Confessions of a Dog

The Shinsedai Cinema Festival returns with a new lineup of Japanese indie flicks

It takes an ambitious group of like-minded film buffs to launch a festival... it takes particularly dedicated programmers to keep it running. Case in point, the Shinsedai Cinema Festival, kicking off its second edition here in Toronto next Thursday, July 22nd at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.

Much like its first incarnation, this year's Shinsedai Festival is a four-day lineup of hard-to-find and lesser-known cinematic gems from Japan. In the mix: contemporary drama, docs, and animated works that aren't likely to hit the big screen on this side of the Pacific, an experimental set, and a panel discussion on being indie in the established Japanese film Industry.

Curious about what goes on behind-the-scenes of a specialty film festival, earlier this week I tracked down Chris MaGee, Shinsedai Co-Programmer/Director, to ask about finding rare Japanese films and the ins and outs of running this year's fest.

Why the specific focus on "new generation" cinema?

I think that when Jasper Sharp and I first conceived of the Shinsedai Cinema Festival it was a way for us to say, Kurosawa, Ozu, Takeshi Kitano, Takashi Miike and the new crop of "extreme" gore kinds of directors are fine, many of them great, but there are a lot of films that just aren't getting programmed, especially in North America right now. It just happened that many of these films were being made by a whole new generation of filmmakers. Jasper has said it before and it's true, there's an explosion of fascinating work being made by independent filmmakers in Japan right now. I personally believe that years down the line that many of the filmmakers whose work we are screening at Shinsedai will become the next Kitano, Miike, even the next Kurosawa and Ozu.

When choosing films for the Shinsedai Festival, is there a specific criteria that you keep in mind?

When Jasper or I describe the fest in a few words we tend to say that we're showcasing new, young, independent filmmakers. I'm very passionate about maintaining that focus, although sometimes the focus shifts to include films that are historically important to the history of independent Japanese filmmaking. For example, many people will say, "How does new young and independent work with Kenji Mizoguchi?" because we're showing his 1933 silent film The Water Magician. Well, as Jasper enlightened me, that film was one of the very first to be produced outside the Japanese studio system. It's star, Takako Irie, was a huge star in the 30's, so much so that at the age of only 22 she founded her own studio, Irie Production. It was through her own producing efforts that the film was made. If Irie was 22 today and working in Japan we'd jump at the chance to show this film, so why not now?

How/where do you follow the latest films coming out of Japan?

Both Jasper and I are in the fortunate position of writing about Japanese film. Of course Jasper is, along with Tom Mes, one of the founders of Midnight Eye, the grandfather of all English-language Japanese film websites. He's also an author who has written extensively on the history of pink films in his book "Behind the Pink Curtain". For my part I write for my own Japanese film blog The Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow and am in the midst of writing a book on Butoh dance on film. So between the both of us we are lucky that we can, through research, going to film festivals and through a network of programming friends that exchange screeners, see a lot of films that wouldn't normally be seen otherwise. We're also very lucky to have made friends with many of the filmmakers whose work we've screened, so often times they'll let us get a peak at new work or work that hasn't been released before.

This is the second edition of the Shinsedai Festival. Are there any changes or things you have done differently, based on your experience with running the festival last year?

I think that both Jasper and I have specific interests and tastes when it comes to film. You can look at our inaugural line-up and you can easily see who programmed which films. Jasper is definitely interested in films with a strong political and social message while I'm a sucker for experimental films. Both were represented in our inaugural line-up, but if you view things objectively you have to ask how wide an audience can you get for political documentaries and avant-garde film? This year we diversified more. We've consciously programmed all different kinds of films - science fiction (Our Brief Eternity), comedy (The Dark Harbour), animation (the Kihachiro Kawamoto programme), police drama (Confessions of a Dog, Island of Dreams), documentaries (A Normal Life, Please!) That's not to say that we've diluted the programming, we definitely haven't, just added more to the mix. In fact it was Jasper's idea to create our second screening space this year, The Jishu Eiga Room, where pass holders can see more experimental work for free and individual ticket buyers can get in for only $4.00 a day. Not $4.00 a film, but $4.00 a day. It's a great opportunity for folks to see this kind of work.

For those of us who are not so familiar with Japanese cinema, what are the highlights of this year's fest?

I've had a lot of people asking me, "What are your favorite films this year?" and like a proud parent I have to say that they are all my favorites. That being said if I had to tell people what were the "do not miss" films this year I'd say that our opening night film Kakera: A Piece of Our Life is a must see. The director Momoko Ando will be at the screening and she's really made a remarkable debut film with this romance that just happens to involve two young women. It defies many people's expectations of a lesbian love story.

Of course The Water Magician will be a totally unique event as we will be having Toronto experimental band Vowls performing a live musical soundtrack to the film. Confessions of a Dog is another highlight [this post's writer also recommends it!]. It's a film very much in the vein of Serpico and The French Connection, let's say morally ambiguous cops from the 70's.

That's not unusual in North America, but in Japan you don't make a film about police corruption. That's what director Gen Takahashi did (he'll be our guest here in Toronto as well) and the film was met with a huge amount of controversy in Japan. I think it's a real masterpiece though so we're lucky to have it here. I know that Jasper would also mention Yuriko's Aroma, our closing night film as a must-see screening. It's a bit of a sexy black comedy about a massage therapist/aromatherapist who becomes obsessed with a young man's sweat. A bit kinky I know, but a good kinky and a great film.

The Shinsedai Cinema Festival screens new generation Japanese cinema from July 22 to July 25 at the The Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, 6 Garamond Court. Tickets/passes $12/$50/$105 at Eyesore Cinema, Things Japanese, The Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, or online.

Still from Confessions of a Dog courtesy of the Shinsedai Cinema Festival.

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