What To See At Tokyo International Film Festival 2020

Tokyo's famed film festival is persevering despite the pandemic

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It’s that time of the year again — the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF) is back. Despite all odds, that is, as no event organizers have had it easy this year. Though the thought of cancellation or going entirely online was certainly discussed on more than one occasion, the film festival organizers decided to brave the ongoing pandemic and hold the annual event for the 33rd time. Needless to say, the Covid-19 pandemic has paved the road for a brand new protocol for running large-scale events of the kind and of course, TIFF has taken all possible measures — from basics like obligatory masks, sanitizing, ventilation and body temperature check, to making sure to block all seats around a seat left for booking — to ensure a safe environment for its guests and viewers. 

This year, the festival runs from October 31 through November 9, with screenings held in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo Midtown Hibiya, Tokyo International Forum and Kaguraza. A special screening spotlight has been secured for two movies this year — Underdog, directed by Masaharu Take, which will open the festival on October 31, and Hokusai, directed by Hajime Hashimoto and starring Yuya Yagira and Min Tanaka, which will close the festival on November 9.Underdog explores the struggle of boxers trying to make a successful comeback, while Hokusai is about the legendary Japanese woodblock print artist’s life.

While both films are wholeheartedly recommended, TIFF has an extensive line-up of more than 100 films that offer something for everyone. If you’re attending the festival this year, we have highlighted five of the many films that should be on your radar. 

Peninsula

This Korean action horror will have its Japan premiere at TIFF. Taking place four years after the events in the popular Train to Busan film, it is not a direct sequel to it but merely set in the same world. Jung-seok, a former soldier who has managed to escape overseas, is given a mission to go back and meets survivors. The movie can be appreciated as the stand-alone film of a soldier and his team trying to comb post-apocalyptic Korea for survivors. 

SectionSpecial Screenings | Director: Yeon Sang-ho | Cast: Gang Dong-won, Lee Jung-hyun, Kwon Hae-hyo | Screening: 10/31, 20:15- at EX Theater Roppongi

The Real Thing


The Real Thing is the most recent film of the rising star Koji Fukada, who is chosen as the focus of this year’s “Japan Now” category. Aside from Fukada’s other films shown at TIFF, The Real Thing is also having its premiere, after the pandemic derailed its planned debut at the Cannes Film Festival 2020. The film is adapted from a manga and it follows the story of a listless salaryman whose life takes a swerve after he stops a woman from committing suicide.  

Section: Japan Now | Director: Koji Fukada | Cast: Win Morisaki, Kaho Tsuchimura, Yukiya Kitamura | Screening: 11/08, 14:00- at TOHO CINEMAS Roppongi Hills SCREEN2

Violet Evergarden: the Movie

The Japanese animation section this year leaves a lot to be desired, with Violet Evergaden as an exception. Released in September 2020, the much-awaited film is the second spin-off from the award-winning anime series and light novel. The story follows Violet, an ex-killer robot turned an Auto Memory Doll that writes for others. The much-awaited film comes on the other side of the dark tunnel that was the tragedy that occurred at Kyoto Animation Studio. The staff members who survived the deadly arson, created this film to honor the memory of the studio members who perished in the attack. After much suffering and delays, the KyoAni has come out with a beautiful artwork that is essentially about healing. 

Section: Japanese Animation | Director: Taichi Ishidate | Cast: Yui Ishikawa, Daisuke Namikawa | Screening11/06, 19:00 at TOHO CINEMAS Roppongi Hills SCREEN
*Please note that this film will not have English subtitles 

Humanity and Paper Balloons

In collaboration with the Japan Foundation, the only three existing films of Sadao Yamanaka were restored and will be shown on TIFF 2020 in the Japanese Classics Section, along with Hiroshi Inagaki’s masterpieces. Both directors have been the inspiration for great names to come after (like Akira Kurosawa), and their timeless films are considered some of the best in Japanese history. Humanity and Paper Balloons, Yamanaka’s most influential historical film, is set in Edo period-Japan and is a visual criticism of the status quo of the time. 

Section: Japanese Classics Section | Director: Sadao Yamanaka | Cast: Chojuro Kawarasaki, Kanemon Nakamura, Noboru Kiritachi | Screening11/03, 11:45- at EX Theater Roppongi

The Mole Agent

Co-hosted by Latin Beat Film Festival, this Chilean documentary tackles elder abuse in retirement homes. Like the title suggests, an older man is hired to be a spy in a retirement home suspected of abusing its residents. What starts as a detective noir-comedy, ends much deeper in contemplating loneliness and human connection. One of the best documentaries to come out of 2020, The Mole Agent is so well done, it looks like a regular scripted film. 

Section: World Focus  | Director: Maite Alberdi | Cast: Chojuro Kawarasaki, Kanemon Nakamura, Noboru Kiritachi | Screening11/01, 18:30 at TOHO CINEMAS Roppongi Hills SCREEN3 and 11/05, 12:20 at TOHO CINEMAS Roppongi Hills SCREEN8 

Tips for attending TIFF 2020

Tickets for the festival went on sale on October 24, with tickets for several movies such as Underdog only available via a pre-order lottery system. It is best to buy the tickets online as soon as possible because fewer seats are available due to social distancing measures. 

Allow yourself ample time before showing up at the venue. Due to safety measures, visitors will be lead in one by one, at a safe distance, which will take more time than usual. 

TIFF recommends downloading the COCOA app that can help with contact tracing should the worst occur and there is a Covid-19 case discovered in your vicinity. 

TIFF’s website also allows you to select the section, the genre, and even the screening date to help you narrow down your choices. 

Follow Tokyo International Film Festival on Twitter for their latest updates as the festival opening date draws nearer.

If you want to explore more film titles, check the full line-up in alphabetical order here.

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