Nippon Connection Film Festival Frankfurt
by Johannes Schonherr, April 2009
Japan has one of the biggest film industries in the world and it can be proud of the large number of movie personalities who won great international acclaim and have become household-names around the world.
What Japan doesn't have is a film festival truly reflecting the incredible scope of Japanese cinema.
Sure, Japan has plenty of film festivals, ranging from big international events like the Tokyo Film Festival and Tokyo Filmex for upscale arthouse productions to rather specialized affairs like the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival in Hokkaido for horror and weirdness to the PIA Film Festival in Tokyo for young up-and-coming directors.
What they all have in common is that each of them just provides a small genre-specific glimpse into the vast and diverse world of current Japanese film making.
Actually, there is a festival which offers a superb, general impression on the current state of Japanese cinema, covering the widest possible range from the popular to the most obscure, from serious art to funny trash, from exploitation to digital experiments. At this festival, anything goes - if it passes the quality control of the curators. Just that the festival is not in Japan or anywhere near it. It's in Frankfurt, Germany.
The Nippon Connection Film Festival takes place annually in mid-April and is considered the largest festival of Japanese cinema worldwide. But don't expect any glitz and glamour. Expect a down-to-earth, fan-driven and hyperactive event branching out into all kinds of Japan-related culture way beyond film.
Enter the sober-looking ASTA student association building on the campus of Frankfurt's Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe University, serving as the festival center, and walk straight into a kind of half-Japanese twilight zone or rather, a heaven of German Japan-fandom.
Sales desks line the walls, offering everything from Japanese language study books to manga to travel guides to sea salt from the Amami Islands to green tea to Hello Kitty dolls.
There's a small stone garden in one corner, a section offering Shiatsu massages, the bar offers Japanese beer and if you feel hungry, there's soba, tempura and sushi on offer.
Rooms are set aside where you can try out the latest Japanese video games and tables are stacked with travel brochures. The crowd is young and often dressed in decidedly counter-cultural attire and when you walk by people talking to each other you will most likely overhear them speaking either of their recent trip to Japan or about their future plans for such a journey.
It was this Japan-mania which has made the festival what it is from the outset. In 1999, Japan-movie fans Marion Klomfass and Holger Ziegler got together with the aim of arranging a small showcase for Japanese movies, which had had screenings at festivals in Berlin but for which there was no outlet in the Frankfurt area.
Unsatisfied with the limited variety of films the Japan Foundation in Cologne had on offer for such purposes, they got in contact with directors and production companies in Japan directly. The result was the first Nippon Connection Film Festival in mid-April 2000 and the success was overwhelming - instead of the expected 1,500 people, 10,000 showed up. The rest is history, as they say.
The festival grew bigger year by year. In 2002, digital works were added to the celluloid program. A collaboration with the venerable German Film Museum across town ensued, adding a history-themed retrospective section to the festival. With former Nihon University post-graduate research fellow Alexander Zahlten, a fluent Japanese-language speaker with a deep knowledge of Japanese cinema joined the programming team.
Today, about 150 films including shorts and digital works are shown at each festival and the audience numbers about 16,000 visitors. After the Frankfurt festival parts of the program are sent to theaters across Germany and to festivals as far away as Belo Horizonte in Brazil.
But as professional as the festival has now become, the staff of about 15 people plus all the active supporters still consists entirely of unpaid volunteers. How long the festival will be able to continue on that basis is anyone's guess. Right now, however, things are going well. Working at the festival does offer great chances to build up networks in Japan after all; which might be very useful for any serious student and / or fan of Japan in the future.
The programmers definitely prefer independent and art cinema in their main section though they don't shy away from the occasional blockbuster. In 2009, highlights were for example Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Tokyo Sonata and Yamada Yoji's Twilight Samurai as well as Sono Sion's 4-hour-long Love Exposure and Tsukamoto Shinya's latest Nightmare Detective 2.
The retrospective, however, easily rivals the main program. Rather than dwelling on slow-moving family dramas of yore, it typically focuses on topics such as the wild anarchy of the 1970's, devoting itself to directors like Wakamatsu Koji and his counter-cultural outbursts.
In 2009, the retro was curated by Jasper Sharp, author of Behind the Pink Curtain (FAB Press, 2008), the definitive book on Japanese pink cinema. So, it was all vintage sex movies in the Film Museum and the festival even invited one of the old masters of the genre, Watanabe Mamoru.
He was present in the retro with a very funny early flick from 1970 but also in the main program with his most recent work, Parting Present (2008). Watanabe, in his late 70s by now, turned out to be a very quick-witted and amusing discussion partner for Sharp and the audience when he appeared on stage after his films. Working with nude, sexy girls keeps his spirits young, it seemed.
That the Film Museum had an unrelated but very interesting exhibition on the work of monster designer HR Giger going on at the same time was a lucky coincidence. Swiss artist Giger most famously designed the deadly creatures for Alien (1979) but he also worked on the 1988 Japanese horror sci-fi thriller Teito Monagatari (aka Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis). He also designed a legendary but by now closed bar in Tokyo.
The later parts of the evenings are reserved for parties. They often feature live concerts by bands like the Osaka noise female duo Afrirampo but can also be centered around strange events like Nekromantik director / Godzilla specialist Jorg Buttgereit commenting on an old Japanese monster film in Mystery Science Theater 3000 style.
In 2009, Buttgereit not only showed a lot of humor when commenting on the movie but also a deep knowledge of all the old Japanese monster flicks - he could even tell lots of entertaining stories about the actors appearing in the smallest roles in the films on screen. It was a hilarious night and yet, you walked away at the end with a lot of respect for all the people involved in making monster movies.
When the festival parties finally wind down, you might want to head over to the bars close to the Central Train Station. Some of them allow smoking and in one of those you may easily find yourself drinking away the rest of the night with a Japanese movie director you had always wanted to talk to. It's that kind of a festival.
Festival web site: www.nipponconnection.de
Books on Japan Films
Nippon Connection: read a guide to Nippon Connection - the Japan-themed film festival held annually in Frankfurt, Germany.