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Kyoto Filmmakers Lab

I had the great pleasure of being invited to attend the 3rd annual Kyoto Filmmakers Lab (KFL for short), which was held last month. Essentially a filmmaker’s boot camp, 20 participants are chosen from an open call, and are split into two groups. Each group must work on a short film. The catch is, the films are jidaigeki and to be shot on the existing sets at the Toei-Kyoto and Shochiku-Kyoto Studios respectively.

These historic studios are located in the famous Uzumasa area, where in its prime, was the nexus of Japanese cinema and TV dramas for the better part of the 20th Century (Classics like Rashomon was shot at the now defunct Daiei Studios, for example). Dubbed the “Hollywood of Japan,” this quiet residential neighborhood houses the last two remaining movie studios, as well as Eigamura, or Toei Movie Land, a tourist attraction similar to Universal Studios, with Edo period village sets, a haunted house, props and other classic movie posters on display and my personal favorite, a Power Rangers museum!

So, what’s the purpose of the KFL? With the waning interest in jidaigeki over the past 20 years leading to this once vibrant sector to lose its luster in the overall Japanese pop culture scene, studio execs and the prefecture government came together to reignite interest in jidaigeki with various events by updating them to the current tastes of young consumers. Case in point is the Sengoku Matsuri, an annual event held every September that promotes Toei Movie Land and showcasing its traditional sets and customs of jidaigeki, and blending it with anime and manga otaku culture, primarily cosplay and interfacing with filmmakers and production pros (costume design, set design, special effects) with seminars that are open to the public.

Breaking out of the mode of traditional jidaigeki, Toei Studios produced a hilarious web series called Metal Samurai, which was set in Edo period and about a brooding gaijin samurai in KISS makeup. I showed this web series in its entirety at the 2008 Festival and it was a lot of fun.

So back to the KFL… By having an international group of filmmakers in Kyoto for a week, collaborating together to make a jidaigeki-inspired short film, it helps promote Uzumasa area as a place to do business, neo-jidaigeki business! With lowered rates and an open mind, the studios there are open to all kinds of filmed entertainment to be produced there. And let me tell ya, 2010 was a busy year for them, with big to low budget films, straight-to-DVD, web series, and even student films produced on the lot.

Unfortunately, there were no Hawaii-based filmmakers participating this year unlike the 2009 edition, when there were three filmmakers from Hawaii. Check out this short film from the 2009 KFL entitled SAYONARAKEN, shot by HIFF alunmus Gerard Elmore!

Nevertheless, the  KFL 2010 teams were great and quite productive, for the most part. As Francis Ford Coppola once said, “being a director is the last job in the Western world, where you can still be a dictator.” Filmmakers are inherently leaders, so it was interesting to see the various dynamics. But mostly, people worked together and set aside their differences. Why wouldn’t you when you were required to attend mandatory traditional samurai sword-fighting seminars?

I was glad to see that some filmmakers that I recommended were chosen and pleasantly surprised that filmmakers that I knew of but have never met, were also there because of my initial recommendation was sent to them (thanks, Facebook). What’s cool is that the filmmakers sleep together under one roof, on tatami mats and futons, bathe at a nearby sento , and pretty much stay together 24/7 for a week, but also get a couple of days to do some local sightseeing. Hey, a sponsored Kyoto trip in December? Count me in!

In addition, to the KFL, the Historica Film Festival is also held during the same time. The “film festival” portion of this whole enterprise, the theme of the festival is to promote historical films from around the world. Films such as Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth and Sngmoo Lee’s The Warrior’s Way were shown with various high level crew members associated with said films in attendance to be a part of in-depth post film discussions.

Japanese enfant terrible director Takashi Miike, the master of disturbing masterpieces Ichi the Killer, Audition, and the most recent 13 Assassins (one of the best jidaigeki films in years, which was also shot all in Kyoto), was also in attendance, leading a master class with other notable directors. He’s definitely mellowed out in recent years (his reputation is legendary and his no bullshit attitude was very prominent when I first met him ten years ago at the Rotterdam Film Festival), and has made three jidaigeki films back-to-back-to-back all in the Uzumasa area.

He interacted quite a bit with the KFL participants and hung out with them at the closing night BBQ, which was held inside one of the stages at Shochiku Studios. What’s cool about Japanese stages is that the ground is padded with dirt and floors are constructed above them. Hence, a great place to host a kick-ass BBQ, with grill stations spread out and my favorite yakitori grandma ever, hard at work to ensure optimum grilling quality.

Overall, a trip well worth it. And if any budding filmmakers interested in Japanese cinema, or just to exercise those creative muscles with peers from around the world and are interested in participating in the next KFL, just go to the official website for information. Aside from meeting and networking with interesting folks, taking in the serenity of Kyoto, and eating my way through the city, I truly admire what these film studios are doing in being relevant and also promoting the area.

Kyoto is truly one of the great cities of Japan, if not the world, and its rich film tradition should not be extinguished. If you are a fan of Japanese cinema, then do check out Yoji Yamada’s love letter to the bygone era of Uzumasa, entitled Kyoto Story, which we showed at the last HIFF.

In the meantime, I leave you with this lasting image, fresh bowl of curry udon from Yamamoto Menzo that was truly heavenly, especially during a cold December evening.

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