Yoshi Yatabe Says Tokyo Festival Selection Is a Pragmatic and Timely Mix

Yoshi Yatabe
Ko Sasaki/Getty Images for Tokyo

Veteran programmer Yoshi Yatabe and his team have steadily steered the Tokyo International Film Festival competition away from the mediocrity of its early years, when even the winners couldn’t get distribution deals in Japan. The 14-film competition line-up for this year’s 32nd edition is a mix of seven world premieres and titles previously screened at Venice and elsewhere, including the Venice Orrizonti grand prize winner “Atlantis.”

“Ideally, all the films in an A-class festival like ours should be world premieres. That may be better for the reputation of the festival,” Yatabe tells Variety. “But I sometimes think it’s a waste not to take a film just because it’s been in, say, Venice’s Orrizonti section. For example, ‘Atlantis’ is a wonderful film that I’m sure our audience will like.”

“I’m always in a dilemma about whether to think first about the audience or the festival’s worldwide reputation,” he adds. “But because TIFF is an Asian festival, we want all of our Asian films to be world premieres.” That is true of both competition films from East Asia – Wang Rui’s “Chaogtu With Sarula” (China) and Paul Soriano’s “Mananita” (Philippines).

Yatabe denies that the lack of films selected from neighbor and cinema powerhouse South Korea, has anything to do with the acrimonious relationship between the Korean and Japanese governments, a discord fueled by controversial historical issues. “The problem is more that the Busan festival takes all the good new Korean films,” says Yatabe. (Held this year Oct. 3-12, the Busan International Film Festival also had a strong Japanese line-up, including Hirokazu Koreeda’s “The Truth.”)

Another question currently facing festival programmers is the status of films from Netflix and other streaming services. Cannes has one answer, the many festivals, including Tokyo, showing Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” have another.

“For us whether a film appears on Netflix has nothing to do with our selection,” says Yatabe. “In fact this year (TIFF) will screen three Netflix films – ‘The Irishman.’ ‘Earthquake Bird’ and ‘Marriage Story.’” All are in the Special Screenings section for films set for a fall or winter release in Japan – which is not Yatabe’s bailiwick.

He is, however, in charge of Japanese Cinema Splash, a section for independent Japanese films by both new and veteran directors. “Japanese filmmakers have recently been making more films about social issues,” he comments. Among such films in the section are two documentaries by well-regarded veterans.

Kazuo Hara’s “Reiwa Uprising,” is a film about the candidacy of a cross-dressing politician/university professor for a seat in the Upper House. Tatsuya Mori’s “i – Documentary of a Journalist,” which follows a maverick woman journalist as she tackles Japan’s powers-that-be. “Both Hara and Mori are documentary filmmakers who represent Japan to the world,” says Yatabe. “Their new films are extremely timely.”