Why Tokyo Film Festival Has Lost Its Buzz

Courtesy of TriStar Pictures
'The Walk,' with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, will open the festival Oct. 22.

Critics say the 30-year-old event lacks an identity, as focus shifts to local content (despite screening 'The Walk' this year) and away from glitz and glamour. "It's still terribly insular," says one insider.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Despite entering its 30s this year, the Tokyo International Film Festival is, in some senses, still struggling to carve out a definitive identity. Within Asia, the event's 28th edition (it initially ran every other year) faces serious competition from the Busan International Film Festival's clear indie focus, the Hong Kong fest's old-fashioned star power and Shanghai's rising glamour, and globally, its acronym is associated more readily with Toronto.

The Tokyo fest is not without its charms, however. In addition to taking place in one of the world's great meg­alopolises, featuring exemplary food, service and infrastructure, it is run with characteristic Japanese efficiency that sees events start and finish on time — though industry types accustomed to a more laid-back approach often need to adjust.

Following the five-year reign of Tom Yoda, whose extensive global connections helped restore the star power the festival somewhat had lost (guests included Jackie Chan, Julianne Moore and Sigourney Weaver), the past three years, under Yasushi Shiina, have seen a deliberate shift to Japanese fare. Organizers now must perform a balancing act, promoting the local industry while maintaining the appeal of an international event.

The Tokyo fest caught industry flak when its 2015 lineup was announced Sept. 29, with three Japanese films selected for the main competition, a major anime showcase, a couple of retrospectives on veteran Japanese actors, a Masters of J-Horror section, a pair of remastered Akira Kurosawa classics and a new Japan Now section focusing on contemporary local filmmakers — all combining to make it feel a little too parochial for some.

"Tokyo is an A-class film festival but doesn't have the glitz and stature that should go with that. It's still terribly insu­lar. I think one of the answers is to put money into an independent entity to run [the fest]," says Daren Afshar, head of Japan-based boutique label Winery Productions, who devotes much of his energy to building links between the local industry and Hollywood. "Tokyo is a fantastic city, but L.A. industry people need a reason to get on a plane and fly 12 hours west."

Shiina dismisses that notion, telling THR: "It's clear the number of foreign titles hasn't gone down — the number of Japanese films has gone up. We're keeping the international flavor." He adds that his plans always have included screening more Japanese films, and that he "really wants to see Japanese directors go abroad more."

Programming director Yoshi Yatabe says that by adding a day to the fest, organizers were able to devote more screen time to Japanese titles — a move he says was supported roundly by the local industry. "The Japan Now section filled something we thought was missing. Industry people often asked us why they didn't have more opportunity to catch up on Japanese titles," says Yatabe.

The festival will not be a Hollywood-free zone: The competition jury is headed by director Bryan Singer, and Robert Zemeckis will be on hand for the opening-night screening of his tightrope drama The Walk. Unlike 2014, however, when Disney Animation's Oscar-winning Big Hero 6 had its world premiere at the Tokyo fest, Walk already has premiered stateside.

The outlook is better on the festival's market side — retitled the Japan Content Showcase but still referred to by most as TIFFCOM. Despite being sandwiched between Busan in early October and the American Film Market, set to kick off Nov. 4 in Santa Monica, all booths had been booked by early October by a record 343 exhibitors, according to new market head Fumio Takagi. A thawing in political relations between Japan and its neighbors has helped boost buyer and exhibitor numbers from China and South Korea.

Shiina is realistic about the Tokyo fest's place within the film world but believes it is headed in the right direction: "This is the level we're at after 30 years, but I think the trajectory has been on the up in recent years."