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written as part of SAKKA Column

By Hayley Scanlon

As Mark Schilling pointed out in his recent column, Japanese independent cinema by unestablished young directors rarely makes it to major international film festivals at least in recent years. Those that do often have a degree of overseas funding and therefore a more obvious path towards international distribution or even awards success, while even those that are featured in specialist or sidebar strands in Berlin, Venice, or Rotterdam will not necessarily be picked up for release in English-speaking territories such as the US or UK. But, looking beyond the rather narrow focus of the larger international film festival circuit there are those both within Japan and overseas that continue to champion Japanese independent cinema.

It would be remiss not to point out as Mark has done that Udine Far East Film Festival ranks high among these and even within its focus on mainstream commercial films often programs smaller genre efforts from Japan as it did with One Cut of the Dead which then went on to phenomenal international success. They also championed the quirky comedies that were so popular in the 2000s such as Satoshi Miki’s Adrift in Tokyo and Yusuke Fujita’s Fine, Totally Fine while in more recent years discovering the charms of Seiji Tanaka’s Melancholic and even finding space for quieter indie dramas such as The Name and A Goldfish: Dreaming of the Sea.

Satoshi Miki’s comedy “Adrift in Tokyo” found its international premiere at Udine Far East Film Festival

Nippon Connection, the largest festival dedicated to Japanese films anywhere in the world, also has a long history of showcasing independent cinema and was one of the few international festivals to screen Yoshiyuki Kishi’s underseen epic two-part masterpiece Wilderness along with championing the deadpan genius of Hirobumi Watanabe, while Camera Japan in the Netherlands regularly programs work by independent filmmakers alongside the latest blockbusters this year screening LGBTQ+ dramas Angry Son and Let Me Hear it Barefoot. Though unfortunately on hiatus for 2022, New York’s Japan Cuts has traditionally been a high profile showcase for Japanese indie cinema in North America and has recently introduced the Obayashi Prize in honour of late director Nobuhiko Obayashi which is awarded to films in its Next Generation strand dedicated to emerging indie talent, while they also sponsor an award for independent cinema at the Osaka Asian Film Festival offering a guaranteed screening slot in New York. For genre films in particular, Canada’s Fantasia has also been a longtime supporter of Japanese indie cinema screening everything from the absurdist comedy Being Natural to surreal documentary hybrid Shari.

This is of course speaking from an anglophone perspective, the most important festival in industry terms is undoubtedly Busan International Film Festival which does often act as a springboard for Japanese independent films in Asia and beyond even if otherwise little reported in the English-speaking press. In Japan meanwhile there is a thriving indie scene and numerous festivals in existence to support it. Key among them is Pia Film Festival which has launched the careers of many of today’s best known indie and commercial filmmakers since its first edition in 1977 including Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, Sogo Ishii (now known as Gakuryu Ishii), and Akihiko Shiota.

“Kontora” is the winner of Obayashi Prize at Japan Cuts 2020

Osaka Asian Film Festival has also built up a reputation for screening the latest indie talent with large numbers of World Premieres from yet unknown directors alongside the latest from industry veterans. Skip City International D-Cinema Festival was originally founded to showcase the then new art of digital filmmaking in 2004 and went on to screen the debut feature from Blood of Wolves ‘ Kazuya Shiraishi, Lost Paradise in Tokyo. The festival presents the Skip City Award annually to a Japanese filmmaker who shows great promise for the future. The Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival is another essential platform particularly for genre filmmakers and has over the last few years begun putting a selection of its catalogue online with English subtitles for international viewers further widening access for these films which can sometimes struggle to gain a foothold in mainstream festivals.

Post-pandemic, online streaming is providing another avenue for the distribution of indie films with the JFF+ (Japanese Film Festival) has just launched a new series streaming for free in most of the world (excluding Japan) and programmed by the curators of Japan’s “mini-theatres” which are themselves the bastion of independent cinema. Perhaps none of this helps the fact that independent films from Japan still have an uphill battle when it comes to reaching English-speaking audiences but that’s where services such as SAKKA come in, helping connect you to the latest indie festival hits that might otherwise remain forever out of reach.

Akio Fujimoto’s “Passage of Life” was enthusiastically welcomed at Osaka Asian Film Festival and Pia Film Festival

Hayley Scanlon is the editor of a wonderful and incredibly insightful East Asian Cinema website, Windows on Worlds.

You can find more Japanese independent films on our “Watch Now” or “Explore More” page.
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