Kunihiko Tomioka

21 September 2005
picture: Kunihiko Tomioka


If you are an Osaka-based Japanese film fan and you have yet to visit Planet Studyo +1, then we at Midnight Eye would like to ask why ever not?! A lively haven and social hub for film buffs, Planet not only fills its schedule with an eclectic selection of rare movies from across the globe hand-picked from the personal collection of its founder Yoshio Yasui. Co-managed by one of the most important men behind the scenes in independent Japanese film production, Kunihiko Tomioka, it also acts as an important first-stop screening venue for the works of the many directors drawn from the Kansai area's pool of nascent filmmaking talent.

Assuming the role of producer, Tomioka has been responsible for launching the careers of a generation of Osaka-based filmmakers that include Nobuhiro Yamashita (No One's Ark, Linda Linda Linda), Go Shibata (NN-891102, Late Bloomer) and Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (Kichiku, Hole in the Sky).

With several of his protégés now going on to achieve a good deal of success in the mainstream industry, Tomioka is focusing his attention on fostering a new generation of young directors, screening their works in the Planet Studyo cinema, organising the CO2 and Cinetribe festivals for homegrown independent films, and continuing his work as a producer on series such as the Eyes of Cineastes documentaries. He is truly a man with his fingers in many pies.

This year's Nippon Connection in Frankfurt, the most important European venue for showcasing new Japanese movies, saw Tomioka bringing over a small tribe of his new directors to screen their works for the first time overseas. Jasper Sharp met up with Tomioka in Germany to ask him more about what he is trying to do.

What is Planet Studyo +1?

Firstly, Planet Studyo is a screening venue where we show old films, and secondly it's a place to support and screen the works of younger new filmmakers. For about ten years we've been one of the smallest venues screening films in Japan. We began on December 28th, 1995, on the hundredth anniversary of the Lumiere brothers' first screening in Paris, which marked the birth of cinema.

How did you become involved in it?

Originally when I was a student in Osaka there were no repertory cinemas to watch old movies, but Yoshio Yasui was running a kind of film archive in the city in the 1980s, and screening lots of interesting stuff. I was a regular visitor at this time, as was the director Takahisa Zeze, who's about the same age as me. I then went to Tokyo, where I wrote some scripts for Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Then, when I came back to Osaka, Yasui's original place had closed down, but he had a new venue and he asked me to join him as a programmer.

Can you tell me a bit about Yoshio Yasui?

Yasui was one of the founding members of the jishu eiga independent film screening movement, a student movement which started in the 1970s, when he founded the Planet Visual Archive Library (Planet Eizo Shiryo Toshokan). They collected materials and films from this period and also older films. Now they've gathered around 6000 films, such as old newsreel films from the early days of cinema, the pre-war animation works which we showed here in Frankfurt last year. Some of the films we also made copies of for the National Film Centre in Tokyo. The only copy in the world of Hiroshi Shimizu's Children of the Beehive which they showed at the Berlin Film Festival last year and which went on to play in several cinemas across Germany, was taken from a 16mm print which we had. Another film we have is Express Train 300 Miles (Tokkyu Sanbyaku Mairu, dir. Genjiro Saegusa), an action melodrama from 1928, which they showed in Hamburg. Yasui is also one of the directors of the Yamagata International Documentary Festival. He's the chief curator for the Japanese documentaries for the festival. So the strengths of our archive are old documentaries and animation, both collecting and also preserving old prints.

Alongside running the Planet Studyo theatre with Yasui, you have also produced quite a few important works from new Japanese directors. When did you begin this?

I was originally a scriptwriter, so it was never in my mind to be a producer. But then the director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri was just finishing his university graduation project, a film called Kichiku, but he didn't have any idea of where to screen his movie, so I helped distribute the film in 1999. Two years after that, two other directors, Go Shibata and Nobuhiro Yamashita, came to me with the same idea, so I helped give them an opportunity to show their films. Luckily for them I also was able to help find financing for Yamashita's next film, No One's Ark. I wanted to improve the situation for new talents making their films and to get them exhibited.

So my primary role is in getting the films shown, and then producing the films. This is why I founded the Cinetribe Festival in Osaka, and these three directors, Kumakiri, Shibata, and Yamashita, were the ones who gave me the initiative to start producing.

picture: scenes from 'No One's Ark', 'Kichiku' and 'Red Seed'

Can you tell me a bit more about Cinetribe?

Cinetribe is both a festival and a showcase for new filmmaking talent. Originally the festival took place at different seasons during the year, but for the past couple of years the festival has taken place throughout the whole of July. We've been developing this festival for five years. It's not easy financially to put together a festival like this, so two years ago I managed to get Kodak to sponsor us, which meant we had to finish with a film rather than a video work, so we showed a 16mm film called Red Seed (Aka o Miru).

You help find financing for a lot of directors who want to make jishu eiga, and a lot of them are making their first ever works. How do you select the ones you wish to produce?

Last year when I visited the Hamburg Short Film Festival with a selection of our films, I noticed that there is a big difference between making short and feature length films. If you make a film which is shorter than ten minutes, you only need one event or one idea, but if you make films longer than this, you need to have a narrative structure. There are only a few directors capable of making films of both lengths and you need more talented directors for the longer films. I also need to worry about whether the director has his own individual style and is good at telling stories, and whether the director has a strong enough personality or style to handle the behind the scenes work during long location shoots.

Besides this Cinetribe festival, we've also founded a new festival, CO2 or Cineaste Organization Osaka. The city of Osaka asked me to organise a new festival, but there are already enough festivals for jishu eiga in Japan, and Osaka already has one of them, Cinetribe, which I organise. This CO2 festival has two days to show these films, but the idea is to support production, to find a new system of supporting films.

We finance these new projects, but we also don't give 100% free rein to the directors. The finished films should all be interesting and entertaining for the audience. In that sense we produce the films together, giving our feedback to the young filmmakers. So the directors have to show us their previous films, and also any treatments for their new works, and then we interview them to see whose work we will support.

Most of the filmmaking in Japan is located in Tokyo. Do you have any problem being out of the centre of things in Osaka?

For me it's not really a problem. In fact, it is better for us, because in Tokyo they already have several similar festivals such as the PIA Film Festival, or the Image Forum Festival, so we wouldn't be able to pay as much individual attention to all our different directors as we'd like if we were competing with these other festivals. Also there's a lot of rivalry between the different festivals, so politically, in the sense of the power and potential of ours, it is better to be in Osaka. We are the one and only festival like this, not only in Osaka, but in the whole Kansai area, so we're free from this kind of constraint.

Also, for example, a lot of festivals have strict regulations, so if you submit your film to one, you won't be able to show it at any of the others. But we don't have such strict rules. If a director shows his film elsewhere or wins prizes at other festivals, we don't mind, so we get to choose from many films from all over the country and select the ones which are best for us.

In terms of the content of the films, Tokyo is of course culturally very different from the rest of Japan. Is the festival also very important for promoting a sense of regional identity in the area?

I don't think so. It depends what you mean by Tokyo culture, because most of the filmmakers in Tokyo are originally from other parts of the country. It is not necessarily people who are originally from Tokyo who are making the films, nor other types of art or culture. So the filmmakers who come from the countryside or other parts of Japan are bringing their characteristics with them, and showing their perspective or view of Tokyo. Sometimes it may be a rather idealised view.

Osaka is a fairly characteristic city, but directors such as Kumakiri are also newcomers to Osaka. They might film in different locations in the city, but really they could be filming anywhere. They're not necessarily trying to film the regional aspects of the city. There's nothing that ties the films down to one city.

But don't you think it is important that each region in Japan manages to make films that reflect some sort of local identity? Virtually everything I see now is set in Tokyo, and yet we hardly have any Okinawan directors making Okinawan films, or Kyushu directors making Kyushu films, for example.

What you mention is important. Some of the films we produce have a typical Osaka flavour, and also there are films that show typical Kyushu, Hokkaido, or wherever they are made. Ultimately these regional filmmakers have to take their films to festivals in Tokyo if they want a chance of being more widely seen. Our idea is not necessarily to show the regional aspects of Osaka or other places across the country, but to give an alternate space where filmmakers from anywhere outside of Tokyo can get together at our festival, which just happens to be in Osaka. We support filmmakers or concepts from anywhere. We support films from Kyushu or Hokkaido or wherever they happen to be made, and also use the regional identity of where they are shooting, or films that just use these areas as locations. This regional aspect is great, but it's the choice of the filmmakers how they use the region where they want to shoot, if they want to shoot a typical Hokkaido film, for example, or make a film which could be set anywhere.

On the other hand, you can describe Tokyo as having two aspects. It is the capital city of Japan, and it's also the centre of the whole of Japan, the international face of the country as far as the foreign observer is concerned. But it's also just one other region of Japan. Typical Tokyo culture is hard to define, because there are so many people from other parts of the country living there. The original Tokyo culture has pretty much disappeared, in that sense.

What I am getting at is that I come from a very rural part of England, and I know when I was growing up, I never really saw my life or my experiences reflected on the screen. The danger is that if every film is coming from the same focal cultural point, be it London or Tokyo, it spreads out this message to the rest of the country that this is what "normal" life is like. I think it's nice to see other parts of the country reflected on the screen, and this is why Naomi Kawase's films, for example, have been so popular overseas. She is showing a side of Japan that is different from what foreign viewers are used to, but one that is just as valid or important.

If you are talking about traditional Tokyo culture, typical Osaka culture or any original culture in fact, it is all disappearing. Anywhere you go you can find MacDonalds, for example, or even Japanese culture, such as manga, is spreading all over the world. World culture is becoming more evenly distributed. This has its good sides and its bad sides, because regional culture is dying out. If you want to see anything really unique or original, then you have to travel deep into the heart of Africa, or South America. The cultural gap between the rest of the world, for example Japan or the UK or South Korea, is getting smaller. In North Korea or deep in China you still have this unique original culture, but in the rest of the world it's a different situation.

In the 10 or 20 years or more that I've been watching films I've seen a lot of stuff from many countries. But two films that really surprised me and gave me a very different point of view of the world were the Chinese director Chen Kaige with Yellow Earth (1984) and the films of the African director Souleymane Cissé from Mali. I think it is now impossible for German, Japanese, or English filmmakers, or those from developed countries to bring this sort of surprise to films anymore.

picture: scenes from 'The Guard from Underground','How I Survive in Kawaguchi City' and 'Late Bloomer'

I want to ask a bit more about your background. I heard you were a member of the Directors Company. What was this?

The president of the company was called Susumu Miyasaka and he previously had an important role in an advertising company. Similar to the directors Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich in the US at the time, he wanted to establish a place where filmmakers could more freely develop their own film ideas outside of the main studios. The director Kazuhiko Hasegawa, who made The Man Who Stole the Sun, also wanted to find a company where they could establish a good environment for younger talent.

At that time, during the 1980s, the Japanese film industry was only really making program pictures produced and developed by the major companies. Hasegawa wanted to found this perfect environment for new young directors to make their own more personal films.

I was there at the end of their history, so I didn't really come across any of the other directors there at the time. I met Shinji Shomai and also Kichitaro Negishi once, but this was towards the end of their history. The other directors there were Hasegawa, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Kazuyuki Izutsu, Toshiharu Ikeda, Kazuki Omori, and Sogo Ishii. These were all the members of the Directors Company.

I wrote the script for Kiyoshi Kurosawa's The Guard from Underground, and the first treatment for Charisma, with which Kurosawa later won the Sundance Film Festival prize for new scripts. We began writing the original script during this time at the Directors Company, but Kurosawa was only able to make the film ten years later with Nikkatsu's financial support.

I also wrote the script for Kurosawa's TV movie, The Wordholic Prisoner, which was produced for Kansai TV, the regional station based in Osaka, as part of a series of dramas for television called Dramadas. They screened the series late at night, which allowed the directors who worked on each episode to develop their own ideas more freely. The main directors from the Directors Company didn't want to get involved in this project, but Kiyoshi Kurosawa did. Also the Dramadas project gave the director Kunitoshi Manda the opportunity to make his first ever commercial project. Shinji Aoyama was the assistant director for Manda's project. Other directors who participated were Hirohisa Sasaki, and Shunji Iwai, but they weren't members of the Directors Company. Kansai TV's support with this series was really important in launching a lot of today's most important directors.

You've come to Frankfurt and you are showing a lot of new works from your CO2 festival. I also hear that you are now planning a collaboration with Nippon Connection, as part of the Exchanging Tracks music project.

Nippon Connection asked me if I wanted to make a series of short films to accompany the music on this CD by the German musicians. The project is to make video clips for the VJs. I chose only the younger filmmakers who didn't have any experience making long works, and have only made a couple of short films. Some of the films have already been made and we screened them here. The response was really good, so we're now beginning to develop ideas for more clips from Japanese filmmakers which will screen here next year alongside the music from the German musicians.

Also, I've already produced a series of short documentaries known as the Eyes of Cineastes project. They have played at several festivals in Japan. Everything is very low budget, and the idea is to give filmmakers the chance to go out and make a documentary about their own environment. Each series consists of three works, half an hour in length. The first series included Tetsuaki Matsue's Every Japanese Woman Makes Her Own Curry, Kenji Murakami's How I Survive in Kawaguchi City, and Naomi Matsuoka's Broken Blossom. We've now done our third series. The idea is to encourage these new young filmmakers with the same chance to direct their first works as I did with Yamashita and Kumakiri.

And it is not only in Japan. I am already in contact with a number of young filmmakers in countries such as Hong Kong and Germany. If you know any young filmmakers in London or anywhere else in the world, I'd really welcome the chance to make contact with them to see if we can make anything new happen.