On a steamy spring night in Sydney town, the 14th Japanese Film Festival officially opened at the Regent on George Street. As we were reminded in an opening address, this festival keeps growing every year, from the humble beginnings of 5 films and 500 guests to this year’s 21 films and almost 10,000 guests around Australia.
In an increasingly crowded festival market – the last two months alone saw the Korean Film Festival in Australia, Fantastic Planet, A Night of Horror, Festival of Jewish Cinema, Hola Mexican Film Festival, The Sydney Latin American Film Festival and the Lavazza Italian Film Festival to name but a few – the Japanese Film Festival stands out as one that consistently delivers high quality examples of a country that has long had a strong cinematic output. Indeed, the festival was the first to secure the right to screen the Oscar-winning Departures outside of Japan, demonstrating that the festival organisers have long had their collective fingers on the cinematic pulse of the country. 2010 is no exception, in a year that includes films from Yoji Yamada (About Her Brother), Tsutomu Abe (Kyoto Story, Happy Family Plan) and Tetsuya Nakashima (Confessions, Memories of Matsuko).
Guests at the official reception were treated to a very special trio of representatives from Japan, including the aforementioned Tsutomu Abe, along with JAMI Principal and renowned film critic Tadao Sato and Vice Principal of JAMI, Shigeki Chiba. Sato spoke on behalf of the trio, emphasising that many of the Japanese filmmakers working in the industry today graduated from his school, and that the chance to screen these films outside of Japan (including the student film Wish You Were Here, screening with Abe’s Kyoto Story on the second night of the Sydney festival) was a great honour. The three speakers will also appear at the Kyoto Story/Wish You Were Here screening for a panel discussion. Audience members were also reminded that Japan’s cinematic output is around 300 films a year, so the staging of a festival of over 20 films in Australia is a magnificent achievement. The Japanese Ambassador and Minister for the Arts (NSW), Virginia Judge, made similar sentiments.
Just a few hundred metres down the road at the Event Cinemas on George Street, Yoji Yamada’s About Her Brother (Otôto) made its debut in Sydney. Tsutomu Abe spoke on behalf of veteran filmmaker Yoji Yamada, with whom he co-directed Kyoto Story. Yamada in turn dedicates the film to Kon Ichikawa. Ichikawa’s 1960 film, also named Otôto (and known as Her Brother) is re-imagined by Yamada, giving it his own unique twist. In that earlier film, the character of the ‘stupid’ brother dies early in the piece. This film imagines what would happen if he had lived. The narrative follows the widow and pharmacist Ginko (seasoned actress Sayuri Yoshinaga) and the estranged relationship she has with black sheep younger brother Tetsuro (Tsurube Shofukutei, Dear Doctor), who was last seen drunk and disorderly at the 13th commemoration of Ginko’s late husband’s death. When Ginko’s daughter Koharu (Yu Aoi, Redline; FLOWERS) is married, Tetsuro returns and not only ruins the wedding, but throws their entire lives into turmoil as well. An incredibly measured and evenly paced film, with some very self-conscious nods to Yasujirō Ozu. Shofukutei gives a marvelous performance as the easy to dislike but impossible to forget Tetsuro, who would have been a ridiculous caricature in lessor hands. Speaking volumes about the differences between generations in Japan, especially in the very Ozu-esque scenes inside Ginko’s pharmacy featuring three generations of women, volumes are said through the observational of this unconventional (but very familiar) family unit.
The 14th Japanese Film Festival runs in Sydney until Sunday 28th November 2010, before heading to Melbourne and Hobart. What distinguishes this festival is the sheer diversity of films screened from the intimate Kyoto Story and Hanamizuki, the reflective Solanin, the feel-good Shodo Girls, the sports-epic Feel the Wind, historical epic Castle Under Fiery Skies, the Hitchcockian Zero Focus, Japan’s official entry to the Academy Awards (Confessions) and an anime matsuri featuring the first CG animated film from Production IG, Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror. We will cover the entire festival right here on The Reel Bits.