TOKYO — At the start of the current decade, Japanese pics, from the straight-to-video outrages of Takashi Miike to the hit J Horror shockers of Hideo Nakata, were gaining fans worldwide. One sign of this interest was the decision of the Udine Far East Film Festival to include Japanese pics in its program starting in 2000.
The festival had begun its Asian focus in 1999 with an all-Hong Kong edition, but the organizers soon realized other East Asian territories, including Japan, Korea and China, also made popular pics that could connect with Western audiences.
The first Japanese section featured the “Ring” trilogy (two of which were helmed by Nakata) that had done so much to spur interest in J Horror in the West.
Since 2000, I have advised the fest on its Japanese pic program for nine editions while learning more about how Westerners perceive Japanese pics and how Japanese distribs view their Western markets.
One observation: The Udine auds, which range from local fans to hardcore Asian film buffs from around the world, are open to more types of pics, including those labeled for “domestic use only,” than many in the Japanese biz believe.
True, Udine audiences liked the early J Horror pics that Hollywood, rightly, saw as good remake material.
Udine was the first foreign fest to show Takashi Shimizu’s “Ju-on” — the haunted-house pic that inspired the hit Hollywood remake “The Grudge,” also helmed by Shimizu. The enthusiastic response encouraged the fest to hold an annual Horror Day, with J Horror pics a prime attraction.
It’s also screened pics by Miike — Japan’s current “King of Cult” whose extreme shockers, such as “Audition” and “Ichi the Killer,” have generated extreme devotion from fans around the world.
The man himself came to Udine in 2006 to promote “Imprint,” a pic made for the “Masters of Horror” series for Showtime but rejected by nervous TV execs for imagery that included dead fetuses floating down a river. The Udine audience, though, was unperturbed — and gave Miike a hero’s welcome.
Some of the most popular Japanese pics have been more mainstream, however. Yoji Yamada’s “The Twilight Samurai” won the Audience Award in 2004, even though it’s not “cult” by any stretch of the imagination.
Indeed, the Japanese industry long considered Yamada’s work too Japanese for foreigners to understand, and his signature “Tora-san” series — a B.O. winner in Japan for nearly three decades — was little seen abroad.
“The Twilight Samurai” had more international appeal than most of his pics because of its subject matter, though it focused more on the home life of its low-ranking samurai hero than his swashbuckling skills.
Another surprise was “Always — Sunset on Third Street,” a 2006 ensemble drama set in a Tokyo neighborhood in 1958. Again, Udine was the first to screen the pic outside Japan.
Helmer Takashi Yamazaki, who was a guest at the fest, was worried that “Always,” with its nostalgia for a long-lost Tokyo, might not move foreigners who never knew the pic’s laboriously re-created cityscapes.
But the Udine audience laughed and wept at “Always” — and gave Yamazaki a standing ovation. Several fans later told me the film reminded them of Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Nuovo Cinema Paradiso” — which was also a huge hit in Japan. “Always” was voted No. 2 that year in the Audience Award competition.
Also, a film’s box office in Japan has little to do with its reception by the Udine audience. Even though it’s first and foremost a festival of popular Asian cinema –meaning pics that Asians themselves go to see in large numbers — the fest also shows smaller titles that are not hits but are considered discoveries.
One was Miike’s “Shangri-la,” a 2002 comedy about homeless folk who come to the aid of a suicidal printer bankrupted by a cheating supermarket magnate.
“Shangri-la” had a short run in one theater in Tokyo, and even many ardent Miike fans had never heard of it, but it was voted the second-most-popular pic at the 2003 fest.
Miike himself was surprised when he heard the news, since “Shangri-la” was not the sort of cult pic, with ultraviolence and kinky sex, that he is best known for in the West.
Finally, we regularly schedule retros for directors and genres, but knowing that the interest in older pics may not be as strong as for newer ones, we screen most retro titles at the Visionario, a theater with a capacity of 300, instead of our main venue, the Teatro Nuovo Giovanni, which seats about 1,200. Even so, our aud often gives a warm abrazo to old or even long-forgotten titles.
In 2003 we presented “Horrors of Malformed Men,” a 1969 period shocker by Teruo Ishii, based on stories by Edogawa Rampo, that flopped at the box office and was never released on video or DVD because of its disturbing depictions of the physically disabled.
It became a legendary cult film, however, and we were the first in the West to screen it, with Ishii in attendance. With Butoh dance school founder Tatsumi Hijikata playing the mad ruler of an island kingdom of freaks (members of Hijikata’s troupe), “Malformed Men” is by turns bizarre, beautiful, absurd and mind-bending.
After the screening, a packed crowd at the Teatro gave Ishii a 10-minute standing ovation — the loudest and longest I have ever heard at a fest. The pic was later released on DVD in the U.S. by Synapse — and became the bestselling Japanese DVD on Amazon. It has also been reimported to Japan by Tower Records, HMV and other retailers, since local distrib Toei has yet to release its own version.
After all these experiences, I am still not 100% sure what will and won’t work at Udine, since every pic and audience is different. What I do know is that conventional wisdom about the pics and genres that appeal to Western audiences is frequently wrong. I also feel there are many Japanese pics sitting on distribs’ shelves that could well find a wider audience abroad — I hope to dust off a few more in the years to come.
Mark Schilling is Variety‘s Japan correspondent.