Tokyo Festival Chief Takeo Hisamatsu Talks New Animation Section, Netflix and "Quality Issue" of Japanese Films

Courtesy of TIFF
Takeo Hisamatsu

Now helming his third festival, Hisamatsu also spoke about the challenges the Tokyo Olympics may pose next year.

With the international interest in Japan piqued by recent events such as the coronation of the new Emperor Naruhito and the ongoing Rugby World Cup, and with the 2020 Olympics looming large on the horizon, the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) decided to lean into Japanese films and animation for its 32nd edition. 

The festival, which runs until Nov. 5, opened with Tora-san, Wish You Were Here, the 50th entry in Yoji Yamada's thoroughly Japanese Otoko wa Tsurai yo series, has several gala screenings of Japanese films on the program, and perhaps most important made a commitment to boost Japanese animation with a dedicated festival section, an upgrade from the sidebars of previous years.

TIFF's director Takeo Hisamatsu has been the driving force behind the festival's celebration of Japanese visual culture this year and he spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about Japan's current place in the international spotlight, the long-overdue dedicated animation section at TIFF, the presence of Netflix at TIFF and his candid views on the state of the country's film production. 

You've been very vocal about the eyes of the world being on Japan due to things like the coronation and the World Cup, how has that affected the festival's makeup?

Japan is in the spotlight at this moment, so this year we have decided to focus more on Japanese films and Japanese culture, like animation, which is one of our strong points and which has evolved in a very unique way here and had influence overseas. The opening film [Tora-san, Wish You Were Here] is very Japanese, we have many Japanese films being screened and Japanese animation has been upgraded to its own section. The attention is on us [right now] so it's a good time to show or let people discover the attraction and charm of Japanese films and Japanese visual culture. 

Is this approach mainly for the benefit of the visiting international audience? 

No, we also want Japanese people here to rediscover our films. We used to have big filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa, so many great filmmakers and great films, the younger Japanese generation don't know much about these films and people like Kurosawa or [Yasujiro] Ozu. It's the same everywhere, contemporary audiences don't know as much as those before, because most of these things are not as available as before. You go to the video store and they don't [tend] to handle those classic titles and the streamers don't really deal with them either. It's a shame. One of our missions is to cultivate the future of cinema and rediscovering great films is part of that. 

There has been some great success for Japanese films abroad recently, particularly with Shoplifters winning the Palme d'Or and Your Name making huge returns at the box office, do you feel this success is a one-off or something that can become more consistent?  

Successful? I don't see that. For domestic box office this year we're probably going to hit the highest gross on record, but internationally I don't think our films are selling or doing great overseas. Sure [Hirokazu] Kore-eda's film did well, but we used to have so many filmmakers doing well, so comparatively it's not that great. Compared to 50 or 60 years ago, we need three or four more Kore-edas.

But there has been success in the Chinese market, no? 

Oh, in China yes. In China this year already we got more than 20 Japanese films released. So Japan and China are in a good place at the moment. Our relationship is getting better and they are introducing more Japanese films. It's 20 titles in the box office market, like those getting a normal theatrical release. And in the few Chinese festivals, like Shanghai, there were more than 50 Japanese films. So in terms of China, we've been successful, but the [rest of the] international market? I don't know. I don't think the Japanese films are selling very well. 

So what has changed? Why are Japanese films not being sold as successfully abroad as before? 

In Asia, we are still strong, but now you have Korean films. The Korean government is supporting [their filmmakers] to go overseas to sell their products. On top of the movies there's K-pop, K-drama. The Korean budget is like 10 times bigger than us to promote Korean culture abroad. So I think the Japanese government should think about doing something [about that gap]. Our new chairman is from sort of like the government, so I'm expecting him to bring more money! (Laughs.)

Is a lack of funding the only issue?

About 700 films were made this year [in Japan], probably. It's too much. It's not a quantity issue, it's a quality issue. Most of them are low-budget films and most won't even get a chance to be released in theaters. It's easier to make movies now, you can even do it on your cellphone. It is a kind of bubble that might burst as these movies are aiming for streaming companies. At this moment too many movies are made [in Japan], and even if the box office is going up, say by 10 percent, the return per film is going down as there are 50 percent more films. 

So let's talk about TIFF's new dedicated animation section, why did it take so long to make animation a permanent part of the festival? 

There were spotlights before, but yeah, from this year, we upgraded animation to a section. Meaning it's an ongoing commitment to introduce Japanese animation. We will still introduce international animation, but this section will be dedicated to Japanese animation.

Why wasn't there a dedicated animation section before? 

The visibility or presence of animation was not that high before, I think it was considered to be kids stuff, a subculture thing. But looking at the box office charts in Japan every year, more than half are animation now. And it's the same in the U.S., too. We can't ignore animation anymore, it has a big presence now. 

Netflix will be showing three films at TIFF this year, including the awards contender The Irishman. Why has Tokyo been much more welcoming of the company than other festivals?

Some festivals are accepting them. Our stance is clear, if a picture is worthy and made available to be screened to a Japanese audience at a film festival, then we want to screen it. That's part of our mission, I think. But at the same time, we have many stakeholders and there are some in the Japanese film industry where the opinion on this is more mixed. But basically if the picture is great, then we want to screen it. We have screened Netflix content before [it became a big debate] and before the company was so big, so it has not been that big an issue for us. 

Looking toward next year, the Olympics will obviously loom large over Tokyo — how will that affect things at TIFF? 

I think the Olympics are going to give us a little bit of a tough time, maybe. It's such a big event, and our festival will be right after the Olympics, all the attention will go to sports events. What we have to do draw attention back to films and visual culture. And also budget-wise for sponsors, they will be focusing on sports events, [these are all challenges]. I'm not sure yet whether the Olympics will work for us or against us. Japan drawing attention from the world is good for us, but we have to be prepared [for the problems, too]. We have to start talking to the government and sponsors. There's a clear opportunity but we have to be careful. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.