History of Japan’s Oldest Film Fest Bookended by Earthquakes

Courtesy of Spotted Productions
'100 Yen Love'

Yufuin Film Festival in Kyushu, which has helped launch the career of many Japanese filmmakers and features passionate symposiums where fistfights have been known to break out, was threatened by another earthquake this year.

On April 21, 1975, a huge earthquake struck the sleepy hot-spring resort town of Yufuin, on the southern island of Kyushu, destroying buildings and infrastructure. Registering 6.4 on the Japanese intensity scale of 1 to 7, it was the biggest tremor to hit the country since the end of the World War II.

It would be the catalyst for the creation of what has become the longest-running film festival in Japan.

"We thought it was the end for the town of Yufuin,” recalls Kentaro Nakaya, head of the festival for 41 years. “But to try and revive the town, a music festival and a film festival were launched."

In August 1976, the first edition of the fest was launched in the town, despite the fact that it doesn’t have a single cinema, a situation that persists to this day. Films are shown at the community hall, as well as at an outdoor screen set up in front of the town’s train station.

"We had to convince local businesses to turn off their lights and let us block off the road," says Nakaya. "There were a lot of complaints, but eventually they realized the event would bring a lot of people to the town."

The event slowly began to attract numerous top directors and industry people from Tokyo, including iconic helmer Juzo Itami, who brought his debut feature The Funeral (Ososhiki) to the fest in 1984. The buzz created by its screening at the event helped turn the film into a major hit, winning five Japan Academy Prizes.

Itami was infamously slashed and beaten by a group of yakuza mobsters in 1992, following the release of his Minbo: the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion (Minbo no Onna), in retaliation for its unflattering portrayal of Japanese gangsters.

One of the appeals of the festival is its freewheeling symposiums, where heated discussions of screened films abound, a rarity in Japan’s mostly staid film industry.

"The symposiums get very lively, people can be very critical about the movies and sometimes the filmmakers get really angry," says Nakaya. "Though these days it’s mostly shouting matches. In years gone by, there used to be actual fights, people grabbing each other by the throat and objects getting thrown."

Actress Sakura Ando has been attending the festival since she was a child, when she came with her father, actor and director Eiji Okuda. She was at this year’s event, which began Wednesday and concludes Sunday, for a screening (and symposium) of 100 Yen Love, Japan’s submission for last year’s foreign-language film Oscar, for which she won the Japan Academy best actress honor.

Ando says listening to the debates at the fest when she was young made her realize it could be a harsh industry, but also how important film and the human relationships around them are, something that still influences her today.

"In 2009, when I came for the first time with a film I was in, I was really nervous and worried whether people would make really harsh comments about it," she says.

But Ando also appreciates the way people freely express themselves at the event, something that is more difficult to do at larger, more stage-managed festivals.

"The questions from the audiences are very knowledgeable, and it’s a chance for the media to speak more freely, too — I learn a huge amount," says the actress.

Taking advantage of the freedom herself, Ando complained about the low budget and punishing shoot for 100 Yen Love. Japanese cast and crews typically work schedules, and in conditions, that would drive Hollywood unions to apoplexy, but the shooting of 100 Yen Love was, by all accounts, demanding even by those standards. Because the film was a critical, award-winning success, Ando worries studios will think future productions can be done in the same way. 

"The way Yufuin has carried on for 41 years almost unchanged is really incredible. Some of the regulars have been coming since before I was born," she says. 

However, this year, in April again, another major earthquake shook Kyushu. The initial earthquake on April 16, which registered a maximum 7 intensity — followed by 140 aftershocks — killed 50 and injured 3,000, with more than 44,000 people evacuated from their homes.

Although the epicenter was in neighboring Kumamoto, Yufuin also suffered damage and hundreds of thousands of tourists canceled trips to the region.

The organizers of the festival, born in the aftermath of an earthquake, worried that the latest disaster would be the death knell of the event. But the industry rallied around: Many directors and actors pledged to attend and major film companies donated funds to ensure its survival.

"Because of the disaster this year, I wanted to come more than ever," says Ando.