8 films from the 2018 Toronto Japanese Film Festival worth checking out

by Andrew Parker

For seven years now, the Toronto Japanese Film Festival (running from June 7 to June 29 at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre) has brought some of the most notable and overlooked titles in Eastern Cinema to the city. Most of the 29 films selected for this year’s celebration of all things Japanese – which also includes special guests, musical performances, food and drink tastings, and various exhibitions prior to select performances – are Toronto, Canadian, or North American premieres. Many of these selections are hidden gems, and just as many are from world renowned, high profile filmmakers whose films sometimes bypass the crowded Toronto theatrical market altogether.

This year’s line-up is sterling example of the kind of talent showcased at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival, and here are eight films from the three weeks of the programming that you’ll want to make note of:

Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura

Thursday, June 7 at 7:30pm

This year’s opening night selection comes courtesy of writer-director Takashi Yamazaki, and will surely appeal to those who prefer their Asian cinema packed with romance, mythical creatures, and plenty of special effects. Based on the manga by Ryôhei Saigan, it’s the genre defying tale of Masakazu (Masato Sakai), a mystery writer who has to save his younger wife (Mitsuki Takahata) from the land of the dead. Boasting plenty of evocative imagery and a genuinely sweet love story (once you set aside the fact that it’s about a professor who marries one of his students), Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura gets the festival off to a suitably rousing and crowd pleasing start.

Tokyo Vampire Hotel

Friday, June 8 at 8:00 pm

Prolific, gonzo auteur Sion Sono (Love & Peace, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, Tokyo Tribe) isn’t usually my cup of tea, but I certainly admire his particular brand of cinematic chutzpah. His latest effort is no exception. Essentially the 142 minute theatrical cut of a longer series produced for Amazon, it follows a Japanese teenager who has been turned into a vampire, some vampire hunters, and a turf war between two groups of rival bloodsuckers. Like most of Sono’s crazier efforts, Tokyo Vampire Hotel is almost purposefully nonsensical wall-to-wall craziness, violence, and sex, but unlike some of Sono’s headier genre trips this one is pure, undiluted, check your brain at the door entertainment. I defy anyone to make real sense of this thing, but it’s pretty darn entertaining.

Life is Fruity

Saturday, June 9 at 4:00 pm

A charming and easily likable entry to the current documentary fascination with gardening, Kensei Fushihara’s Life is Fruity is perfect Saturday afternoon viewing. Fushihara follows the relationship of 90 year old architect Shuichi Tsubata and Hideko, his 87 year old wife. A creative soul that’s always in touch with the natural world around his creations, Shuichi’s estate is home to one of the world’s largest privately owned food producing gardens, including over seventy types of vegetables and fifty different fruits. Fushihara adopts a restrained, contemplative documentary style here, simply letting the Tsubatas go about their business and letting their garden function as a reflection of the massive love they have for each other. It’s a sweet, unforced, and low key offering that will appeal to fans of documentaries, gardens, and romance alike.

The Third Murder

Monday, June 11 at 7:00 pm

Between the gentle, but poignant success of After the Storm and before the waves he made just last month at Cannes with his latest effort Shoplifters (which picked up the prestigious Palme d’Or), master Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda broke from his recent predilection for genteel dramas with what might end up as his most underrated and overlooked film to date. The Third Murder, a rigorous and meticulous courtroom drama and mystery about a lawyer attempting to clear the name of a death row inmate, debuted at TIFF last year to puzzling, somewhat mixed reviews from critics and audiences who didn’t seem prepared for Kore-eda’s darker tone. Every bit equal to one of Kore-eda’s masterpieces, The Third Murder might be different, but the filmmaker never skimps on complex, subtle emotional beats and poignant reflections on everyday life. It might not be what everyone expected last year, and now with Shoplifters poised to be anointed as Kore-eda’s next master work, I really hope this one doesn’t get lost in the hype and shuffle. It’s assuredly worth your time.

Tremble All You Want

Tuesday, June 12 at 7:00 pm

While North American filmmakers will likely claim to have cornered the market on stories of millennial malaise and romantic frustration, writer-director Akiko Ohku’s Tremble All You Want proves that with only a few cultural tweaks, the story could remain largely the same anywhere. Based on a bestseller by Risa Wataya, this one stars Maya Matsuoka – giving a perfectly blended comedic and dramatic performance – as an awkward 24-year-old office worker torn between a recently resurfaced crush from her past and the genuinely sweet romances of a co-worker. Packed with loads of character, style, and moving at a fast pace that makes its two-hour running time breeze by, Tremble All You Want is a kinetic, but still thankfully believable romance. It feels true to the experience being young, isolated, and confused in the modern digital age. Rising star Matsuoka will also be in attendance for this screening, as well as two other films she appears in at this year’s festival: Chihayafuru Part 3 (Wednesday, June 13 at 7:00 pm) and blank13 (alongside actor and director Takumi Saitoh, Friday June 22).

Yocho – Foreboding

Friday, June 15 at 7:00 pm

If you caught the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical run of the apocalyptic sci-fi drama Before We Vanish – one of the latest films from Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Tokyo Sonata, Pulse, Creepy) – earlier this year, this tangential follow up will likely hold some interest. If you didn’t catch that one, I wouldn’t suggest diving headlong into this even more obtuse and vague story of a different group of body snatching aliens and their put-upon human tour guides. While this one is arguably more action packed than Before We Vanish, the subject matter is even more fatalistic than its already dour predecessor, and more elliptical and slippery in construction. Still, after sitting through a previous film that I found puzzling and unnecessarily obtuse, it was nice to see that Foreboding offers up a lot more answers. At any rate, Kurosawa remains one of the most visually captivating and emotionally intelligent filmmakers working today, and even his lesser offerings are worth a watch.


Saturday, June 16 at 3:30 pm

In 1977 filmmaker Nobuhiko Ôbayashi made House (Hausu), one of the most beloved and celebrated cult films of all time. At the time of that film’s production, Ôbayashi was working on an equally ambitious and strange World War II drama about a solider returning home from Europe and attempting to reconnect with his love (who’s also his cousin) and his best friends. The project was set aside to make House, and the filmmaker didn’t return to the idea until he was diagnosed with stage four cancer in 2017, effectively making Hanagatami into a true passion project. Just as strange and nonsensical as House (minus much of the humour) and epic in length, this one will be patience trying for anyone unfamiliar with Ôbayashi’s previous films, but it’s also the most uniquely artful and uncompromising film at this year’s festival. It’s an astounding and original head-scratcher of a film.

Outrage – Coda

Tuesday, June 26 at 7:00 pm

Although the argument could be made the second installment of auteur Takeshi Kitano’s tipped his yakuza trilogy into unnecessary convolution, this final entry in the series somewhat rights the ship. Picking up five years after the previous film, this one concerns a now “legitimate” corporation run by a former mob boss going to war with old enemies. A re-watch of the previous films in Kitano’s trilogy is advised, and the convolution of the second film does come back to haunt this final installment in some drier moments. But once Kitano gets to the finale, it’s almost worth the wait. It might not seem like it’s going much of anywhere new at first, but stay patient and you’ll be bloody well rewarded.

For tickets and a full list of events and films at this year’s Toronto Japanese Film Festival, please visit their website.

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