Now in its ninth-year Okinawa International Movie Festival has become much more than a movie event.
Sponsored by Yoshimoto Kogyo Co, Ltd. – the country’s largest and most well-known agency for comedians – it’s a festival that focuses on fun, peace and laughter as well as promoting the beauty of Okinawa.
A tight four-day schedule, that included lots of ceremonies and parties, meant it was difficult to venture outside the city of Naha. I did, however, manage to fit in some time for a little sightseeing as well as catching a few films. Here are my highlights.
Shikinaen Royal Garden
Arguably the most picturesque sightseeing spot in Naha, Shikinaen Royal Garden Palace is a great setting for a gentle morning stroll away from the hustle and bustle of Kokusai Dori. Despite being registered as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2000, it is not as well-known as the nearby Shuri Castle and therefore less crowded.
From the entrance a windy stone path leads guests through a forested area to the edge of a large pond with two delightful Chinese-style arch bridges in the middle. The pond also features a small island with a hexagonal building known as Rokkaku-do and beyond that there’s a wooden palace where the Okinawan royal family and envoys from China would be have previously been entertained. It’s now a popular location for weddings and one was taking place during my visit.
Shikinaen was destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. A 20-year restoration program began in 1975.
The Red Carpet
The main event of the festival is unquestionably the 150-meter long Red Carpet walk along the city’s most famous street; Kokusaidai Dori. Every year tens of thousands of fans turn up to get a glimpse of their favorite stars and the 2017 version was no exception. This time it was Tao Tsuchiya, lead actress from the NHK asadora “Mare” who got the biggest reception.
Visual Kei rock star GACKT, who was back in his home prefecture promoting the movie “Karanukan”, also received a huge welcome from the spectators. As did the large number of comedians on view including Naomi Watanabe and Terrace House host Ryota Yamasato. Yoshimoto Chairman and CEO, Hiroshi Osaki, comedian Tamako Miyagawa and Naha mayor Mikiko Shiroma were the last people to appear. In total 1099 guests walked the carpet in 130 groups.
A total of 52 titles were screened during the festival including a wide range of domestic and international films. One of the standout movies was Cross, a tense thriller about a journalist who breaks a lynching story which in turn reopens a murder case. Co-produced by leading Japanese producer Kazuyoshi Okuyama, it features powerful performances from lead actress Chiharu Konno and blind pianist Koshi Kishita.
For the first time since Moon Child in 2003 musician and actor GACKT has a lead role in a movie. Set in his home prefecture of Okinawa, Karanukan tells the story of an internationally renowned photographer named Ooyama Hikaru (GACKT) who becomes besotted by a young girl called Ishigaki Maumi (Kimura Suzuka). She then mysteriously disappears right before his eyes. Was it all a dream or did it have something to do with the River God (Karanukan)?
As well as international hits such as the black and white edition of Mad Max Fury Road and an open-air showing of Ghostbusters, the festival also featured the hugely successful WWII animated movie, In This Corner of the World. Following the success of Hibana last year, the latest original Netflix drama series to premier in Okinawa was Jimmy: Aho Mitai na Honma no Hanashi (Jimmy: A Seemingly Stupid, but True Story) which looks at the real-life encounters of comedians Sanma Akashiya and Jimmy Onishi.
Lunch with the United Nations
A number of UN staff members were in Okinawa during the festival and all the journalists had a chance to chat with them over lunch on the second day. Public Relations Manager Kaoru Nemoto was in town to speak about the organization’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were implemented in January last year and are to be continued through to 2030 with the aim of creating a planet that can be passed on to future generations.
“As public engagement is key to success, we have turned to Yoshimoto Kogyo and the Okinawa International Movie Festival where 350,000 people gather from all over Japan as well as from abroad,” she says. “With the help of entertainment and creativity, we would like to reach out to the public and engage people with fun. As the byline of the Okinawa International Movie Festival ‘laugh & peace’ shows, laughter will relax people, open up people’s minds, and connect people.
“While the UN has been involved in international film festivals, such as the Aichi International Women’s Film Festival, it tends to be a one-off collaboration, for a specific screening. As far as I know, Okinawa is the first international film festival that has highlighted SDGs in cooperation with the UN in a systematic manner throughout the festival. This collaboration is not a one-off but to be continued in other large-scale events planned in which Yoshimoto Kogyo will plays a key role in planning and organization.”
Day Trip from Naha
For those planning on renting a car while in Okinawa a day trip to the Churaumi Aquarium and Emerald Beach is highly recommended. The latter was selected as one of Japan’s best 100 bathing beaches by the Japanese Ministry of Environment in May 2006 thanks to its magnificent cobalt blue water and stunning white coral sand. On a sunny day it’s a great place to stay until early afternoon before checking out the aquarium which boasts a total of 77 tanks and a wide range of marine species including a whale shark. A fun place for the family, though best to avoid if you hate crowds.