By Tom Mes
Nippon Connection is twenty years old. A very symbolic age, because in Japan it’s when you’re considered to be an adult. So it’s paradoxically suitable that the festival is marking this milestone by essentially returning to its humble beginnings: in the unprecedented shape of an online film festival, where everything is new, exciting, challenging, and unfamiliar – including the number of people that will show up! In terms of how we watch and talk about Japanese film, much has changed in those twenty years. In early 2000, around the same time that the idea for Nippon Connection was born in Frankfurt, across the border in Rotterdam I got together with my web designer brother Martin and an expat British film critic named Jasper Sharp to start work on what would become Midnight Eye, one of the very first websites fully dedicated to covering Japanese cinema in all its rich diversity – with a particular emphasis on current and recent films and filmmakers. We wrote reviews and feature-length essays, and were fortunate to interview a great number of filmmakers, both at film festivals in Europe and on our (self-financed) trips to Japan.
These two parallel initiatives were born separately, but from a very similar source: all the great new Japanese films that had been coming out in the previous years, which we got to see at large-scale film festivals such as Rotterdam and Berlin. If you’ve read Alex Zahlten’s guest article on this blog, you will know how Nippon Connection came into being as a result of the pure energy, the excitement that its founders felt from watching these films – not the types that conformed to classic notions of what Japanese film was or should be, but something new and wildly diverse, like Shinya Tsukamoto’s hand- made cyberpunk extravaganzas, Takeshi Kitano’s deadpan takes on post-Bubble crime and punishment, or Shunji Iwai’s day-glo exercises in pop hipsterism, to name but three. Looking back on that period is the best way to grasp – at least for those who were around back then – how much has changed and how much that change was to a considerable extent influenced by the creation of Nippon Connection and Midnight Eye. Rotterdam, Berlin and other major festivals would show a handful of new Japanese films every year (and the bigger the festival, the lower that number), carefully nurturing certain filmmakers into “auteurs” of world cinema that might one day join the pantheon of master directors – a slow process that respected the ingrained logic of the classic canon of films and filmmakers that had been in place since the 1950s.
Nippon Connection and Midnight Eye were, as Markus Nornes once strikingly phrased it, “anti-canonical”. This is not to say that we disagreed with or disrespected the old guard (my love of Japanese of cinema started with Akira Kurosawa, for example), but that we felt the established canon did not represent all the wonderful things that were happening now, today: Japanese film was never frozen in time, but is a vibrant and ever- changing hive of activity. The founders of Nippon Connection and Midnight Eye felt the same desire to share our enthusiasm for these amazing films. Surely there had to be others out there who felt the way we did? Nippon Connection knew that Japanese films were rarely shown in Frankfurt, and decided to do something about it by setting up its own festival. We at Midnight Eye felt that too little was being written about those films and that more people ought to know about them – and so we might as well do it ourselves.
There had been a number of exciting developments in the coverage of anime in the years leading up to the new millennium, which made for a stark contrast with much of the writing on (live-action) Japanese cinema at that time. The latter fell into two quite extremely opposed categories: either a rather myopic form of fannish raving that seemed obsessed with the same narrow set of gory horror and lurid rape films, or an academic style that mostly seemed to be recycling debates about Ozu and was largely inaccessible anyway, hidden behind institutional paywalls. In between these two extremes there seemed to exist very little in the way of sustained, accessible, yet intellectually stimulating engagement with contemporary Japanese cinema – the films we saw coming out of Japan on a regular basis in ever greater numbers and that had few equals anywhere in the world cinema of its day.
If the overwhelmingly positive response and rapidly growing visitor numbers for both initiatives were anything to go by, we jumped into twin gaps that were waiting to be filled. But another parallel development would prove even more fortuitous: the introduction and quick growth of the DVD format from 2000 onward. This created a huge demand for films, and many of the movies we had championed became available in legal subtitled and/or dubbed versions ready to be watched at home: suddenly you could buy almost the entire back catalogue of the madly prolific Takashi Miike, or immerse yourself in the unsettling world of Kiyoshi Kurosawa. For DVD distribution companies venturing into Japanese film, Nippon Connection’s selections and Midnight Eye’s coverage became signposts to great films that found an eager audience. The synergy was complete.
But that was then and this is now. DVD is long gone. Midnight Eye has been in retirement for the past five years. And every EU country seems to have its own Japanese film festival now, and some more than one! Yet, Nippon Connection still leads the pack, boldly continuing to blaze new trails and refusing to play it safe. The festival has just overcome perhaps the greatest challenge to its existence: this 20th edition shows how online distribution and screening still hold plenty of opportunities, but also few of the certainties of the DVD age. How will festivals adapt to the platform economy? Much of the answer depends on the hope that we will soon be able to all get together again, in person, to enjoy movies, workshops, lectures, and performances. Because there really is no substitute for sitting in a screening room, watching a film on a big screen, and discussing it afterward at the bar or out on the terrace in the warm springtime sun. Let’s drink to another twenty years of keeping alive the festive spirit of Japanese cinema!