Note: this is the 1,000-word written report from the festival’s opening day. To see more pictures of the event, check out this photo tour.
In 2015, The Hollywood Reporter ran an article with the headline, “Why Tokyo Film Festival Has Lost Its Buzz.” One quote, in particular, seemed to sum up the state of the Tokyo International Film Festival.
“It’s still terribly insular.”
The 2016 Tokyo International Film Festival
Nowhere is this insularity more evident than at the red carpet event on the festival’s opening day. Held every year at the Roppongi Hills complex in Minato, Tokyo, the red carpet event has hosted its fair share of VIPs over the years, with three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep being the most recent big name to put in an appearance.
In its present form, however, the event offers a window into the film festival fringe, where Hollywood stars are in short supply, and the emphasis is on all things Asian. Outside the festival’s Competition category, there is only one section devoted to World Focus, while the remaining sections bear labels such as Asian Future, Crosscut Asia, Japanese Cinema Splash, Japan Now, and Japanese Classics. Only in the Special Screenings category do a handful of Hollywood titles pop up: The Neon Demon, Birth of a Nation, Arrival.
Overall, this gives the festival the feeling of a slightly hermetic bubble, one whose organizers are perhaps less concerned with putting on a truly diverse international showcase and more concerned with displaying homegrown regional films. Japan has every right to be proud of its own thriving film industry—that goes without saying—but if you look up a new Hollywood release on IMDb, chances are, the country’s name will appear last on the list of release dates. Films “premiere” in Japan roughly the same time they would be hitting the dollar theater in the U.S. In that sense, perhaps the festival can be seen as a microcosm.
In such an environment, a visiting Westerner without a deep knowledge of Asian cinema could be forgiven for wanting to concur with THR’s Gavin J. Blair when he said there was “a distinct lack of star power” at the 2016 Tokyo International Film Festival.
On a rainy Tuesday evening, the searching eyes of fans, hoping for a celebrity sighting, could only look about helplessly. The 3-hour parade of unknown faces left many wondering when a star they recognized was going to grace the red carpet.
At times, onlookers in the public viewing area could be heard uttering the Japanese word dare, meaning, “who,” as in, “Who’s that?” It did not help that the announcer only welcomed the guests, or introduced the title of their film, right as they were turning on their heels to leave the stage.
Only at the end did Streep swoop in to rescue the festival from utter obscurity, followed closely by the familiar face of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who praised Streep’s performance as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 2011 drama The Iron Lady.
Streep’s de facto grand marshal status echoed that of Dame Helen Mirren last year, who also won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of British monarch Elizabeth II in the 2006 drama The Queen. As it happened, the same director, Stephen Frears, helmed both that film and this year’s opening film, the biopic Florence Foster Jenkins, in which Streep stars as a socialite turned tone-deaf opera singer in 1940s New York.
Streep’s co-star, Hugh Grant, had been scheduled to appear at the festival, as well, but he backed out due to scheduling conflicts. Likewise, due to prior commitments, director Martin Scorsese would not be available, in person, to accept the festival’s Samurai Award for lifetime achievement.
These kinds of high-profile no-shows and cancellations were undoubtedly what Blair had in mind when he noted how “international A-listers were conspicuous by their absence” at TIFF 2016.
Google that acronym, “TIFF,” and you are still far more likely to come back with search hits for the Toronto International Film Festival. In the 30-plus years of its existence, Japan’s TIFF has never been able to crawl out from under the shadow of Canada’s TIFF.
If nothing else, much like the recent circus of the U.S. presidential debates, people-watching at “the other TIFF” did prove sociologically interesting. A detached observer of human behavior plonked down in the middle of the whole thing might have viewed it through a curious lens indeed.
Overall, the atmosphere on the red carpet in Roppongi Hills was that of a listless party, punctuated by a few outbursts, as female autograph seekers went wild over the occasional Korean pop star, or Chinese Justin Bieber clone, or androgynous Japanese bishonen (meaning, “beautiful boy,” but specifically, a specimen of the sort that blurs gender lines, this being a real phenomenon in parts of East Asia.)
At times, there was a freak show aspect to the proceedings, as these youthful idols and other promotional cosplayers moved down the press line and up to the stage in the Roppongi Hills Arena. It was the kind of affair where you would spot Angelina Jolie, only to realize that it was not the real Angelina Jolie, but rather, a Filipino drag queen impersonating her.
Ostensibly, this event is about world cinema, of course. It is not meant to be a celebrity zoo. Anyone just looking for a photo op that evening would have probably had better luck over in the Tokyo branch of Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, on the nearby island of Odaiba. There you could still see Streep and Jolie, along with other stars like Brad Pitt, in the "A-List Party" room.
Perhaps you could even contemplate Pitt and Jolie’s pending divorce and its *deep* implications on your life. Or you could walk the red carpet yourself, posing with Johnny Depp, before moving onto a lectern, where you could mug for the video monitor, next to Prime Minister Abe.
Sure, they would be inanimate wax figures, but at least you would not have to stand outside for three hours, in the cold of late October, just to see one of them.