The Japanese Film Festival is exposing Aussies to exciting and new cultural ideas

The Japanese Film Festival is exposing Aussies to exciting and new cultural ideas

Blue Hour
Blue Hour
Words by Jess Zanoni

The Japanese Film Festival is back for its 23rd year, boasting an array of handpicked contemporary and classic Japanese cinema.

This year, Melbourne will be spoiled with over 30 films across two programs, including a collection of horror and supernatural 36mm and 16mm vintage Japanese films, straight from the festival’s film archive in Tokyo.

“The festival originally started in our office in Sydney with just three films. Back then it was a classroom,” one of the festival’s programmers, Susan Bui, recalls. “Now we screen to 19 cities over four programs. We review close to 100 films and cut them down to 30.”

This year, the festival’s theme is New Perspectives, with an aim to revise old stories and bring underground, fringe stories to the forefront.

“We want to highlight aspects of Japan that are not so well known to the general public,” Bui explains. “We’ve got a film called Born Bone Born, that’s based on an island off Japan called Okinawa. The film itself is about a death ritual very localised to that island. Many people don’t visit the island and don’t experience Japanese culture in that way, as it’s not part of the mainstream culture of Japan.

“We also have a film called Rent a Friend that looks at renting companionship, which has become quite popular in Japan due to the lifestyle of most city people, where they don’t have time to spend with friends or find lovers. So that film really highlights modern companionship and the issues that can arise from that.”

A key mission for the festival is to expose Australians to authentic cultural narratives and voices in Japan – ones that are of interest and concern to contemporary Japanese auteurs.

“I feel like a lot of Japanese filmmakers are very much affected by their environment. They’re trying to voice an opinion to get out the things they think are wrong about their own society and try and highlight that in their films. On the other end, there’s a lot of filmmaking in Japan that’s really wild. A lot of filmmakers do adaptions of novels and manga and of other kinds of literature out there, the stories are very fantastical and they’re not part of daily living at all.”

Bui also reflects on the way a lot of Japanese filmmakers are interested in experimenting with traditional narrative structure.

“I find that Japanese storylines are slightly different to the way western cinema is, where you have your beginning, middle and end. Many Japanese films don’t run in that particular kind of format.”

The festival program also includes a number of light-hearted films that feel quintessentially Japanese in their comedic style.

“I think there’s a word for the way that the Japanese create humour. It’s very different to the way that we create humour. There’s this Japanese film that was created as a western film and it completely flopped, because that humour doesn’t translate across. It’s very slapstick and Japanese acting is very expressive.”

For fans of Parasite, Siblings Of The Cape, directed by Shinzo Katayama, will be of particular interest.

“It’s pretty intense. It’s about two siblings; one is intellectually disabled and the carer, who is her brother, is physically disabled. He has to look after and provide for the two of them, but things kind of fall to crap and he has to look for alternate ways to look after their wellbeing.

“The film itself really makes you question who has responsibility – if someone can’t make decisions for themselves, then does the person who’s caring for them have the right to be making those decisions for them?”

When asked to describe what she feels makes Japanese cinema so special and unique, Bui doesn’t hesitate. 

“You’ll find the same attention to detail to daily life really reflected [in Japanese cinema]. Just the little things, the way that people put their shoes away or put their chopsticks down. Even in the wackier films, you can see that Japanese sensibility.”

The Japanese Film Festival comes to Melbourne from Thursday November 21 until Sunday December 1. Find the full program and tickets at