Japan Cuts: The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema, commonly known as “Japan Cuts,” is the premiere film festival in New York for Japanese films and has become a wild card among the niche festivals in the city. Artistic Director Brian Hu spent some time in New York City not too long ago to check the scene and sights at Japan Cuts. Today, he talks to Japan Cuts programmer Joel Neville Anderson about everything from putting on a festival to cats on screen.

Brian Hu: How did you fall into the role as programmer of Japan Cuts?

Joel Neville Anderson: While I was doing my BFA at SUNY Purchase, the film conservatory office kept receiving postcards for upcoming film series at Japan Society. I had a growing interest in Japanese cinema and culture at the time, so I took advantage of a free ticket offer for New York City area film students and saw Hiroshi Sugimoto’s series “The Moving Image of Modern Art” in late 2005. Selections from the Criterion Collection’s Japanese DVDs were being given to people attending a certain number of screenings, so the math was quite clear for me, and I went to as many as possible.

After moving into the city I volunteered for JAPAN CUTS’s third edition in 2009, working with the founding programmer Ryo Nagasawa. I felt a strong connection to the team of staff members, interns, and volunteers, and have been involved since. Only later did I learn Nagasawa did her degree at Purchase as well, and had been sending the promotional material to her alma mater. She appreciated that outreach efforts were a means of not only building an audience, but facilitating education and changing the paths of people like myself. After volunteering, I interned and worked part-time in Japan Society’s Film Program, before working full-time in the fundraising division. While there, I continued working on film productions and teaching at local nonprofits and schools such as DCTV, the New School, and the Museum of the Moving Image, before beginning work on my PhD in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester. I was happy to be invited to curate JAPAN CUTS 2014, and look forward to working with the JS Film team to present more programs to New York City audiences. JAPAN CUTS is always a lot of fun!

BH: New York has major international film festivals like New York Film Festival and Tribeca, but many niche festivals as well. What to you is special about a niche festival and what can it accomplish that a broader festival can’t?

JNA: Many films cannot be included in major events in the international film festival circuit simply due to numbers, but titles are also excluded due to the brands festivals necessarily create over the years. The best festivals continually renegotiate and redefine these identities with each new slate and the programming of related events. However great films often don’t fit into the contemporaneous definition of “art house” or “independent” and don’t draw on reputations validating their sale in regional film markets. That said, these smaller festivals often present films that have been overlooked by some of the majors, due to reasons varying from accessibility to running time to the balancing of a given year’s lineup. Two exceptional examples in this year’s JAPAN CUTS could be our World Premiere of Momoko Ando’s 0.5mm as the Centerpiece Presentation, as well as our Closing Film, the North American Premiere of Tetsuichiro Tsuta’s The Tale of Iya.

Niche festivals—or festivals that address specific communities, issues, or types of film—also have an opportunity to share work unrecognized by gatekeepers of larger festivals, as well as productively contextualize films in their premieres, or recontextualize those that may have already been shown in bigger festivals.

In the case of JAPAN CUTS, the festival must constantly negotiate the opportunities and perils of a festival of national or regional cinema, one tied to questions of US-Japan diplomacy and that long history. (Japan Society is located across the street from the United Nations in midtown Manhattan.) So on the one hand we’re able include new work in highly-specific popular studio genres that have distinct lineage to classical Japanese cinema at the top of canons of world cinema, but it also cannot become a trade expo of the Japanese film industry, and independently produced titles are a major part of the festival. The juxtaposition of mainstream entertainment that falls outside the scope of the festival circuit as well as dissenting voices of documentary and low-budget independent film continues to be a key character of JAPAN CUTS, and I hope to include more experimental work to expand the audience as well as better represent the diversity of work produced in and around Japan.

Another ongoing interest is the selection of work produced outside the national borders or by non-Japanese filmmakers and organizations. This year we’re happy to have had the East Coast Premieres of Dave Boyle’s Japanese-American film Man from Reno, as well as the Mo Brothers’ Indonesian-Japanese coproduction Killers. I think it’s an acute responsibility for people organizing a festival like JAPAN CUTS to consider issues such as globalization, as well as the increasing militarization of the Japanese government, precarious relations among East Asian nations, and the post-3.11 political landscape. The priorities one may assume for a festival like this one: making a cool place for people to relax on a summer afternoon with friends and strangers watching a new samurai film, are not antithetical to these considerations, and can in fact support a common mission of cultural exchange.

BH: What is your ideal Japan Cuts audience member?

JNA: Having attended the festival as a NYC cineaste or staff member for years, I’m happy to have gotten to know many of the regulars. When there’s not a tight changeover between shows, I appreciate talking with audience members on their way in or out of the auditorium, gathering in the lobby, or attending the parties. Just as the lineup ranges in genre and form, I’d hope the audience is just as varied.

Having worked in film production, I’m always surprised how much work goes into festival organization, but equally impressed by the enthusiasm and diligence of cineastes, some of whom came to nearly every screening in JAPAN CUTS’ run this year.

BH: This year’s Japan Cuts showed the breadth of contemporary Japanese cinema. Was there a certain narrative you wanted to convey with your program this year?

JNA: The marching order I gave myself for this year was simply to put together a slate that represents the diversity of filmmaking activity in, or somehow connected to Japan, and to schedule the films together in dynamic events exciting for the audience, and respectful of the filmmakers and their ideas. I knew we needed to have more documentaries or nonfiction films than in past years, as there’s fantastic work being done, and wanted to expand the festival’s definition of Japanese film. Outside of that, I think there’s just a responsibility to respond to what’s being made in a given year: actor Kazuki Kitamura is having an amazing moment in an already impressive career, and we decided he was most deserving as recipient of the CUT ABOVE Award for Excellence in Film; actress Fumi Nikaido has also emerged as a fantastic talent; we were also eager to facilitate conversations with some of the most impressive directors of the year, including Momoko Ando, Dave Boyle, Shiro Maeda, Ken Ochiai, and Tetsuichiro Tsuta. In terms of narrative, the idea was to upend viewers’ expectations of Japanese cinema, or what constitutes a Japanese film. There’s a lot to be said for discrete sidebars, but this year we wanted to get back to the basics, focus on the films, and ask these questions ourselves: what is Japanese cinema, what is a Japanese film?

BH: What are some of the challenges of programming contemporary Japanese cinema specifically?

JNA: The first challenge is one that Japan Society as an organization approaches on a daily basis, which is coordinating creative projects across a far distance, through multiple cultures and languages. In the case of film, there’s a fairly strong domestic market for cinema in Japan, with the popularity of Hollywood films decreasing in comparison to local productions in recent years. Consequently there can be difficulties tracking projects and reaching out to rights-holders to collaborate on a screening without being part of the shifting social networks of professionals working in distribution and production. But of course forging connections across cultures is part of the goal of the festival.

The second challenge that comes to mind, which is more difficult, is presenting the films to an audience in a way that does not remove the works’ wonderful complexities and nuances. Popular interest in foreign cinemas tends to come in waves, and there’s pressure to conform titles to the expectations of “extreme Asia,” J-horror, kawaii culture, or direct references to traditional arts. A project like this film festival is of course susceptible to the same budgetary concerns of any other launched by a nonprofit organization, and the real negotiation to my mind when dealing with a (at least partially) commercial medium like film, is upholding the values of cultural exchange without creating false binaries of art and entertainment. It gets back to the varying concerns of “niche” festivals and major international film festivals. I really commend Pacific Arts Movement and other organizations that take as part of their mission the exploration of media and cinema in transnational, intercultural experience. Facilitating positive encounters between people and the cinematic medium is very important, but audiences are intelligent – far more so than people in power tend to think.

BH: Why do you think audiences love cats on screen?

JNA: Cats are powerful creatures, and of course that’s an intercultural thing too, as countless Internet memes may have proven. I think the interesting thing about the film (and TV show before it) Neko Samurai ~Samurai ♥ Cat~, which had its International Premiere at JAPAN CUTS, is how particularly Japanese it is as a low-budget samurai comedy filmed on a studio lot, but how universal its appeal is. Neko Samurai seems to have broken a JAPAN CUTS festival record for fastest ticket sell-out, disappearing in a matter of days. The star, Kazuki Kitamura, visited and presented this and two of his other films, both international co-productions, Man from Reno and Killers, which have more arthouse appeal. In our Q&A, as well as some of the interviews he gave, he emphasized Neko Samurai as a film for wide audiences’ enjoyment rather than critical praise. I totally agree with him, and I think it’s a good example of the diversity of work festivals like JAPAN CUTS have an opportunity to share with cineastes (and cat lovers).