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6 Reasons to Visit the Tokyo International Film Festival

From celebrity sightings to movie premieres to this year’s Godzilla Fest (and more), this year’s TIFF venues in Roppongi and Chiyoda are where it’s at.

By 8 min read

The Tokyo International Film Festival is Japan’s largest film festival, a prestigious event that takes place every year in the Roppongi Hills development and other venues around town. If you like movies and are going to be in the capital between Oct. 25 and Nov. 3, 2018, there are a number of cool incentives that might make this year’s iteration worth checking out.

Here are six reasons to visit the 2018 Tokyo International Film Festival (hereafter referred to as TIFF-JP to differentiate it from the other TIFF in Toronto).

1. It’s a chance to see famous faces in person

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Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Meryl Streep, and other V.I.P.s at the 2016 festival.

As recently as last year, you could watch stars arrive on the red carpet at TIFF-JP. The ceremony on opening day at the Roppongi Hills Arena had a public viewing area, with free tickets available on a first-come, first-served basis.

This year, the festival has announced that the arena will be fully booked with TIFF-JP’s crowdfunding supporters. However, even from outside the arena, you still might catch sight of some celebrity heads bobbing along on the red carpet.

Anecdotally, that’s the experience I had in 2015 when I was passing by on my way out of an early screening and saw actress Hilary Swank arriving. Later, Dame Helen Mirren and director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) showed up.

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Al Gore closed the 2017 festival with his documentary An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.

Even if you can’t get into the arena this year, there’s still an opportunity to hear directors and actors speak at stage greetings and Q&As. In 2016, Meryl Streep appeared at screenings on opening day to promote her film Florence Foster Jenkins. Even Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was on hand that day to welcome her on the red carpet.

He’s not the only politician who’s been known to show his face at the festival. In 2017, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike appeared at the closing ceremony with Competition Jury President (and Boss Coffee spokesman) Tommy Lee Jones. Jones’ old college roommate, former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore, appeared there and at the closing screening to promote his documentary An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.

Japanese filmmakers also make appearances in the theater at screenings, plus there are fluent interpreters on hand to provide translation for the audience. The list of V.I.P. guests for this year’s festival hasn’t been announced yet, but keep an eye on the “Guests” tab on the official TIFF-JP 2018 website for more news on that front between now and Oct. 25.

2. Be the first to see Hollywood films in Japan

If there’s any downside to being a movie fan living in Japan, it’s that Japan is often literally last on the list of countries to receive Hollywood films. Many times a movie will already be available on the U.S. iTunes Store by the time it hits Japanese theaters.

The TIFF-JP presents attendees with the unique chance to be a member of the first audience in Japan to see certain Hollywood films. Major motion pictures imported from the U.S. sometimes make their premiere at the festival weeks or even months in advance of their wide release in Japanese theaters.

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Steven Soderbergh poses with girls in Logan Lucky costumes on Halloween night at TIFF-JP 2017.

At last year’s festival, for instance, Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven) made a personal appearance on stage for the Japanese premiere of his movie Logan Lucky, starring Channing Tatum, Adam Driver and Daniel Craig. The opening film at this year’s festival, A Star Is Born, is also making its Japanese premiere.

Since it first made the rounds in Venice and Toronto in August and September, there has been a lot of awards talk surrounding A Star Is Born for its breakout Lady Gaga performance and for how it marks an assured directorial debut for actor Bradley Cooper. The film will screen at the festival in Roppongi on Oct. 25, way ahead of its wide release in Japan on Dec. 21.

Two other films with Hollywood names attached to them that are screening at this year’s festival are Fahrenheit 11/9, the latest documentary from Michael Moore, and Roma, the new drama from Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men, Gravity). Fahrenheit 11/9 will screen on Oct. 28 and Roma will screen four times on Nov. 2. Tickets go on sale Sunday, Oct. 14 at 4 p.m. Again, check the official TIFF-JP 2018 website for more details.

3. Two words: Godzilla Fest

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Godzilla: The Planet Eater

Nothing says Japanese pop culture quite like Godzilla. The King of Monsters has a live-action, big-budget Hollywood sequel on the way next year (appropriately dubbed Godzilla: King of the Monsters). If you’re a Netflix subscriber, you may have also been keeping up with its anime Godzilla trilogy. The first two movies, Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters and Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle, both premiered in Japanese theaters two months before hitting Netflix worldwide.

The final installment in the trilogy, Godzilla: The Planet Eater, will start showing in theaters across Japan on Nov. 9, 2018. Prior to that, it will make its world premiere as the closing film of this year’s festival, screening on Godzilla’s birthday — Nov. 3 (which also happens to be Culture Day, a public holiday in Japan).

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The tail-tastic Shin Godzilla statue in Hibiya Godzilla Square.

Back in March, a new, long-tailed statue modeled after the monster in Shin Godzilla debuted outside the Hibiya Chanter shopping complex, near Tokyo Midtown Hibiya and the Tokyo International Forum (both of which are serving as venues for the film festival this year). The square in front of Hibiya Chanter has been renamed Godzilla Square.

During the festival (again, on Nov. 3), this site and the adjacent Hibiya Step Square will host “Godzilla Fest” in a full-scale outdoor theater. The official festival guide describes this birthday party for Godzilla as an event where, “Both children and adults can have fun and celebrate lavishly by watching Godzilla, playing, and eating and drinking.”

4. You can see Japanese movies with English subtitles

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Shoplifters

Movie lovers who aren’t fluent in Japanese might normally miss out on seeing new Japanese films until long after their theatrical run in Japan has ended. Even then, unless the films have been marketed overseas, there’s no guarantee that a subtitled version of them is ever going to become available. At TIFF-JP, however, Japanese movies show with English subtitles on the big screen.

This makes the festival a good opportunity to catch up on some buzzworthy Japanese films and be part of the cultural conversation. Two examples of much-talked-about films playing at this year’s festival (both on Oct. 31) are Shoplifters and One Cut of the Dead.

Shoplifters is the film that won the Palme d’Or (the top prize) at the Cannes Film Festival back in May. It contains the final performance of actress Kirin Kiki, who passed away in September. This movie has also been selected as Japan’s entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the next Academy Awards.

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One Cut of the Dead

One Cut of the Dead is a film that’s been called “the best zombie comedy since Shaun of the Dead.” The film has proven to be a big domestic hit, garnering buzz for its 37-minute, uncut opening shot and recouping 250 times its original budget at the Japanese box office. It’s already begun rolling out internationally and is earning acclaim abroad, too. In late September, director Shinichiro Ueda won Best Director in the Horror Features category at America’s biggest genre film festival, Fantastic Fest.

Additionally, TIFF-JP 2018 is running a special showcase from Oct. 26 to Oct. 27 in honor of Koji Yakusho, who has starred or co-starred in such films as Babel, Memoirs of a Geisha, the J-horror masterpiece Cure and the original Shall We Dance? (the latter of which helped popularize ballroom dancing in Japan and later spawned an American remake with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez). On Oct. 29 and 31, there’s a screening of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and The Little Norse Prince Valiant — respectively the last and first film from Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata, who passed away earlier this year.

5. Pair the festival up with a museum trip

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The landmark statue of Maman the Spider with Mori Tower rising high above it in Roppongi Hills.

Roppongi is known for its nightlife but during the day it’s a museum mecca, with three museums forming the so-called “Art Triangle Roppongi.” Both the Suntory Museum of Art (in the Tokyo Midtown complex) and the wavy glass architecture of the National Art Center, Tokyo are within walking distance of the film festival venues on this side of town.

In Roppongi Hills, the spiral staircase leading up through the glass Museum Cone to the Mori Art Museum is located right next to Toho Cinemas Roppongi. If you’re already there for the film festival, it’s uber-convenient to take in a museum exhibition, as well.

The week before the film festival starts, the Mori Art Museum will actually be celebrating its 15th anniversary (the museum first opened on Oct. 18, 2003). Its 15th-anniversary exhibition, “Catastrophe and the Power of Art,” features an installation by Yoko Ono, among other artists. The exhibition runs from Oct. 6, 2018 to Jan. 20, 2019.

6. It’s a good excuse to dine in Roppongi

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The Hard Rock Cafe in Roppongi.

The giant neon guitar over the entrance to the Hard Rock Cafe is one of the many familiar chain restaurant signs that expats can see in Roppongi. Last year, during the film festival, a new Shake Shack location opened right outside Roppongi Hills. The streets are littered with cheap doner kebab vendors and there are also plenty of upscale restaurants nearby, including Sushi Bar Yasuda and Restaurant Moritomo XEX, both of which Anthony Bourdain visited.

The Ex Theater Roppongi is the other participating film festival venue in Roppongi. It’s just down the street from Roppongi Hills. If you walk a little farther, you can even partake of a bit of movie-themed dining at Gonpachi Nishi-Azabu. This is the soba and kushiyaki (grilled skewer) restaurant that inspired the House of Blue Leaves in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Vol. 1. You can read more about it in our guide to 8 of the Coolest Movie Locations You Can Visit in Japan.

Are you looking forward to the Tokyo International Film Festival? Have you taken in any movie screenings or spotted any famous faces in Roppongi in years past? What restaurant(s) in the area would you recommend for would-be festival goers? Share your own valuable input in the comments below.

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