Former diplomat Ando Hiroyasu has lofty goals as chairman of Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) and a vision of how to raise the profile of Japan’s premiere celebration of cinema. But with a realpolitik perspective perhaps partly forged in his four-decade diplomatic career, he is under no illusions as to the scale of the challenges he faces to take the festival to the next level.

After becoming chairman in 2019, Ando shared the management duties with then festival director Takeo Hisamatsu until the former took sole charge last year, with Japan still largely closed to foreign visitors.

“After two years of being impacted by the pandemic, things are finally going back to normal this year, and the government is also lifting border restrictions this month, October. So, we would like this to be something of a new start for the festival,” Ando tells The Hollywood Reporter.

2021 also saw a relocation after a 17-year residency at the Roppongi Hills complex. The new venue has slightly expanded its new home for this year’s edition, and screenings and other events will be happening across the Hibiya-Yurakucho-Marunouchi-Ginza area in central Tokyo.

As part of a range of initiatives to create more local buzz, TIFF is working with a local business association on raising awareness and visibility of the festival, which has in years gone by often felt somewhat overlooked and lost in the vastness of the megalopolis that is the Japanese capital.

Finances are always an issue and Ando points out that some of the major global festivals have budgets that are more than double that of TIFF, a gap he is working on narrowing. “Naturally enough, it was hard to get sponsors to work with us during the pandemic. But this year we have new sponsors on board and have actually been able to raise more funds than before,” he reports.

Among those onboard are Mitsubishi Estate and Mitsui Fudosan, major real estate developers which both have extensive property portfolios in the festival district and therefore see the value of a successful international event happening there.

Along with screenings increasing by about a third on last year, the fest is also welcoming back global film industry people in numbers for the first time since 2019.

“We’re very happy to have more guests from overseas, but this year the price of airline tickets in particular, and also hotels costs, have jumped. That’s a headache,” says Ando with a resigned laugh.  

Among those guests will be Alejandro González Iñárritu, who along with Japan’s Koji Fukada, will be receiving the Akira Kurosawa award for contribution to global cinema, revived after a 14-year hiatus (the reason for its cancellation is apparently something of a mystery).

The award is to be presented at a banquet ceremony at the Imperial Hotel, a Tokyo landmark and another new sponsor; another element of the strategy to attract more international attention for TIFF.

“There’s no doubt Akira Kurosawa is still the most famous Japanese director in the world and so the award being in his name has merit in itself. Mr. Iñárritu had something scheduled but he was prepared to go to a lot of trouble and rearrange his plans to come to Tokyo because he has great respect for Kurosawa. That in turn raises focus on the festival from the media, and Japanese directors want to be part of the event because they want to meet Iñárritu,” suggests Ando.

Then there is the not to be forgotten matter of attracting big films, including from domestic studios, which Ando acknowledges often send their most promising titles to prestigious overseas festivals.      

“The companies have to see an advantage from a business perspective of screening at Tokyo. It’s a chicken and egg relationship — successful festivals attract good films but festivals need to attract good films to be successful. I can’t say definitely we’re in that virtuous cycle yet,” states Ando.

Asked about his previously stated ambitious goal of creating a festival that could be compared to Venice, Cannes and Berlin, that is still the long-term target, insists Ando.

“But that is a tall peak we’re aiming for, and to climb a high mountain takes time,” he says, noting that Berlin – the newest of the big three festivals – has a history of more than 70 years, around twice the length of Tokyo’s.  

“So, now we’re at the level of Mount Fuji, and we would like to keep working and somehow get to the level of Mount Everest. But Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he adds with a laugh, repeating the proverb in English.

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