival truly international. Our old location in Roppongi Hills was very presentable, but after you leave that facility, I think a lot of international guests were uncertain where to go. Roppongi is less pedestrian-friendly. But Ginza is sort of one of the faces of Tokyo; it’s an area that everyone must visit when they come to Japan. It’s home to some of our finest restaurants. So I’m sure visitors will enjoy walking around and exploring after they finish their day at the festival, and their impressions and memories will serve as great pr for the city of Tokyo and Japan.
What were your motives for the staffing changes you have made throughout the festival?
Well, Mr. Yatabe, the former creative director, served in his role for 17 years — and 17 years is quite a long time. I think he did a good job, but in most film festivals, the creative directors change every four or five years. If one person stays in that role too long, then the flexibility is lost and the color of the festival is fixed. We need some changes, occasionally, to stay creatively vital. So I picked Mr. Ichiyama as the successor for three reasons. First, he has a very good insight for finding great films and he already had a very good reputation as a programmer. Second, he has an extensive network in the international film world because of his career as a producer, and he has friends and contacts in the cinema communities of many foreign countries. This was evident in his first year in the job — when he wanted to get a particular film for our festival, it was quite easy for him to make it happen with the relevant people. And the third reason is that he has a very good personality [Laughs]. He’s a very amicable person to talk to, and as chairman, I’ve found that he’s a person you can talk to easily and reach very constructive conclusions.
Well, I have to say I was quite impressed by this year’s lineup, and the logic that is apparent throughout the selection.
I am very glad to hear you say that. Many people have reached out to us to say similar things.
How have things changed in your organization since you signed the gender parity pledge earlier this year?
So, we signed this document in March on International Women’s Day. And we have done all of the gender-relating reporting that the commitment requires. And then we have tried to increase our figures for female participation and leadership. Of course, when we select the films, we cannot intentionally select women’s films on those criteria alone. It has to be done in terms of the quality of the films, but still we have in our minds that we should select more films from women directors. And this year, the percentage of films directed by women in our selection increased to 31.9 percent from 16 percent last year. So it almost doubled. On our management team, we have 12 people and five of them are women. So that’s like 40 percent, which is quite a high figure for Japanese organizations — rather sadly. So we are making progress, but we have more work to do.
Having lived in Japan for some time, I’m aware that institutional change tends to move very slowly here — and that those who attempt to institute bold changes often encounter more than a little friction. It can be quite easy to ruffle feathers and cause offense, intended or not. What kind of reaction have you gotten to your bold approach to remaking the festival?
Yes, you’re right. In Japan, as you have found, things must usually go slowly, with changes coming gradually, little by little. So maybe what I intended to do this year was already too fast. Maybe there are some people who are not very pleased with my actions, even inside the festival itself. There was resistance coming from various quarters. But I don’t think we have any choice in this matter. If we want a truly world-class film festival in Japan, we must take action.
This year, we also partnered with Amazon Prime Video for a new competition called the Take One Award, which creates an independent jury competition to discover talented new Japanese filmmakers. Aspiring directors in Japan submit their short films and the winner receives a prize of 1 million yen from Amazon, as well as the opportunity to explore the production of a potential feature film with Amazon Studios. We hope this partnership will continue for many years, and it’s our first step towards working more with the international streaming companies. I believe there are many exciting possibilities in this area and I welcome them to reach out to us.
Obviously, the pandemic is still severely limiting your ability to boost international participation in the festival. But I guess you are laying the groundwork for next year?
Yes, as I said, this festival needs to become an international festival in the truest sense. So we wanted to invite as many film industry people as possible from abroad. But this year, because of the government’s immigration restrictions related to the pandemic, I could not invite as many people as I wanted. We just recently got the government’s exemption on the immigration restriction to invite some guests. We’re bringing a little under 10 people from abroad this year, including leaders from the Tribeca Film Festival, Berlin, Cannes and others. The government is allowing them to come in with certain restrictions, like they can’t go to restaurants, parties, etc. So I’m very grateful to them for coming.
The Asian Lounge program Mr. Kore-eda originally proposed for us was supposed to be a certain physical location, where people from abroad and Japan can gather for food, drinks and cinema discussions, etc. He wants to create some of the festival atmosphere you find at the festivals in Europe and we are very welcoming of this idea. So we secured a beautiful venue in Hibiya called The Drawing House, a very big, stylish indoor-outdoor restaurant and bar. I really hoped by the end of October it would be possible to invite the world and host real international exchanges in this place, but there are still certain Covid-19 restrictions imposed by the government, so our activities will remain limited there this year. But we will still hold the excellent panel discussion series organized by Mr. Kore-eda, with most of the international filmmakers taking part remotely online. We will certainly expand all of these ideas next year though. As I keep saying, this internationalization of our festival is still at a primitive stage, but it has begun.
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