Exploring the Toronto Japanese Film Festival

Japan has made its mark on the 20th and 21st centuries with films that blend new technology, time-honoured storytelling and a keen artistic eye.


Once a respected but niche market in North America, Japanese film has exploded in the last decade or so, filling theatres across the globe and even inspiring a slew of Hollywood blockbusters with Japanese flair. This month, the fourth annual Toronto Japanese Film Festival (TJFF) brings us some of the country’s best films, as recognized by Japanese moviegoers, critics, international film festival audiences and the Japanese Film Academy. Before diving into all that the festival has to offer, dip your toe into the industry’s century-long history.



Movies first came to Japan in 1896, the year after Thomas Edison introduced the Kinetoscope to America. In those early days the films were just two- to three-minute recorded kabuki performances, using new technology to showcase a traditional form of theatre in a new light. Just as in kabuki, female roles were performed by onnagata, male actors who specialized in portraying women. The screenings were accompanied by live music and energetically narrated by benshi, performers who conveyed the story and provided a running commentary—also drawing on traditional theatre forms such as kabuki and Noh. Benshi also served as translators for the earliest foreign films. The early 20th century saw the rise of the Pure Film Movement, whose advocates called for filmmakers to explore the creative frontier and to experiment with this new technology, rather than reproducing the same theatrical tropes. Japan also saw an influx of American silent comedies and German expressionist films. These domestic and foreign influences helped inspire directors like Yasujiro Ozu and Teinosuke Kinugasa to break with tradition and take greater advantage of the possibilities created by the cinematic form.



More change was in the air by the mid-1920s as real women replaced onnagata in female roles, but films remained silent, even as other countries were adopting sound technology. The first feature-length talkie wasn’t made until 1930, partly due to the power of the benshi, who up until then had been influential in the emerging field. Resistance to talkies continued until theatre owners phased out the performers’ role, even after benshi tried to strike. Film giant Akira Kurosawa’s own brother was a benshi who committed suicide when his profession vanished.



Like the classic Hollywood studio system, early Japanese film studios were also powerful machines, but Japanese directors had more control over the writing, cinematography and editing, which gave rise to more notable stylistic differences among various artists. The studios also operated under an apprentice system, where aspiring artists could work their way up the ladder, learning technical skills as they progressed. Luminary directors like Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi caught worldwide attention in the 1950s, leaving their mark on the North American imagination with films ranging from samurai epics, to supernatural procedurals, to portraits of the modern salary man. Contemporary Japanese films are making their mark in different ways. Anime has come to dominate box offices at home and abroad—60 per cent of the nation’s films are animated—and director Hayao Miyazaki is now a household name, even as Japanese horror creeps its way into the dark dreams of young North American teens.



Live-action films of all genres have garnered critical and popular acclaim, though they tend to work with smaller budgets, more subtle plots and more ambiguous conclusions than the typical Hollywood fare. This tendency toward narrative ambiguity means that not all stories have a happy ending, a quality that can evoke mono no aware, a traditional Japanese esthetic which expresses sensitivity to the world and an awareness of the transience of all things. Just as the earliest Japanese films combined native traditions with new technology, contemporary filmmakers continue to tell stories using a mixture of old and new, East and West. Catch a glimpse of the rich, complex world of Japanese cinema at the TJFF, opening on Thursday, June 11.


Take a closer look at some of the compelling films that will be showcased at this year’s TJFF. www.torontojff.com


The Toronto Japanese Film Festival 2015, Bento Box Magazine

JCCC Executive Director
James Heron

James has been the executive director of the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre for 15 years. He is the co-founder and co-director of the Toronto Japanese Film Festival (with Chris Hope) and co-programmer (with Aki Takabatake).


KAKEKOMI 【駆込み女と駆出し男】

The Toronto Japanese Film Festival 2015, Bento Box Magazine

©2015 “KAKEKOMI” Film Partners

Divorce, samurai-style! During the Edo period, women seeking divorce or fleeing abusive husbands ran to the Tokei-ji Temple in Kamakura. Called kakekomi, these women would spend two years pursuing a monastic existence and then be granted a divorce. Nobujiro, a young doctor and author, and his Aunt Genbei, master of the official inn of the temple, try to help the various kakekomi— including the beautiful concubine O-Gin, the sword-maker Jogo and a mysterious samurai wife on the run. Based on the novel by Hisashi Inoue, Kakekomi boasts a witty script, charming performances and spectacular photography.


Opening night reception
Director Masato Harada will be in attendance to introduce the film and take questions following the screening.

The Toronto Japanese Film Festival 2015, Bento Box MagazineDirector Masato Harada


James Heron’s recommendation
“Witty dialogue, charismatic performances and head-spinning storytelling!”


Thursday, June 11, 7:30 pm International Premiere Starring: Yo Oizumi, Erika Toda, Hikari Mistushima, Kirin Kiki, Shinichi Tsutsumi and Tsutomu Yamazaki
Opening night reception


LADY MAIKO【 舞妓はレディ 】

The Toronto Japanese Film Festival 2015, Bento Box Magazine

©2014 Fuji Television Network, Toho, Kansai Telecasting Corporation, Dentsu, The Kyoto Shimbun, Kyoto Broadcasting System, Altamira Pictures


A delightful geisha version of Audrey Hepburn’s My Fair Lady from the director of Shall We Dance? For as long as she can remember, Haruko has wanted to be a geisha. But when she approaches a teahouse in Kyoto’s famous geisha district to become an apprentice geisha, or maiko, she is rejected due to her country bumpkin dialect and uncultivated demeanour. By chance, her accent catches the interest of Professor Kyono, a linguistics specialist and regular patron at the teahouse. He strikes a deal with the teahouse proprietor, promising to transform Haruko’s strong dialect into ladylike speech within six months….


Closing night reception
Sumiko Fuji, Eri Watanabe and Tamiyo Kusakari
Director Masayuki Suo and actress Tamiyo Kusakari will be in attendance to introduce the film and take questions at the reception following the screening.

The Toronto Japanese Film Festival 2015, Bento Box MagazineDirector Masayuki Suo

The Toronto Japanese Film Festival 2015, Bento Box MagazineTamiyo Kusakari

James Heron’s recommendation
“A lively and delightful soufflé of a film. Far from FAIR, this LADY is fantastic!”

Friday, June 26, 7:00 pm North American Premiere Starring: Mone Kamishiraishi, Hiroki Hasegawa,Sumiko Fuji, Eri Watanabe and Tamiyo Kusakari



The Toronto Japanese Film Festival 2015, Bento Box Magazine

©The Vancouver Asahi’ Production Committee

Based on the true story of the Asahi baseball team formed in prewar Vancouver by secondgeneration Japanese-Canadians. The team was a source of pride and solidarity for their community, but they soon were subject to terrible persecution by the Canadian government. One of the great Japanese-Canadian stories told with humanity and gentle humour.

James Heron’s recommendation
“A lovingly made tribute to true Japanese-Canadian heroes.”

Sunday, June 14, 7:00 pm Toronto Premiere Starring: Satoshi Tsumabuki, Kazuya Kamenashi, Mitsuki Takahata, Aoi Miyazaki and Ryo Katsuji



Bentobox pick

The Toronto Japanese Film Festival 2015, Bento Box Magazine

©2014 “Pale Moon” Film Partners

Bank employee Rika is not happy with her circumstances: an unsatisfying job, an unappreciative husband, no children or free time. After a chance meeting with a client’s college-aged son, Rika finds herself having an affair, funded by the millions entrusted to her by clients. But her happiness is short-lived as things begin to close in….

James Heron’s recommendation
“Miyazawa’s award-winning performance is mesmerizing.”

Friday, June 19, 7:00 pm Canadian Premiere Starring: Rie Miyazawa, Sousuke Ikematsu, Satomi Kobayashi and Yuko Oshima


MY MAN【私の男】

The Toronto Japanese Film Festival 2015, Bento Box Magazine

©2014 “My Man” Film Partners

Based on Kazuki Sakuraba’s novel, My Man is “a chilling Japanese spin on Lolita.” After losing her family, Hana is taken in by distant relative Jungo. Driven by trauma and isolation, their relationship crosses the line into the sexual—and when the townspeople get suspicious, things take a murderous turn.

James Heron’s recommendation

”Shocking, provocative yet deeply humane with fearless performances from Asano and Nikaido.”

Friday, June 12, 9:15 pm, Canadian Premiere Starring: Tadanobu Asano, Fumi Nikaido, Tatsuya Fuji and Kengo Kora
*Contains nudity and adult content. Admittance restricted to 18+


Schedule of TJFF events

All screenings will take place in the Kobayashi Hall at the Japanese Canadian Culture Centre (6 Garamond Ct., Toronto). The JCCC also features an art gallery, heritage museum and a state-of-the-art martial arts centre, so there is lots to see and do between screenings. Sushi bento are on sale at all screenings with sake available on select evenings. Expect many special guests, guest speakers and even a performance by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Etsuko Kimura at the screening of Maestro!

Tickets are available at the JCCC reception, at 416-441-2345 or www.ticketweb.ca

Thursday June 11
•Opening Reception 6:30 pm
•Kakekomi 駆込み女と駆出し男 (2015)
7:30 pm Director Masato Harada will be in attendance to introduce the film and take questions following the screening.

Friday June 12
•Tokyo Tribe トーキョー・トライブ (2014) 7:00 pm
•My Man 私の男 (2014) 9:15 pm
*Both films contain nudity and adult content. Admittance restricted to 18+

Saturday June 13
•Twilight: Saya in Sasara トワイライトささらさや (2014) 2:00 pm
•Giovanni’s Island ジョバンニの島 (2014) 4:15 pm
•A Samurai Chronicle 蜩ノ記 (2014) 7:00 pm

Sunday June 14
•Being Born – Together Forever うまれるーずっと、いっしょ (2014) 12:00 pm
•Hot Road ホットロード (2014) 2:15 pm •Little Forest – Summer/Autumn リトル・フォレスト 夏/秋 (2014) 4:30 pm
•The Vancouver Asahi バンクーバーの朝日 (2014) 7:00 pm

Monday June 15
•Wood Job! ウッジョブ〜神去なあなあ日常〜 (2014) 7:00 pm

Tuesday June 16
•The Light Shines There Only そこのみにて光輝く (2014) 7:00 pm
*Contains nudity and adult content. Admittance restricted to 18+

Wednesday June 17
•Her Granddaughter 娚の一生 (2015) 7:00 pm

Thursday June 18
•Maestro! マエストロ! (2015) 7:00 pm The Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Etsuko Kimura will perform prior to the screening.

Friday June 19
•Pale Moon 紙の月 (2014) 7:00 pm

Tuesday June 23
•Thermae Romae II テルマエ・ロマエ II (2014) 7:00 pm

Wednesday June 24
•0.5mm 0.5 ミリ (2013) 7:00 pm

Thursday June 25
•Snow on the Blades 柘榴坂の仇討 (2014) 7:00 pm

Friday June 26
•Lady Maiko 舞妓はレディ (2014) 7:00 pm Director Masayuki Suo and actress Tamiyo Kusakari will be in attendance to introduce the film and take questions at the reception following the screening. *Closing night reception to follow.



All photos: courtesy of TJFF unless otherwise noted