There were Super Mario characters in the streets of Roppongi earlier in the day. But when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe descended on Tokyo’s entertainment district for the opening ceremony of the 29th Tokyo International Film Festival he did not repeat his Mario stunt outfit worn for the Olympic Games in Brazil. Instead he wrapped up in a strictly-starched dinner suit and a tired smile before greeting top overseas guest Meryl Streep on the steps of the Ex Theater.
Warming to the task, despite the light rain, Abe broke into English to recite a line from “The Iron Lady,” in which Streep portrays another Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
“I’d like people to take away all of the film’s surprises. At first it seems like an everyday love story, but then turns into something more deep and poignant,” Streep said of the opening film “Florence Foster Jenkins.”
“It is important to maintain some continuity,” Abe said after admitting that his regular visits to the festival had been interrupted for five years while he was out of power.
Wearing a Japanese, stork-themed dress, Streep picked up the election theme. “I’d like to stay and watch all of the films, but I have to go back home and help the next President get elected,” she said.
“What we’d like to see is for Japan to become the gateway to Asia, and for creators from Japan to go out into the world,” Abe said. He revealed that his wife had recommended him to watch Japanese hit film “Shin Godzilla,” but that he had hesitated after learning that early in the movie the Prime Minister and members of his cabinet meet an untimely death.
Also on the red carpet were main competition jurors Hong Kong director Mabel Cheung, Italian actor Valerio Mastandrea, U.S. producer Nicole Rocklin, Japanese director Hideyuki Hirayama, and French director Jean Jacques Beineix, as jury chairman.
Struggling to read a prepared speech from his smart phone, Beineix said that movies contribute to international peace and harmony. “Together with my fellow jurors, we will be looking for audacious, creative and surprising films,” Beineix said from the stage.
Though TIFF (Oct. 25 – Nov. 3) and its accompanying market (TIFFCOM) have raised their international profiles in recent years, the Japanese film business has found growth elusive. Despite the addition of nearly 1,000 multiplex screens in the past decade – 2,996 in 2015 compared with 1,954 in 2005, total annual admissions have barely budged, hovering around the 165 million mark.
What has improved is the market share of Japanese films vis-a-vis the foreign competition, with the local titles out-earning the imports for the past eight years in a row.
Abroad, however, Japanese films are often a hard sell. Even in Asia, long their most receptive overseas market, Japanese films rarely get wide releases or hit the box office heights. Last year, Nobuhiro Doi’s feel-good drama “Flying Colors” bowed on nearly 2,000 screens in China, but its box office gross was a less-than-inspirational $5.7 million.
One problem is the strong domestic orientation of the big film companies and their media partners, whose adaptations of locally popular comics, novels or TV dramas target only the Japanese market, with foreign sales mostly an afterthought.
Also, the government’s Cool Japan initiative to spur contents exports has little relevance to the major studios, which don’t require its backing. Indie filmmakers, find jumping through the scheme’s bureaucratic hoops all but impossible.
Nonetheless, the industry scores international breakthroughs, such as Toho’s “Shin Godzilla,” which has been sold to nearly 100 territories, and the megahit Makoto Shinkai animation “Your Name,” which has earned more than $150 million domestically and nearly equaled the overseas sales total of “Shin Godzilla.”
The festival promises plenty of surprises. Toho admits that it had no idea “Your Name” would become such a blockbuster.