Tokyo’s Asakusa district was once vaudeville and Moulin Rouge rolled into one.
In the years leading up to and following World War II, Asakusa offered a vibrant blend of dance troupes and comedy teams. Its garish halls were the start for such legendary actors as Kiyoshi Atsumi, known for his starring role in the 48-episode Tora-san film series that began with “It’s Tough Being a Man.” Takeshi Kitano (“Violent Cop,” “Getting Any?”) famously launched his career as an emcee at the France-za burlesque theater in the early 1970s.
After theaters in Tokyo’s fashionable quarters of Roppongi and Shibuya host the 21st Tokyo Intl. Film Festival this month, a lower-profile area that includes Asakusa will emphasize its cultural and comedic roots with an upcoming TIFF-affiliated gathering of its own.
The first Old Town Taito Intl. Comedy Film Festival, which will run Nov. 21-24 at theaters and halls in Tokyo’s eastern Ueno and Asakusa districts (the Denkikan, which opened in Asakusa in 1903, was Japan’s first film theater) is a chance, organizers say, for the metropolis to convey that it is more than simply a mix of shiny skyscrapers and elevated expressways.
“I want to show that Tokyo has more than one face,” says festival producer Seiko Ito, an Asakusa resident and entertainment personality. “I feel that not only Tokyo but all of Japan is becoming too similar. We are becoming culturally poor year by year. By doing this festival in the ‘old town,’ Tokyo can show that it has different expressions.”
Opening the comedy fest will be “Kanna’s Big Success,” based on a comicbook by Yumiko Suzuki and starring model and actress Yu Yamada. Japan premieres include “The Heartbreak Kid,” featuring Ben Stiller, and Mike Myers’ “The Love Guru.”
Also being screened are older films, two by the Marx Brothers — about whom Ito will chair a special seminar — and a pair starring comedian Shoichi Ozawa. A red-carpet gala will consist of geishas, dancers and festival dignitaries striding up to Asakusa’s historic Senso-ji Temple.
As a prelude, events were held in September at an outdoor stage in Ueno, home to Tokyo’s largest concentration of art museums. A jury of media representatives and tourism association members watched 14 comedy acts run through three-minute skits; six of the acts will be selected to perform at the festival. Later, an electric organ accompanied the live voice-dubbing of the silent films “A Dog’s Life” (1918), directed by Charlie Chaplin, and Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock Jr.” (1924).
Ito sees difficulties in making comedy films from abroad succeed in Japan. As an example, he mentions that the festival’s two Japan premieres will not receive a conventional theatrical release.
“I think the biggest reason is the language,” he says, adding that differences in sentence structure and culture make translating a punchline very challenging. “For Japanese people, it is hard to understand the English sense of a joke.”
Likewise, the TIFF competition lineup this year does not include any pure comedies. The festival’s programming director, Yoshi Yatabe, admits that committees do tend to gravitate toward art-house films.
“But at the same time, TIFF only receives a small number of comedy entries,” he says. “Our feeling is that as long as the quality is high, we will consider it.” (Last year, “Leroy,” a German comedy that tackles neo-Nazism and xenophobia, was selected for the Audience Award.)
Ito, too, believes that comedy on Japanese television, often inspired by such traditional styles as rakugo (storytelling solos) and manzai (standup duos), is still well-received, but domestic films are much less popular compared with two decades ago.
“There needs to be some kind of a spark to make a change that will let it happen again,” he says.
This festival might be a start. In future years, Ito would like to invite comedy filmmakers from overseas, secure corporate sponsorship (the budget for this inaugural event is being sourced from the local Taito ward government) and include more old foreign films with Japanese subtitles written by translators who understand the subtleties of comedy.
“I would like people to accept comedy again,” he says. “I want them to return to the theater.”