Tokyo Festival Opens With Pomp, Prime Minister and Hints of Levity

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe opens
Patrick Frater / Variety

TOKYO — The 27th running of the Tokyo International Film Festival got under way Thursday with pomp and circumstance – and just the right degree of levity.

The opening ceremony in the Roppongi Hills complex was attended by a Japanese princess, two ministers and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as well as a coterie of international guests.

In a speech without notes, Abe identified detailed elements of the festival program, pitched Tokyo as a gateway to Asian cinema, and personally welcomed U.S. animation icon John Lasseter. He also repeated the country’s ‘Cool Japan’ culture and tourism pitch and joshed with five part boy-band Arashi, who were dressed like the PM in sharp, dark suits. “I hope some of their popularity rubs off on the government,” he said.

In a city they obviously admire, the directing and production team from opening film “Big Hero 6” gushed their thanks and wonderment at being part of the opening event.

For the occasion, Lasseter wore a “Baymax” version of his trademark Hawaiian shirts and said that the film had been “made with heart.” “I consider Japan to be a special place,” he continued. “I hope you feel the love in this film we feel for Japan.”

Competition jury president James Gunn, whose “Guardians of the Galaxy” is currently playing in the Japan, delivered his own personal love letter in his remarks to the audience, saying that his favorite people were “Ultraman, Takashi Miike and Akira Kurosawa.”

Under the management of Yasushi Shiina, the festival will put on nine days of local and international films. His changes are subtle, rather than radical and many of the sections look essentially to be unchanged but travel now under new headings.

One of Shiina’s tweaks that has amused numerous observers is the ditching of the green carpet – introduced as a ecological token by predecessor Tom Yoda – in favour of the more traditional and substantially more regal red. (The festival logo has also gone dark, instead of previous green and red iterations.)

That red carpet was trod by nearly 370 fests guests and celebs, including Rie Miyazawa, star of the competition’s only Japanese picture, the Daihachi Yoshida embezzlement drama “Pale Moon,” and Miki Nakatani, serving as the fest’s ‘muse,’ or spokeswoman, though she is a major star in her own right.

As promised on Shiina’s arrival, Tokyo has increased its emphasis on animation, and Japanese anime in particular, with one section featuring the works of Hideaki Anno, a prodigy of Hayao Miyazaki who has since directed the “Evangelion” series. Lasseter is also scheduled Friday to give a separate on-stage event, where he will discuss his favourite Japanese films and Japanese culture in general.

A new ‘Crosscut Asia’ section will showcase the hidden gems of Thai cinema.