Behind-the-Scenes at JAPAN CUTS 2024!

The 17th iteration of North America’s largest festival of new Japanese film, JAPAN CUTS 2024 features more than 30 films plus special guests from Japan—all coming to audiences July 10-21 at Japan Society’s landmarked building in New York City. 

What does it take to produce this 12-day film fantasia? Let’s go behind the scenes with Japan Society Film Director Peter Tatara and Film Programmer Alexander Fee to learn how they curate this major annual film festival. 

“The selection process for JAPAN CUTS 2024 took upwards of eight months – really, it took almost a year to bring to life. Major work for our biggest films started in the fall at the Tokyo International Film festival. In Tokyo it was a week of 50+ meetings with filmmakers and distributors, talking things through and establishing in-person relationships, and, of course, watching lots of films. Of course, there were also films from the previous year that we couldn’t get, for whatever reason, which were also our radar.

After returning to New York in November we sent out our first wave of invitations to filmmakers and distributors, including, I’m very happy to report, one for Shinya Tsukamoto’s Shadow of Fire, our 2024 Centerpiece Film and the latest entry to Tsukamoto’s remarkable war trilogy (Fires on the Plain and Killing), with the screening followed by the presentation of our CUT ABOVE Award to actor Mirai Moriyama. Another major November ask, also landed after months of work, was Kei Chika-ura’s Great Absence, starring Tatsuya Fuji, Mirai Moriyama, Yoko Maki, and Hideko Hara. The New York premiere screening will be followed by a JAPAN CUTS Lifetime Achievement Award Presentation to Tatsuya Fuji, a Q&A with Kei Chika-ura and Tatsuya Fuji, and of course, a reception. JAPAN CUTS parties are always memorable, although I’ve only been organizing the festival for two years and can’t be held accountable for any of the earlier ones!

2024 should be an amazing year for JAPAN CUTS. Our 2023 festival reflected the fact Japan was still coming back from the pandemic, so this year is a lot of first post-pandemic releases from major filmmakers. In terms of the production and breadth of what we’re seeing, we’re getting a lot of the big films that were still being worked on in 2023. We’re also getting some great guests from Japan, including Mirai Moriyama (Shadow of Fire), who has been featured in many JAPAN CUTS selections over the years. It’s great to finally be able to acknowledge him with the CUT ABOVE Award and, in an interesting connection, Shinya Tsukamoto, the director of Shadow of Fire, received the CUT ABOVE Award at JAPAN CUTS 2019.”

Great Absence © 2023 CREATPS Inc.

“We’re so excited to bring back directors like Tsukamoto. There’s a whole new film-going audience for Japanese cinema in post-pandemic New York, and it’s a really diverse, younger crowd, not just at mainstream screenings but for classic films, including our most recent series, Hiroshi Shimizu —Part II: The Postwar and Independent Years. Art House theaters in New York are also seeing younger audiences for classics as well as new features, although in Japan, classic film screenings are still mainly for salarymen. When watching classics in Japan, I might have been the youngest person in the theater, by about 30 years!”

“This is really interesting, and I think we’ve also seen in this changeover in a lot of different industries, including the Comic Con world, where there has been a radical shift in audience since 2019, moving to a younger fan group that grew up during the pandemic and whose taste is generally much more Japanese. So even at Comic Con there’s a big, new surge of Japanese content and appreciation for Japan.”

“Another thing we’re doing at Japan Society is highlighting the works of the independent Japanese filmmakers of the 1980s and ’90s, as recently reflected in our April 2024 series Directors Company x2, which just presented Sogo Ishii’s The Crazy Family. For the Classics Slate at JAPAN CUTS 2024, we’ve got Ishii’s 1995 masterpiece August in the Water (he now goes by Gakuryu Ishi), screening from an imported 35mm print and featuring the director in person! We’ll also be showing the North American premiere of Kyrie, a brand new film by Shuji Iwai (Swallowtail Butterfly, All About Lily Chou-Chou), highlighting another connection from past Japan Society retrospectives that’s really boosted Iwai into the mainstream. Each year, a few themes or connections emerge almost spontaneously from the final picks—and this time, in particular, it feels there’s a very summery, watery theme going on, as well as matsuri… I’ll let you find the films that match these themes when you’re making your ticket selections!”

KUBI ⓒ 2023 KADOKAWA ⓒ T.N GON Co.,Ltd. 2023

“My personal favorite for this year’s festival is Whale Bones, directed by Takamasa Oe, co-writer of the Academy Award winning Drive My Car. Oe directs this film, his first project since Drive My Car, and it is a beautiful, ethereal film that has, I think, the most compelling first 15 minutes of a movie that I’ve ever seen in a long time. I was literally on the edge of my seat. If you boil the story down, it’s about online fame, and the realities and dangers of influencers and fame on the internet. But it’s so much more than that and it just paints this with a dreamlike quality that’s absolutely transfixing.”

For JAPAN CUTS 2024 we watched more than 300 screeners to book 30 films—to put this in perspective, we had only 100 screeners for 2023. Our goal when programming is that these aren’t necessarily our 30 favorite films. Instead the intent is to show a snapshot of the past 12 months of Japanese cinema, and to showcase that diversity, from big budget films to independents, from rising actors and directors to experimental, and from shorts to anime. We had a lot of discussions and long nights, and there were certainly films we loved that weren’t the best fit for the final lineup. And almost the entire staff of Japan Society is involved, with marketing, graphic design, website production, ticketing, scheduling, fundraising, and creating membership incentives for the festival. It’s a really big event for us and it couldn’t happen without everyone’s help.

There’s such a broad audience for JAPAN CUTS, from so many different communities. Although we know that the crowd for SHIN GODZILLA: ORTHOchromatic is going to look very different than the one for Moving, our hope is that all of these audiences will also cross-pollinate. So, please take a step or two outside of your comfort zone and find something new, something you don’t know about, something beyond the films that you really want to see. For a lot of these films, this is the first and only time that they’re going to be shown in the U.S. Don’t miss the chance to discover something new and thrilling and wonderful from the best Japanese cinema of the past 12 months—and come back and do it all over again next year!”