Tokyo Film Fest Head Yasushi Shiina on Luring Hollywood Talent to Japan (Q&A)

Tokyo International Film Festival
Tokyo International Film Festival Director Yasushi Shiina

The festival's new director shares his vision for the event's future and how he got Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro, Francis Ford and Sofia Coppola -- along with a Kennedy -- to take part.

A 20-year veteran of the industry, executive at Kadokawa Pictures and sometime producer, Yasushi Shiina has begun his three-year term as head of the Tokyo International Film Festival. He sat down with The Hollywood Reporter in Tokyo to talk about attracting Hollywood stars, a Chinese jury president and a Kennedy -- as well as his vision for the festival. 

You’ve attracted a lot of big Hollywood stars to TIFF this year. How did you manage that?

When we were selecting an opening film, we wanted one where the star could definitely come to the festival. So that was how we got Tom Hanks, and for the others, Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia Coppola and Ellen Page, we were just really lucky. We’ve also invited the new U.S. ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy.

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Appointing Chinese director Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) as head of the jury has won you some kudos, especially in light of the current Japan-China tensions. Was that a factor?

No, I’ve known Chen Kaige for 20 years and released his films on video in Japan. I approached a lot of people for the jury, and it’s always difficult getting directors due to their schedules. But I asked him and he agreed, though he made sure first that it was president of the jury. (Laughs.) I wasn’t thinking about the politics of the situation at the time.

Are you worried about him getting pressure at home not to come?

Frankly, he might get some pressure, but things seem to be quite calm at the moment; there haven't been any big demonstrations or anything recently, which is a relief. And this is really about film; it shouldn't be anything to do with politics. We have a number of Chinese films in competition and other sections, and also a tie-in with a Chinese film festival. Because of the quota system in China, it's difficult for Japanese films to be released, so if Japanese films can get released there through festivals, I'll be very happy.   

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This is the start of your three-year term as the new head of the festival. What is your vision for TIFF?

First, to increase the number of foreign visitors to TIFF, and then also to support young Japanese creators to take their productions overseas. And if you talk about Japanese content, then anime is a major part, so we need to increase the focus on that. And not just Japanese films, but we should also introduce Japanese fashion, food and culture to the world. And we’re a Far East festival, so we should focus on films from Asia. Festivals like Venice and Cannes naturally enough promote European films, and we should do the same for Asian films.

There seems to be less of a focus on the ecology theme of recent years.

Ecology is very important, but it’s not everything. The festival should be about films first.

You’re following five years of Tom Yoda, who is a big personality, as head of TIFF. How do you plan to further raise the festival’s profile?

I think the Japanese industry had become a bit disconnected from TIFF. In the early years, they were very supportive, but recently I feel they don’t really care so much about the festival. I have a lot of connections from my more than 20 years in the business, and I’m working to get the industry more involved. There hasn’t been much of a change in the overall box office for many years, and I understand how difficult it is to promote foreign films in Japan these days. My hope is that the festival will help to grow the film business here. And, we’ve been very lucky with the Olympics now coming in 2020; that should mean more foreign visitors to Tokyo and more attention from overseas and at home.


Twitter: @GavinJBlair