Though its opening film was high-profile Hollywood romance “A Star is Born,” the Tokyo International Film Festival is increasingly focusing its efforts on building bridges with Asia. Especially Japan’s near neighbor, China.
The 31st edition of the Tokyo festival got under way Thursday evening with a ceremony at the X Theater in the fashionable Roppongi district. The event runs until Nov. 3.
“Star” is a smart crowd-pleasing choice as opener, with good prospects for the Oscars and other awards, down the road. But director-star Bradley Cooper and singing superstar, Lady Gaga, despite her massive popularity in Japan, were notable by their absence on the red carpet. Japanese actor Shinubo Terajima stood in at the ceremony as ambassador for the film and introduced a clip.
The last time TIFF had no big Hollywood guest for its opening or closing film was in 1992 — the fifth edition, when “1492: Conquest of Paradise” was the closing film. The highest profile Western guest was British actor Ralph Fiennes, who attended as director of “The White Crow.” It has previously been noted that there are no U.S. films in the festival’s main competition either.
Prime minister, Shinzo Abe, who has attended many previous opening galas, was also absent Thursday. Abe is abroad on a state visit to China. That seems largely appropriate, given the festival’s Asia pivot being engineered by festival head Takeo Hisamatsu.
The Japanese film industry is slowly getting used to no longer being the largest box office market outside North America, having lost that crown to China some six years ago. This year has seen the release and box office success in China of Japanese films including Palme d’Or winner “Shoplifters” and the latest “Doraemon.”
Political frictions, between neighbors and historic rivals, China and Japan, may have previously delayed the warming of relations within the film industry. But changing political tectonics may be throwing up opportunity. As China-U.S. relations – political, financial and industrial – head towards a Cold War, China is rolling out the welcome mat for Japanese businesses. Abe’s Beijing trip is the first by a Japanese prime minister in six years.
Both TIFFCOM and the main Tokyo festival are hosting China-related seminars this week. One of the key themes underpinning the market over the past three days has been Chinese producers and distributors on the hunt for rights to license and develop, with exploitation in the Middle Kingdom and further afield. Japanese IP, especially manga and anime, are genuinely popular in China.
While Japan’s risk-averse production committee system, which is said to hamper foreign collaboration, is unlikely to disappear any time soon, international co-productions are expected rise. In May this year, one of the first bilateral co-production treaties to be signed was inked with China.
Earlier this week, at Tokyo’s TIFFCOM rights market, collaboration on “The Monkey Prince” was officially announced. The $30 million movie, which has already been approved by Chinese regulators, is pitched as “a Chinese legend, mixed with Hollywood story-telling, and Japanese animation.”
At the X-Theater, the opening ceremony mixed up drum rolls performed a samurai warrior riding a Segway, a lightning storm entrance for Drum Tao band, and, in a gender reversal moment, women playing the giant taiko drums.
After speeches about the Cool Japan program and the festival’s new venues, a later highlight was the on-stage appearance of veteran actor Koji Yakusho. He drew laughs by telling the audience to watch his five films in the Japan Now section — and to watch him age.