Director Takeshi Kitano says there are now fewer Japanese films based on original stories

Japanese movie director Takeshi Kitano answers questions after winning the first Samurai Award of the Tokyo International Film Festival during an event with young Japanese filmmakers in Tokyo on Oct 25, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Japanese movie director Takeshi Kitano answers questions after winning the first Samurai Award of the Tokyo International Film Festival during an event with young Japanese filmmakers in Tokyo on Oct 25, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

Japan used to be an Asian movie powerhouse but these days, its position as the setter of trends in film and fashion is now far behind that of its neighbour, South Korea.

Just as K-pop and K-drama have pushed out J-offerings in the region on radio and television, in film, Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbour Totoro, 1988) and Takashi Miike (Thirteen Assasins, 2009) have given way to Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, 2003) and Bong Joon-ho (Memories Of Murder, 2003).

The 27th Tokyo International Film Festival is a key move in a bold, US$500 million push called "Cool Japan", launched last year to restore the country's status as a leader in film.

More than a hundred journalists were flown in, courtesy of the Cool Japan plan, to attend the festival, taking place mostly in the upscale Roppongi Hills area of Tokyo. Last Thursday, its opening movie was the world premiere of a hotly anticipated Disney animated feature Big Hero 6. It will end on Oct 31.

On the red carpet was Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, shaking hands with John Lasseter, Big Hero Six's executive producer and chief creative officer at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation.

Two key components of the big push forward are animation and video games. The Ultraman and robot-wars Evangelion anime of Hideaki Anno and a series of short films based games from Super Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto are highlights at this year's festival.

Last Friday, Lasseter gave a seminar about how Japanese animation, in particular the work of Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli company, has been a deep influence in his life.

One Singapore film, As You Were, from director Liao Jiekai of the 13 Little Pictures film collective, was selected for the festival's Asian Futures section. An impressionistic drama about lovers spending their final moments together is making a world debut and will be competing with nine other films by young Asian film-makers for a prize.

Singapore film-maker Eric Khoo is on the six-member International Competition Jury, which is headed by James Gunn, director of this year's Hollywood blockbuster hit, Guardians Of The Galaxy.

But for Japan,  coming back to the forefront will be hard. At a talk on Saturday, a student-participant asked about the chance of Japanese films making a resurgence.

Speaker Takeshi "Beat" Kitano, the creator of a series of hard-boiled yakuza movies known around the world, was characteristically blunt. The Japanese film industry, he said, was hobbled by the fear of risk, and prefers to stick to a business model that stifles change.  He advised young Japanese film-makers to stick to independently made works if they want to remain creatively free.

Japanese films today rely too heavily on brand-name manga (comics) or novels for source material, he said.

"There are now fewer and fewer Japanese films based on orginal stories. The movie studios don't have the courage to pay an unknown screenwriter. That is the business, we have no choice," he said.