Tokyo Film Festival Aims to Reclaim Its Place on the A-List With New Director

Takeo Hisamatsu Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of TIFF

"I know the danger of being criticized for this approach, but whatever you do, some people will criticize you," says Takeo Hisamatsu, who brings four decades of industry experience to the task of revitalizing Japan’s premiere fest.

As the Tokyo International Film Festival prepares to mark its 30th anniversary in October, it has a new director tasked with restoring some former glory to an event that has recently come up a tad short on glitz and glamour. With a four-decade career that includes working for Hollywood in Tokyo, a stint in Los Angeles and roles in nearly every field of the Japanese film industry, Takeo Hisamatsu may be just the man for the job.

Joining Shochiku in the late 1970s after university, Hisamatsu began his career as a Tokyo theater ticket taker, the traditional first assignment for new entrants to Japan’s major distributors, then worked in accounting and marketing. A stint managing one of Shochiku’s flagship Tokyo theaters was followed by a job as a film booker at its headquarters. He was then sent to manage a Japanese cinema in L.A.’s Little Tokyo. “I didn’t have much to do as a theater manager, so I watched a lot of movies,” recalls Hisamatsu. “I decided to show pictures I wanted to see, so we had a Kurosawa retrospective, a Mizoguchi retrospective, an Ozu retrospective.”

Returning to Japan, he took on a role selling movie rights to TV before quitting Shochiku and going back to L.A. to study English for a summer. Back in Tokyo again, he joined Warner Bros. Japan as a sales manager, allowing him to learn another side of the business. After five years at WBJ, he was asked to rejoin Shochiku as head of production and distribution.

The next stage of his atypical Japanese industry career trajectory saw him return to WBJ as head of distribution at the invitation of longtime president Bill Ireton. He oversaw investment in three of Kitano’s yakuza gangster films: Outrage, Outrage Beyond and Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen.

On April 1, Hisamatsu became the new head of the Tokyo film festival, a position that enables him — and, some would say, requires him — to bring to bear all of his industry experience. The festival has struggled in recent years to attract big stars and premieres, with its 2016 opening film, Florence Foster Jenkins, being screened on airplanes in Asia before it hit Tokyo. It was a far cry from the 10th edition, when Leonardo DiCaprio and James Cameron walked the red carpet for the Titanic world premiere.

Hisamatsu candidly acknowledges that TIFF often suffers from a somewhat subdued atmosphere. With screenings taking place at a commercial multiplex and the content market located in another district, the festival feels as if it lacks a focal point. “At Cannes, the atmosphere itself is festive: blue sky, the Cote d’Azur, beautiful sea and beautiful orange and white buildings. Tokyo is vast, and there are many colors, but the atmosphere itself is not festive,” admits Hisamatsu, who says he is working on ideas to create more buzz around the event.

Hisamatsu intends to carry on the festival’s policy of a diversified lineup, featuring anime, movie classics and traditional Japanese kabuki theater. Appealing to casual moviegoers and cinephiles alike is the key to TIFF’s success, its new director says.

“I know the danger of being criticized for this approach, but whatever you do, some people will criticize you. I’ve never experienced a situation where 100 percent of people say, ‘What you’re doing is great,’” Hisamatsu says. “After 40 years in the movie business, I’m used to it.”