The Pia Film Festival and Jishu Eiga

21 September 2005


Japanese cinema has certainly had its shaky moments over the past few decades, but compared with many other countries, its film culture is something to be envied, both in terms of its diversity and its volume.

Of the 622 films released in Japan in 2004, 287 were domestic productions. There are few countries that can boast that level of output. To put it in perspective, in the same year France produced 167 new titles (not including co-productions) while the United Kingdom struggled to make a measly 27.

This vitality in production is equally balanced on the exhibition side. While central London has seen the demise of virtually all its independent and repertory theatres over the past decade, leaving most of the capital's screens belonging to the major distributors who predominantly play Hollywood productions (and charge a fortune in the process: the Empire Leicester Square now boasts an obscene top ticket price of £17, or $30, against an average Tokyo admission price of 1250 Yen or $11), Tokyo has a plethora of venues, many of whose programs cater to a diverse range of audiences. Take, for example, the Tollywood theatre in Shimokitazawa, which acts as an essential venue for screening short films.

Of the 300 domestic productions released every year, about a third fall under the category of erotic "pink" films, screening only in specialist adult cinemas. What makes up the rest of this figure remains difficult to ascertain however. Most of the top-grossing titles, the perennial outings of well-loved characters popularized through manga, TV anime, and computer game tie-ins, such as Doraemon, Inuyasha, Pokemon or Detective Conan, also seldom make their presence felt on the export market.

picture: scenes from 'Attack! Hooligans of Hakata' and 'Vertigo College'

One whole section of the market that most foreign viewers are barely aware of is the field of jishu eiga, or to give it its full term, jishu seisaku eiga. It's tempting to describe these films as "independent" productions, though the term literally means "self-produced", or self-made. Besides, their production circumstances aren't really the same as independent (dokuritsu) cinema in Japan, where "independent" has come to mean any film produced outside of the main studio system. In reality a lot of so-called independent films are produced with money from a variety of funding bodies, the results of complex partnerships between movie, television and distribution companies. Often dependent on advance TV or video pre-sales, they are hardly independent in any real sense of the word.

In contrast, jishu eiga are funded and produced entirely outside of the industry. Jishu eiga filmmakers might be best described as "amateurs", people who make films for love rather than money, though more than a few hold longer-term ambitions for a career in filmmaking. The term is broad enough to include student graduation pieces, documentaries screened at politically-minded organisations such as Video Act, personal video diaries, 8mm experimental work, all the way up to more ambitious feature length projects.

Though cynics might consider these to be "home movies", it is worth remembering that many of today's name directors emerged from this scene, either through their early experimentations with video or, during the 1970s and 80s especially, 8mm or 16mm. The latter is represented by figures such as Sogo Ishii and Shinya Tsukamoto, and, on the other end of the emotional scale, Naomi Kawase, with her early personal 8mm documentaries that include Embracing (1992) and Katatsumori (1994).

The first person narrative of Kawase's films, in which the director is both the creator and the subject of the work, is reminiscent of the "I-novel" (or shi-shosetsu) form of autobiographical fiction that dominated Japanese literature in the early 20th century. It has become one of the dominant modes of storytelling in today's jishu eiga, highlighting the medium's greatest attraction for filmmakers; to offer the director a chance to get their personal viewpoints and stories across in a dominant media that offers a uniform blanket image of how one should live and what one should think. It can provide an individual voice for minorities and outsiders or those who don't quite fit the mould; for example, Kawase's depiction of her unconventional family set up in Katatsumori; or the investigation into what it means to be Japanese and the importance of ethnic and cultural roots to a zainichi (Japanese born Korean) in Tetsuaki Matsue's Annyong Kimchee (1999).

Moreover, the alternative exhibition network raises different expectations in the intended audience, allowing directors to tackle subjects or use approaches that would never be permissible in mainstream film-making. A fine example of this is Yuri Obitani's humorous look at the preoccupation by the Japanese censors (and public) with the depiction of pubic hair in The Hair Opera (Mohatsu Kageki, 1992).

Of course, all of this will be of little consequence for audiences who just want to be entertained. Indeed, the main challenge for any budding young jishu eiga filmmaker is getting their work shown and accepted by viewers. With hundreds of such works produced every year, there's an obvious need for someone to sort the wheat from the chaff, and fortunately there's no shortage of idealistically motivated organisations that have cropped up over the years to fulfil just such a role.

picture: scenes from 'The Summer Yuki Rejected Rock', 'Fa-La-La' and 'Live in Chigasaki'

Osaka boasts not one but two specialist festivals founded with the aim of boosting local filmmaking talent: the Cineastes Organization Osaka (or CO2) and the Cinetribe festival, both organised by Kunihiko Tomioka of Planet Studyo +1. In Tokyo, filmmakers continue to receive much needed support, an annual festival and a permanent exhibition space from that bastion of experimental film, Image Forum.

But arguably one of the most important events in the jishu eiga calendar is the PIA Film Festival, or PFF. Founded 28 years ago, it not only ranks as a vital hotbed from which the careers of some of Japan's most talented young filmmakers have been launched, but it also lays claim to being the first ever film festival in Japan. Its origins point to an admirable, punk-like do-it-yourself attitude that has been the lifeblood of Japanese creative culture.

During the golden years of Japanese cinema in the 1950s, being a movie director was a rather covetable occupation. To enter one of the major studios as an assistant director meant you'd automatically be bringing in a salary many times the magnitude of the national average. Traditionally the major film studios functioned in the same way as any other major company in Japan. Candidates such as Nagisa Oshima, Shohei Imamura or any of the others major names of the era were all carefully selected from the top-ranking universities. The directors were effectively fulltime staff, receiving a regular pay cheque and a constant supply of work. When they weren't actually shooting, they were working feverishly on scripts and other aspects of the production to maintain the stream of films being turned out every week in order to match the appetite of audiences for whom, prior to television, cinema was a dominant form of mass entertainment. Nowadays, all directors in Japan work on a freelance basis, with the full-time post at Shochiku of veteran director Yoji Yamada (director of the Tora-san series and the more recent Twilight Samurai) providing a notable exception.

By the end of the 1970s, the industry was at a major transitional point. The major studios were no longer hiring assistant directors or providing anything in the way of on-the-job training. It seemed that for those aspiring filmmakers coming of adult age, there was little hope of fulfilling their dreams of a career in film.

Of course, there were many who recognised that such a situation was hardly conducive to a healthy industry for the future. And at the same time there was a huge pool of untapped talent making their own self-funded works, either with groups of friends, or in film clubs from junior high school to university level. The main challenge for these people was in getting their work screened.

PFF was born out of the same organisation as the prominent Tokyo listings magazine Pia. Founded in the early 1970s by a group of aspiring filmmakers and cinephiles, the magazine covers, on a weekly basis, every aspect of Tokyo culture and entertainment. As there were no film festivals in Japan at the time, in 1977 the magazine decided to organise the first PIA Film Festival to serve the goal of "The Discovery and Development of New Talents in Film". The festival, originally dubbed Off Theatre Film Festival, was totally independent, receiving no government funding, and initially supported only by the magazine. Nowadays it is run by a joint organisation of six companies known as PFF Partners, which is comprised of PIA Corporation, TBS, Tokyo FM, Imagica, Humax Cinema and Avex Entertainment.

With initial jury members including Nagisa Oshima and Shuji Terayama, from the very offset, the festival attracted a wide range of strong works, and they came from some surprising sources. Over the years, the PFF Award Competition section of the festival has screened over 400 movies, and many of the young directors whose works were selected for screening in the early days have gone on to achieve great things within the Japanese film world. In 1978, its second year, for example, the festival had already uncovered three major names, screening early 8mm works by Sogo Ishii (Totsugeki! Hakata Gurentai / Attack! Hakata Street Gang) and Yoshimitsu Morita (Raibu in Chigasaki / Live in Chigasaki), and a 16mm project by Shunichi Nagasaki (Yuki ga Rokku o Suteta Natsu / The Summer Yuki Rejected Rock).

picture: scenes from 'Intermission', 'A Imitation Interior' and 'A Touch of Fever'

Later filmmakers to be discovered by PFF in the early years include Joji "George" Iida, the director of The Spiral (1998), Another Heaven (1999) and Dragonhead (2003), whose 10-minute Intermission (Kyukei) screened in 1980 along with Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Vertigo College (Shigarami Gakuen); one of the Four Devils of pink, actor and director Kazuhiro Sano with the 80-minute 8mm feature An Ode to the Earthworm (Mizuumi no Uta) in 1982; and Akihiko Shiota (of Canary and Dororo fame) with Fa-La-La in 1984.

But one of the most surprising of PFF's early discoveries came from a 17-year-old high school girl named Shiori Kazama, whose 22-minute short 0×0 (Zero Kakeru koto no Zero) saw her becoming the first recipient of the PFF Scholarship, established in 1984 with the goal of supporting independent film production in Japan. Granted to one PFF Award winner each year, the scholarship allowed her to direct Imitation Interior, a 45-minute-long 16mm work completed in the same year as her graduation from high school in 1985. As well as financing the film, PFF also arranged its theatrical distribution in Tokyo. Kazama later went on to direct the features How Old is the River? (Fuyu no Kappa, 1994), The Mars Canon (Kasei no Kanon, 2001) and World's End Girlfriend (Sekai no Owari, 2004).

But it was in the 1990s that the PFF Scholarship really came into its own. With each PFF Award winner invited to submit a new feature script, every year one is selected to be produced, financed and released into cinemas. Past winners have included Ryosuke Hashiguchi with A Touch of Fever (1992), Waterboys director Shinobu Yaguchi with Down the Drain (1993), Kazuyoshi Kumakiri with Hole in the Sky (2001), Lee Sang-il with Borderline (2002) and Naoko Ogigami with Yoshino's Barber Shop (2003).

The PFF Award Competition section in 2005 featured 15 works, ranging in length from 17 minutes (in the case of Madoka Kumagai's How to Make Cabbage Rolls) to 120 minutes (Yasuomi Kawahara's END=end). With virtually nowhere in Japan processing 8mm or Super8 film anymore, Japan's vibrant 8mm scene of the 1980s is long a thing of the past. According to PFF's director Keiko Araki, over the past 5 years there has been vast shift away from film towards video. Only 2 works in this year's competition weren't shot on DV, the two 16mm works The Sea of Thin Air and Trojan Lust.

In the 30 years since it began, PIA Film Festival has received literally thousands of submissions from rookie filmmakers across the country. The history of PFF is, by and large, concurrent with the history of jishu eiga, with the festival serving as a vital gateway between the country's innate talent and the large production companies who will go on to fund their later works.

Though many PIA entries have gone on to earn acclaim through subsequent screenings at foreign festivals, such as Izumi Takahashi's 2004 Grand Prix winner The Soup One Morning, and Frankfurt's wonderful Nippon Connection showcased several recent works from their past program this year, few of these films have made it onto English subtitled DVD. All of this has acted as an obstacle in granting the world of jishu eiga a wider audience outside of Japan. But the past programs of PFF hold a vast reserve of early "before they were famous" works by directors who should all be familiar to regular readers of Midnight Eye, and as such should prove ample fodder for ambitious festival programmers and curators across the globe to demonstrate just how the nation has taken the fate of its own film industry in its own hands without the need for tariffs or government support.