Nov 8

JQ Magazine: The 18th Japanese Film Festival — More Films, More Countries

18th Japanese Film Festival. Better than any other Japanese Film Festival in the Northern Hemisphere except Japan. (Courtesy of JFF)

The 18th Japanese Film Festival. Better than any other Japanese Film Festival in the Northern Hemisphere except Japan. (Courtesy of JFF)


By Eden Law (Fukushima-ken, 2010-11) for JQ magazine. Taking full and outrageous advantage of being a JETAA member, Eden returns again this year to watch and review the 18th Japanese Film Festival, now covering both Australia and New Zealand, with more films than ever. It’s so big that both himself and Rafael Villadiego (Nagasaki-ken, 2010-13) will shoulder the burden of covering this, the biggest and best method of (legally) watching Japanese films outside of Nippon.

The 18th Japanese Film Festival continues in Auckland (6-12 Nov), Sydney (13-23rd Nov) and Melbourne (27 Nov-7 Dec).

The 18th Japanese Film Festival became a pan-Oceanic film festival this year with the inclusion of New Zealand, making it the largest Japanese film festival in the world. The program includes over 60 films, some of which have barely just made it to the movie theatres in Japan, such as Samurai of the Dead, Japan’s action-packed foray into zombie lore, mixed with the historical legend of the Shinsengumi. And speaking of a connection to that famed group, the guaranteed draw card would be the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy, shown in their complete collection for the first time. The live-action adaptation of the manga and anime series about the itinerant samurai hero with a bloody past screened to sold-out venues in some cities.

However, there are other notables this year as well, such as the award-winning Pecoross’ Mother and Her Days, called the best film of 2013 by domestic Japanese film magazines. Watching a parent deal with dementia is not exactly feel-good movie material, but audiences have responded positively to its poignant and lighthearted treatment of the subject, which is based on the best-selling autobiographical manga of the same name. In a less lighthearted tone, Kiyoshi Sasabe returns with two films, one of which is Tokyo Refugees, based on the novel Tokyo Nanmin by Tetsuzo Fukuzawa, and explores the world of the homeless in Tokyo through the life of one character whose life spirals out of control.

No festival like this would be complete without anime entries, and this year sees strong entries from two different generations: from the master Osamu Tezuka (he of Astro Boy fame) comes the second Buddha film in the ongoing adaptation of his epic, 10-year work on the story of Siddharta; and from the brash new generation (with an assist from Akira creator Katsuhiro Otomo), an anthology of four shorts called Short Peace, billed as “reclaiming anime for grown-ups.” Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (read JQ’s review here) is also showing, although in smaller cities, probably to avoid conflict with the Studio Ghibli mini-festival that overlaps with this event in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

The festival is also showing repeats, such as the documentary The God of Ramen, the biography of the master of Japan’s traditional fast food whose culinary skills draws a long queue of devotees; and the Thermae Romae films, featuring Hiroshi Abe and his equally popular castmates, Oiled Pec 1 and 2 and all of Abe’s abs. And also returning (but not exactly as a repeat) is the next installment in the Ju-On franchise, which, much like its demonic star, refuses to go away.

Enough introductory paragraphing—let’s cherry-pick our way through the other films!

Playing (Un)happy families

A strong familial theme runs through a number of dramatic films this year. Yuya Ishii, director of last year’s festival comi-drama hit The Great Passage returns with the more sombre Our Family, in which a distant and fractious family are forced together to deal with their mother’s terminal cancer and each other. The death of parental units seems to be a common plot device in Japanese dramas recently, compelling their estranged children to embark on journeys (as in My Little Sweet Pea, in which Mugiko’s pilgrimage to her estranged late mother’s home village becomes a journey of reconciliation); to scale new heights of personal development (figuratively and literally in the case of Climbing to Spring, where a stockbroker son returns to the mountain region of his childhood after his father’s death and attempts to complete his father’s dream); and to, uh, go back in time to meet the parents for the first time and to perform in their magic act (A Bolt From the Blue). The latter film was a domestic hit this year, watched by over 130,000 people who flocked to watch this heartwarming tearjerker in the first two days after release. On a lighter note, Three Sisters is about a family rallying together to save their traditional confectionary shop against the threat of modern supermarkets…and is also about love and marriage because the title mentions three sisters, not retail business and how to stay relevant in a modernised economy.

In non-family-based films, the historical drama The Vancouver Asahi, about the real-life immigrant Japanese baseball team in pre-WWII Vancouver, is your classic underdog story. On the other side of the Pacific, The Eternal Zero explores the life and motivation of a kamikaze pilot, which drew controversy and accusations of revisionist history and glorification of war, but did not prevent its popularity with domestic audiences, earning ¥6.98 billion after seven weeks.

Fights, Camera, Action

Cult action erupts like a bloody, explodey fighty thing in both of Sion Sono’s entries this year. The first is Tokyo Tribe, which bears some superficial resemblance to that other classic The Warriors, about rival yakuza tribes where subtlety is the first casualty and excitement widdles on its corpse. Based on the title alone, the second film, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, promises to up the ante (if possible) and sees a group of hapless filmmakers being forced to make the ultimate action film in the middle of a yakuza gang war, because why not?

The sequel to a past festival entry is Eight Rangers 2, a superhero action film where the heroes look like a cross between the Wiggles and the Power Rangers, and appears solely to be a film vehicle for the J-pop boy band Kanjani Eight (ironically now a seven-member group). More live-action adaptations of anime abound with Kiki’s Delivery Service and Lupin the Third, and it will be interesting to see whether, in the latter, the actors can pull off the garish costume colours of the beloved classic.

The thriller genre makes its appearance with Snow White Murder Case, a very modern crime mystery about a murder that seems to play out on social media. A genre-defying film that has been called one of the most compelling crime thrillers to come out of Japan in recent years, Pale Moon—which will debut in Sydney just a day it premieres in Japan—is about an unappreciated office worker who, on impulse, breaks the rules to achieve the fortune and life that she has always dreamed of, but as always, with these things come dark consequences.

Special Guests

Melbourne snags the lion’s share of the budget for this year’s special guest appearances: Director Keishi Otomo will helm a Q&A for all the Rurouni Kenshin films, while director Kazuki Watanabe and actor Yuki Himura will attend the world premiere of Samurai of the Dead. Director Kiyoshi Sasabe and actor Seishiro Nishida will conduct a Q&A for Three Sisters and Tokyo Refugees. In Sydney, the opening night movie Lady Maiko, described as a musical Japanese version of My Fair Lady, will be director Masayuki Suo and Japan’s answer to Jennifer Lawrence (but in a much younger, diminutive form), actress Mone Kamishiraishi.

All This and More…

Every year, the Japanese Film Festival Down Under just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and better and better. Not mentioned is the free film program, which shows black and white classics from Japanese cinemas. It’s impossible to cover all films in this year’s program in this article, and there are others that are no less deserving of attention. We’ll endeavour to cover the best of the best in the next coming weeks, so stay tuned!

For a complete list of schedules and screenings, visit

Comments are closed.

Page Rank