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Toronto Japanese Film Festival invites Toronto to experience Japanese culture

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To promote "friendship through culture" is the official mission of the Japanese Canadian Culture Centre (JCCC), and this message is certainly reflected in the planning and presentation of the Toronto Japanese Film Festival (TorontoJFF) that will take place at the JCCC from June 13 to June 28.

In the words of James Heron, festival director and executive director of the JCCC, there is a healthy appetite for domestic films in Japan. Overseas Japan is known mostly for the anime genre, but the country has a highly active film scene that includes everything from indie films to big blockbusters. The industry is arguably the third or fourth largest in the world, and Canadians don't always get a chance to experience its variety and breadth.

The films screened at the festival are choices that have already been met with favourable reviews from the Japanese film industry. Festival organizers are attempting to capture Japanese taste across the spectrum, and the line-up this year includes indie films, anime, historical dramas, comedies and contemporary dramas.

Festival programmers poll the Japanese community to assist with film selection. They ask which films members of the community want to share with the Canadian audience; which films do they feel proud of sharing; which films best represent Japan and Japanese culture. This method ensures that the programming model is not one individual's vision, but a collective representation.

It seems surprising that the festival is only entering its second year, but after discussing the festival's origins and goals with Heron, it's obvious that the inaugural year in 2012 was the result of the natural development of similar programs that have been in the works for decades. The JCCC has been host to monthly screenings of popular Japanese films for numerous years, and the spirit of the centre's mandate has always welcomed the Toronto community to participate in collective learning and appreciation of Japanese-Canadian culture. The film festival was the next logical step for Heron and fellow festival programmers, so they took on the challenge of hosting a two-week long event. It was met with great success.

Over 4,000 people attended the first ever TorontoJFF, and the results from the surveys filled out by guests indicated an extremely high level of satisfaction, which prompted many guests to return for multiple screenings. This initial success paved the way for the second annual festival, which will include five more films than last year, and a new element of live cultural presentations preceding select screenings. Last year's festival earned recognition from many big film distributors and celebrities within the film industry in Japan, and so the programmers now have a much wider selection and opportunity to have guests within the industry attend the event.

This year Daihachi Yoshida, the Japanese Academy Award-winning director of The Kirishima Thing will attend the closing-night screening of his film and participate in a Q&A with audience members. Heron hopes that the continued success of the TorontoJFF will bring more big names from the Japanese film industry to Toronto for the celebration, and perhaps one day Toronto will be able to host a world premiere of a Japanese film.

For now, the festival is dedicated to promoting its message of cultural acceptance by sharing aspects of traditional Japanese culture with the diverse audience it draws.

Many festival attendees are either general film festival enthusiasts, or fans of more contemporary Japanese genres such as animated and live-action anime and manga. This is an opportunity for organizers to share other more traditional aspects of Japanese culture with the audience, to offer a broader understanding of Japanese and Japanese-Canadian identity. This year certain films will be preceded by a live tameshigiri sword-cutting demonstration by the Iaido group, and a taiko drumming performance by the Nagata Shachu Japanese Drum Ensemble.

A portion of proceeds from the festival this year will go to funding The Moriyama Nikkei Heritage Centre, a project that the JCCC is currently working on. This museum will have a permanent Japanese heritage exhibit that tells the story of Japanese-Canadian history, including persecution during the Second World War. Japanese Canadians were interned in camps during the war, and had many of their possessions confiscated and never returned, despite not being a threat to any aspect of society. Heron notes that this event unfortunately mimics the current political climate of many areas throughout the world, and the planners behind this museum believe that the story and lessons learned are valuable for all Canadians. The museum will also provide support for new Canadian citizens, and host lectures, exhibitions and cultural activities.

The festival will be screening 18 films over 11 days. All screenings will take place at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre at 6 Garamond Court. Tickets for individual screenings are $10 for JCCC members and $12 for non-members. A five-film pass can be purchased at $40 for members, $45 for non-members, and a ten-film pass can be purchased at $80 for members and $90 for non-members. More detailed festival information can be found here.

Lindsay Presswell is rabble.ca's Film Festivals in Toronto (FFIT) intern.

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