Ishizaka Kenji of the Tokyo Film Festival on Asian Cinema

The Tokyo International Film Festival places a high value on its Asian programming. However, the definition of that sector, as well as its health and direction, are all up for debate. Variety spoke with senior programmer Ichizaka Kenji for a refresher.

What are your guidelines and principles for programming the Asian Future section?

When the Tokyo International Film Festival first began in 1985, there was only one category called the young cinema competition. So, from the beginning, the festival’s purpose has been to cheer on and encourage young and upcoming filmmakers. And I would argue that the Asian future category, which began in 2013, carries on that spirit most forcefully today.

We select only world premieres. And the films have to be first, second or third by a director. If there are other excellent films from the region the festival has other sections, so we discuss these with the chairman.

What definition of Asia do you use? There are many.

Actually, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has supplied a definition that solely covers Pakistan. Another regional term is given to the area including and west of Afghanistan. Our definition is similar to Asia Pacific, which includes the Middle East. In the past, we’ve included films from Australia and New Zealand. I believe it is simpler for the Japanese audience or people to accept because there is something like a sea route connecting us to that place.

After 9/11, we began to cover the Middle East. Because we felt passionately after that incident that we needed to make efforts to understand Islamic culture. The Islamic cultural area stretches from the Middle East to Indonesia and the Philippines. We felt that rather than splitting that lengthy strip of Islamic influence in the middle, we should be more inclusive.

The Asia-Pacific area, as defined, has radically varied movie standards, customs, and budgetary constraints. Do you account for these variances while making your selection?

That is correct. However, rather than focusing on the context in which the films were made, we examine the themes of the films and what they are attempting to convey via their works. And there is some agreement. A tale concerning Australian Aborigines could be related to indigenous peoples in other countries, as well as refugees, immigrants, and minorities. There are numerous films that represent the challenges of women, as well as sexual minority groups. As a result, there is a case to be made for grouping them together.

The second point I look is the grammar of the narratives. There may be something new and desirable there, even if it’s in a rough state. We call this section Asian Future after all.

So how well is Asia doing?

The COVID 19 epidemic created such a wide range of situations – masks, no masks, people acting as if nothing had happened – in terms of both the filmmaking setting and the content of their films, that the landscape is pretty diverse. I anticipate that things will settle down and that we will be able to see the future more clearly.

Streaming has an impact on and is revolutionising cinema. Theatrical cinema is increasingly focusing on huge budget spectacles, which means that independent and arthouse cinema are being pushed to the sidelines. So, is streaming the future of independent Asian cinema?

We were obliged to stay at home for a while due to the pandemic. Thanks to streaming, I was able to catch up on many films that I had previously missed. I

But when you compare big commercial theatres and art houses, to me they look like a theme park versus an art museum. Commercial theatres are like a theme park, where a large number of people rush in, spend time and then all rush out on a large scale. Whereas an art museum will be exhibiting something really precious. There is one in a city. And those people who really love art would make time to go there. I hope that these both can co-exist. It’s certainly my wish that they do.

These arthouses need support from the government and from some public organizations, which is not really happening enough in Japan.

Do you think Asian cinema is getting the global recognition that it deserves?

They are certainly receiving more attention than they did twenty or thirty years ago. Many Asian films are now being exhibited at the three main film festivals. Previously, only one representative filmmaker from each Asian country was introduced: Kurosawa from Japan, Satyajit Ray from India. Many new filmmakers are being launched. And many of them win accolades. Returning to what I said previously about similar problems confronting humanity, Asian films do a better job of exposing the challenges than European or American films. As a result, they are getting more attention than ever before. Nonetheless, the commercial distribution system continues to favour American and European films. So, in that regard, streaming could be beneficial.

The Tokyo festival is co-organizer of the Asian Film Awards, but the awards have not taken place this year.

They will continue. They are co-sponsored by the Hong Kong, Busan and Tokyo film festivals. And I am on the board. Because of the pandemic, some activities have become irregular. Buts they’ll be restarted next year.

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