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Godzilla Celebrations Fail to Mar Monster China-Japan Movie Love-in

Even the presence of Godzilla couldn't spoil the unusually collaborative mood at this year's Tokyo International Film Festival, with Chinese and Japanese filmmakers apparently set to embark on an unprecedented co-production spree.

Photo: Godzilla: Making a special anniversary appearance with the backing of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.
Godzilla: Making a special anniversary appearance with the backing of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.
Photo: Godzilla: Making a special anniversary appearance with the backing of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.
Godzilla: Making a special anniversary appearance with the backing of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.

With its 30th anniversary to celebrate, this year's Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) pulled out all the stops. The result was a dramatic increase in audience participation and something of a carnival atmosphere.

Among a number of new programming strands on offer was the Midnight Film Festival, which showed such genre classics as Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero's 1968 zombie masterpiece. Alongside this, there was Cinema Arena 30, a series of open-air screenings of highlights from TIFF's first 29 years. Topping them all, though, was the Godzilla Cinema Concert – a screening of the original 1954 Godzilla, with the musical soundtrack coming courtesy of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra.

A-listish Hollywood talent at the festival included actor Tommy Lee Jones, who was chairing a competition jury, alongside Chinese actress-director Zhao Wei and Steven Soderbergh, the US director best-known for the Ocean's Eleven trilogy, who was himself the subject of a retrospective at the event. It was also impossible to miss the ubiquitous Al Gore, the former US Vice-president turned environmental evangelist, who dropped in to introduce An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power, his updated take on the encroaching eco-Armageddon, as the festival's closing film.

Opening the event, meanwhile, was Fullmetal Alchemist, a Japanese live-action fantasy flick based on the best-selling manga and anime series. Fumihiko Sori, the film's director, was also on hand to present a master class, as was Ryuichi Sakamoto, the Oscar-winning composer, and two award-winning directors – Japan's Naomi Kawase and the Philippines-based Brillante Mendoza.

Explaining the rationale behind this year's programme, Takeo Hisamatsu, the renowned producer who took over as the Director of the event earlier this year, said: "Film is a classic medium and, at TIFF, we aim to encourage diversity, but there needs to be a balance between art and entertainment. We believe that, as much as possible, we have reflected that in this year's programme."

One strand of that programme – the Japan Content Showcase (JCS), an annual trade show focusing on TV, animation and music content – was held in the Sunshine City Convention Centre in Ikebukuro in northwest Tokyo for the first time this year. A district that has long been synonymous with anime and manga, Ikebukuro is being redeveloped as an international cultural hub, complete with a string of new cinemas, in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Sunshine City, which is both bigger and more centrally located than the JCS' previous home, housed the TIFFCOM film and TV contents market and the Tokyo International Anime Festival (TIAF), although the Tokyo International Music Market (TIMM) stayed faithful to its existing Shibuya base. Despite these changes, the market attracted 371 exhibitors, up from 356 last year and a record for the event. It was also supported by 1,549 buyers, a figure comparable to the 2016 attendance. While more than half the companies on show were Japanese, there was a 33% increase in overseas exhibitors, with the largest contingents coming from South Korea, the Chinese mainland and Taiwan.

One of the major themes of both the TIFF and the JCS events was closer co-operation between Japan and China's entertainment industries. Historically, the two nations have always found it difficult to work together, most recently because of simmering political tensions over the East China Sea. More recently, though, Japan appears to be the – perhaps unlikely – prime beneficiary of China's current spat with South Korea over a number of military matters.

Over the past year, while Korean content appears to have been pretty much banned in China, a growing number of Japanese films have passed through the mainland quota and censorship system and secured a theatrical release. Although none have been as big as Your Name, the 2016 animated body-swap drama that grossed nearly US$88 million in China, Japanese films have still taken a combined $50 million at the mainland box office this year. Pole position here was taken by Doraemon: The Movie 2017, the latest instalment in the long-running Manga franchise, which took $21.5 million following its mainland cinematic release.

In addition, while Sino-Japan co-productions have been somewhat rare in the past, one Chinese director – Chen Kaige – is currently in post-production on Legend of the Demon Cat, a big-budget collaboration between China's New Classics Media and Japan's Kadokawa. Indeed, so unusual is such a coupling that a 10-minute promo for the film was shown as part of this year's opening ceremony. The festival also screened several wholly Chinese productions, including Dong Yue's The Looming Storm, which played in competition and won two awards – Best Artistic Contribution and Best Actor (Duan Yihong).

Photo: Fullmetal Alchemist: Live-action manga epic.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Live-action manga epic.
Photo: Fullmetal Alchemist: Live-action manga epic.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Live-action manga epic.
Photo: Looming Storm: Award-winning mainland film noir.
Looming Storm: Award-winning mainland film noir.
Photo: Looming Storm: Award-winning mainland film noir.
Looming Storm: Award-winning mainland film noir.

TIFF also lauded this thaw in Sino-Japan relations in a number of other ways. Most notably, a press conference was held on the second day of the festival with government officials from both sides announcing a joint screening programme and confirming that a film co-production treaty is currently being negotiated.

Speaking during the press conference, Tsuguhiko Kadokawa, the Chairman of the Kadokawa Corporation, one of Japan's leading media companies, said: "When Your Name grossed close to 10 billion yen in China last year, the potential of the Chinese market came as a big surprise to us. Over the past year, the Chinese government has approved 14 Japanese titles. This was a sincere gesture on their part and, from our perspective, we want to respond in kind."

As a result, the screening programme, intended to commemorate the 45th anniversary of diplomatic ties between China and Japan, will see 10 Japanese films, including Naomi Kawase's Radiance and Daihachi Yoshida's Beautiful Star, screened in three Chinese cities – Shanghai, Shenzhen and Kunming – in December this year. As a quid pro quo, a number of Chinese films will then be screened in three Japanese cities – Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya – in March 2018.

China, however, is not the only Asian nation that the Japanese government is hoping its notoriously insular entertainment industry will soon be working alongside. In line with this, TIFF – in association with the Japan Foundation, the country's state-funded cultural advocate – has been running a number of programmes intended to establish closer ties across Southeast Asia. One of the most prominent of these has been Crosscut Asia, which this year invited several high-profile Southeast Asian filmmakers – including Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Vietnam's Tran Anh Hung – to recommend films to be screened during this year's festival.

This year's TIFFCOM also focused on foreign collaboration, with one panel dedicated to the oversees filming experiences of three Japanese directors, including Koji Fukada, whose recent film, The Man From The Sea, was shot on location in Indonesia. In addition to its Japanese and Indonesian funding, it also received backing from France, where it is currently being edited.

Endorsing the idea that co-productions could have creative benefits, as well as funding and distribution advantages, Fukada said: "In Japan, it's difficult to have creative freedom as an independent filmmaker. As a result, we have to work with foreign companies in order to secure funding from outside the country."

International distribution was also discussed during a number of JCS sessions focusing on Japan's animation industry. While Japan remains globally renowned for its animated TV series and features, the local market has been flat in recent years, with any growth coming from overseas. This is partly due to China's increased appetite for Japanese anime content, with the value of the total Asian anime market rising to $2.7 billion in 2016 from $1.2 billion in 2011. A significant proportion of this was down to growing demand from a number of Chinese platforms, most notably Bilibili and Mango TV.

Addressing one particular JCS panel on the subject – The Possibilities Of Japanese Content – Ding Ning, a Partner at AHA Entertainment, a Beijing and Tokyo-based multi-media entertainment company, said: "At present, there are millions of fans of Japanese anime in China, all of whom want to see new episodes at the same time as they premiere in Japan. They want a similar arrangement to the one enjoyed in the US by Crunchyroll [a California-based streaming service specialising in East Asian media].

"As China is bringing in new censorship requirements next year, it may be more difficult to arrange such simulcasts in the future. Despite that, it's still relatively straightforward to feature overseas content on China-based streaming platforms, while it's very difficult to do so via conventional media."

In addition to its keen mainland fan base, demand for anime is also growing in North and South America. This has led to a number of streaming services – notably Netflix, Amazon, Crunchyroll and Sony-owned Funimation – acquiring vast stockpiles of Japanese animation, with several of them also investing in creating original content. In the case of Netflix, for instance, Ted Sarandos, its Chief Content Officer, recently confirmed that a substantial chunk of its $8 billion content budget has been allocated to creating 30 new animated TV shows and a Godzilla movie.

Among the anime series Netflix currently has in production are Knights of the Zodiac: Saint Seiya, a 12-episode series produced by Toei Animation, and Baki, a 26-episode reboot of a martial-arts-oriented anime property, which is being produced by TMS Entertainment. Overall, the resulting influx in investment has proved a boon to Japan's animation production industry, a sector that has traditionally relied on commissions from local broadcasters and which has long struggled with notoriously low profit margins.

All of these Netflix-backed series, as well as the animated Godzilla it is producing in association with the Tokyo-based Toho studio, will be dubbed and subtitled into more than 20 languages before being streamed to Netflix's 109 million strong international subscriber base. All of this has a strong upside for Japan's content industry and will hugely expand its audience on a global basis, something of a necessity given that the domestic market is now well past the saturation point.

Photo: Radiance: A Japanese eye-opener heading for mainland multiplexes next month.
Radiance: A Japanese eye-opener heading for mainland multiplexes next month.
Photo: Radiance: A Japanese eye-opener heading for mainland multiplexes next month.
Radiance: A Japanese eye-opener heading for mainland multiplexes next month.

The 2017 Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) took place from 25 October-3 November at a number of venues across Tokyo, including the National Film Center and the Kabukiza Theatre.

Liz Shackleton, Special Correspondent, Tokyo

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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