Fest Traveler: Tokyo Intl. Film Festival

Since taking over leadership in 2007, Tom Yoda has given the Tokyo Intl. Film Festival a makeover both inside and out.

Now, as the fest prepares to celebrate its 25th edition, unspooling Oct. 20-28 in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills shopping and entertainment complex, Yoda is probably preparing to bid farewell.

The 72-year-old co-founder of music biz giant Avex and current chairman and CEO of indie distrib Gaga said in 2010 that this two-year term as fest chairman would be his last, though a successor has not yet been formally announced.

Yoda’s efforts have been a matter of style and substance, beginning with a save-the-planet theme symbolized by the green carpet — made from recycled PET bottles and rolled out around Roppongi Hills for opening day — and exemplified by the Natural section of nature-themed docus.

Together with programming director Yoshi Yatabe and his team, Yoda has also aimed to up the quality of the once-derided competition.

“We had 1,332 entries for the competition this year, double compared with the 690 we had five years ago,” Yoda notes. “To me, this shows we’ve accomplished our No. 1 goal of making TIFF a major festival.”

Another priority for Yoda has been the Tiffcom market, which will hold its ninth edition Oct. 23-25 in a new, larger venue: the Hotel Grand Pacific Le Daiba in a trendy area of Tokyo Bay, with the number of sellers up by 20% over last year.

“Tiffcom has been growing despite tough economic conditions in Japan, which has been hit by death stars like the Lehman shock of 2007 and the triple disasters of March 11, 2011,” says Yoda. “Together, TIFF and Tiffcom have been able to create a very positive synergy.”

Another point of pride are the 16 foreign films screened at last year’s fest that have since won distribution deals in Japan, including the Sakura Grand Prix winner “The Intouchables” by French helmer-scribes Eric Toledano and Oliver Nakache.

“After ‘The Intouchables’ won our grand prize, it opened in France and recorded 25 million admissions — that is, one out of every three people in France saw it,” Yoda says. “It’s also earned the most of any French film globally, while becoming a big hit in Japan.”

By comparison, foreign films screened in the competition in years past, Yoda notes, “were hardly ever released here.”

While not willing to single out any similar standouts from this year’s lineup (“It’s not for me to say that sort of thing,” he says), Yoda notes that “more films have stronger messages and a stronger directorial persona.”

One example he mentions is the competition’s sole made-in-Japan entry, Tetsuaki Matsue’s “Flashback Memories 3D,” starring single-named didgeridoo player Goma, who has used the instrument to speed his recovery from memory dysfunction.

“It’s not a documentary per se — it’s a human drama, with beautiful images and sounds,” Yoda says. “The story is about (Goma’s) struggle after he loses his memory in a traffic accident, but it’s not depressing at all. Instead it’s a wonderful film with a strong message of hope.

“But all of the 15 films in the competition are wonderful,” Yoda adds diplomatically.

In contrast to the early years, when frequent staff shuffles led to an uncertainty of direction, the fest has developed what Yoda describes as “know-how and continuity.”

“The staff has changed, but not so much,” he says. “The key people haven’t changed in five years. They support our creed, which has four pillars: quality, opportunity, linkage and innovation. That is, we source a lot of high-quality films, provide a lot of people with opportunities and establish strong linkages between filmmakers and countries, as well as between TIFF and Tiffcom.

“Finally, we are innovative, as seen in our green carpet and other green initiatives.”

The result, he concludes, is a 25th edition that carries high expectations.

“More and more people are taking time off from work to come see films at TIFF,” he explains.

Disappointing them is not an option.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR AT TOKYO FEST

Festival highlights range from domestic dramas to 3D serenades of the senses

“Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away”
Director: Andrew Adamson
Performers: Erica Linz, Igor Zaripov
Logline: The 3D cinematic incarnation of the performance troupe’s stage show is TIFF’s official opener.

“Feng Shui”
Director: Wang Jing
Cast: Yan Bingyan, Jiao Gang, Chen Gang
Logline: A status-seeking housewife pushes her husband too far in the world preem of this family drama.

“Flashback Memories 3D”
Director: Tetsuaki Matsue

Performers: Goma & the Jungle Rhythm Section
Logline: Studio performances, animation and archival footage in this 3D docu chronicle a didgeridoo musician’s rehabilitation from a brain dysfunction.

“Touch of the Light”
Director: Chang Jung-chi
Performers: Sandrine Pinna, Huang Yu-siang
Logline: Based on a true story, a blind pianist and struggling dancer come together to chase their dreams.

“Sweetheart Chocolate”
Director: Tetsuo Shinohara
Performers: Lin Chiling, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi, Yusuke Fukuchi
Logline: Japan’s island of Hokkaido and Shanghai set the stage for the world preem of this love story revolving around two men and a woman.

“Japan in a Day”
Director: Philip Martin, Gaku Narita
Logline: This crowd-sourced docu produced by Ridley Scott looks at the recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 and is the special opener for the fest.

“Atambua 39° Celsius”
Director: Riri Riza
Performers: Gudino Soares, Petrus Beyleto, Putri Moruk
Logline: A family struggles with being separated after East Timor is granted independence from Indonesia.

Tokyo Intl. Film Fest in Nihombashi (Oct. 23-25)
“Naked Island,” Kaneto Shindo’s story of struggling in isolation, and Kon Ichikawa’s geisha tale “Bridge of Japan” are among the pics at this special event that convey the essence of “being Japanese.”

“The Other Son”
Director: Lorraine Levy
Performers: Emmanuelle Devos, Pascual Elbe, Jules Sitruk
Logline: A drama that views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through two young men switched at birth.

Raymond Chow Special All Night Screenings (Oct. 20)
The legendary producer will receive the TIFF Special Appreciation Award on the same day that three of his pics (including “The Cannonball Run”) will be screened.

“Trouble With the Curve”
Director: Robert Lorenz
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake
Logline: The closer of TIFF finds a veteran baseball scout reuniting with his daughter during a road trip.

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