Dreaming beyond limitations for 25 years

Hold Me Back film still. Image: © 2020 “Hold Me Back” Film Partners.

The best gift the Japanese Film Festival (JFF) could have for its 25th anniversary was simply being allowed to go ahead. The Sentinel spoke about dreaming beyond limitations with festival programmer Manisay Oudomvilay.

“I started with Japanese Film Festival this year and not long after, things started getting a bit complicated with Covid, and that kind of threw a spanner in the works when it came to planning things for the festival,” says Manisay Oudomvilay, festival programmer of the Japanese Film Festival.

There was always going to be an online component but, of course, doubts hung over the possibility of an in cinema experience. However, in tune with this year’s theme – Dreaming Beyond Limitations organisers continued to plan optimistically and they’ve been rewarded with festival that will be delivered on big and small screens. 

“I think watching a film in a cinema is a totally different experience to watching it at home online,” says Oudomvilay. “Like obviously, you can’t get the big screen or surround sound at home. For me personally the experience isn’t really as immersive. For me as well, there’s always that feeling when you’re walking out of the cinema and you kind of have to adjust your eyes and you feel like you’ve taken a break from normal life.”

Sumodo – The Successors of Samurai film still. Image: © 2020 “Sumodo – The Successors of Samurai Film Partners.

The pandemic has had a significant impact on the Japanese film industry, as it has around the world, and many films had production temporarily interrupted. Thankfully, enough films were able to be completed to provide a varied and exciting program for the 2021 JFF, which includes several new releases.

“When it comes to choosing the actual line up, our goal is to always highlight Japanese culture through the films we choose,” explains Oudomvilay.  “We also try to choose films that show a side of Japan that people might not be familiar with, so we really try to diversify the selection of films that we’re showing.”

The program includes a range of content and genres. The opening night film, Hokusai, is biopic about legendary Japanese painter, Hajime Hashimoto. Audiences may not be familiar with the name but they have almost certainly seen some of his popular woodblock prints, especially The Great Wave. The film follows his life and art, from youth to old age. 

Hokusai film still. Image: ©2020 Hokusai Movie.

A film that impressed Oudomvilay is the documentary, Sumodo: The Successors of Samurai, which intensely documents the lives of two famous sumo wrestlers over the course of six months. 

“One thing this documentary does, is it really gets into the details of what it takes to be sumo wrestler. Before now, I never realised how much physical and mental strength it took to be one. It really highlights the fact that those sumo wrestlers literally dedicate their whole life to what they do.”

The film is accompanied by a short video featuring the director’s comments. 

“He really wanted to highlight in the documentary the sumo wrestler’s bodies, and the fact that it’s not just all fat there; they actually have a tonne of muscle underneath the fat to be able to fight like they do,” explains Oudomvilay. 

Director interviews or comments accompany several other films too. 

As always, alongside the main program is a Classic Series which provides a retrospective of an esteemed Japanese filmmaker. 

“This year, our classic series focuses on the works of Shūji Terayama, who was one of the most influential avant-garde directors in Japan. Those films are analogue and 16mm and 35mm prints.”

These very rare, valuable films were acquired through JFF headquarters in Japan. They can only been shown in cinemas that have the required vintage projectors that can play them. 

Pastoral Hide and Seek by director Shūji Terayama. Image: © 1974 Jinriki Hikokisha/ATG.

Overall, the films in this year’s festival serve the theme (dreaming beyond limitations) in some way. They deal with overcoming loss, breaking free from society’s expectations, people trying to work out their identity and where they fit in the world.

“Most of the stories celebrate characters that stay resilient even when they’re faced with challenges and adversity, and they really have to dig deep to overcome that. We thought that was kind of fitting, especially with Covid in the past two years,” Oudomvilay says. “A lot of the films are quite inspiring and they made me feel quite emotional as well.”

The 2021 Japanese Film Festival runs from 28 October to 5 December, 2021. For full program and tickets visit japanesefilmfestival.net.

Rita Bratovich is the arts and entertainment editor of the Sydney Sentinel.