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Tokyo Festival Is a Balancing Act, Says Takeo Hisamatsu

Under Takeo Hisamatsu, the Tokyo International Film Festival has expanded its animation section, this year making it one of the event’s main pillars. But he says that the time is not right for a focus on Kyoto Animation, the beloved production house where 36 people died this summer, the victims of an unprecedented arson attack.

“We talked about it. But the company was reluctant. They are not mentally ready. Not yet recovered,” said Hisamatsu. “It will definitely happen at some point. And maybe something spontaneous could happen on the red carpet this week.” But for now there are other forces at play.

The coronation of the new Emperor, the ongoing Rugby World Cup and next year’s Olympic Games are all putting Japan in the spotlight. The festival also has its part to play, the former studio executive believes.

Hisamatsu says that the festival is keen to recognize the importance of animation, and Japan’s prominent place in the sector. “We have expanded the number of Japanese films, we have a Japanese opening film (“Tora-san, Wish You Were Here”), a Japanese gala selection, and we have made animation one of the festival’s main sections, where before it was a sidebar. That is a commitment.”

“Animation films now regularly account for a large part of the box office. Animation has gone mainstream. And Japanese animation has had a unique evolution, an impact on others. Japanese creators are regularly named as influences by many other animators around the world.”

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Hisamatsu says that he has hardly had time to shape his final thoughts on the film selection – slightly reduced in size this year, as the festival has shrunk back to nine days – though very soon it will be the turn of the audience to judge.

Hisamatsu says his guiding principle has been to achieve balance between culture and entertainment. “We eat meat and fish, don’t we,” he says rhetorically. He says that balance reflects the insight that films are an expensive form of art, that investors need to be repaid, and that the industry needs to keep people coming back.

“Festivals are seen as being for cinephiles, but we also need the people who only go to the cinema one or two times per year,” says Hisamatsu. “We have a competition for art films, and we balance that with other sections where anyone can find something to their taste.”

And he doesn’t feel the need to stir the current conversation about superhero films, which has seen directors including Martin Scorsese, Ken Loach and Fernando Meirelles criticize the Marvel Comic Universe. “Is this a new debate? Wasn’t cinema always like this?,” Hisamatsu asks.

“Many directors making commercial films want to be respected and to challenge themselves too. Most Academy Award-winning films are well-balanced (between art and spectacle),” Hisamatsu explains. He reels off historical examples including “Casablanca” and “Lawrence of Arabia,” as well as last year’s Netflix-backed “Roma,” which Tokyo played prominently.

Including Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” which will close the festival, “Marriage Story,” and “Earthquake Bird,” Tokyo’s selection counts three Netflix movies. “Last year we had an internal discussion about whether to include Netflix titles. This year we did not,” says Hisamatsu, who acknowledges that there are many different voices in the Japanese exhibition sector. “We take the view that if the picture is worth it, we will share it with the audience.”

This year the festival is also screening “Seijo Story – 60 Years of Making Films,” from (pay-TV channel) Wowow, episodes from two HBO Asia series, and “The Return” from satellite player Nihon Eiga Broadcasting.

But asked to pick the moment that he is most anticipating this year, Hisamatsu gamely picks the public screening of comedy “Tora-san, Wish You Were Here.” The film is the 50th title in the quintessentially nostalgic, Japanese series that now dates back 50 years.

“Including ‘Tora-san’ means a lot to me. As a student I enjoyed the films. Later (as a Shochiku employee) I went on set many times. And I also got to work with director (Yoji) Yamada on many other titles,” Hisamatsu explains. “As a cinema manager I sometimes organized Tora-San retrospectives. Although the films are very Japanese, I saw Americans coming, and enjoying them. I want them to taste that again.”

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