The Japan Film Festival is historically five years old and suffers from some growing pains. Originally called the Chanoma Film Festival, it focused on films that focused on everyday life. Chanoma literally means living room.
After all, samurai and geisha movies come over to the US. More recently, anime has become popular here. Films about everyday people in every day Japan were and are less popular and this void creates a biased view of what Japan is and how the Japanese see themselves. Few Americans who have never been to Japan have seen Otoko wa Tsurai Yo (It's Tough Being a Man), a long-running series with the same lead actor (Kiyoshi Atsumi) and same director (Yoji Yamada) that only ended with the death of the actor (48 movies from 1969-1995). Yet Zatoichi has made it over. Americans seeing only this side of Japanese films can easily theorize that Japan's national character clings to the sensibilities of the samurai. Atsumi's character, Tora-san is the anti-samurai and there are many characters that would contradict the samurai morality.
When I ran through the list of movies for my local video store, only the Kurosawa samurai films were on the shelves.
Now that anime and J-horror have found fans in the US, the festival organizers decided to reflect the growing variety of genres represented by re-christening it the Japan Film Festival. Supported by the Japanese Consulate General, the Japan Foundation of Los Angeles, numerous Japanese-American corporations, and much of the Japanese media in the Los Angeles area, the festival this year screened independent films to indicate the depth and variety of Japanese filmmakers.
Some of the problems with the film festival include the brochures — the schedule didn't seem to be printed based in alphabetical order, order according to the Japanese syllabary or day. The panel discussion on the Saturday prior to the festival lacked focus. Reviewers were not given screeners and many of these movies were not readily available.
American moviegoers might be shocked that the movies actually start on time — without endless commercials or trailers. Of course, the festival features some Kurosawa classics: The Hidden Fortress and Sanjuro.
The Hidden Fortress stars Toshiro Mifune as a general who is protecting the princess of the defeated royal family. With the family's gold, they travel to a safe territory. Along the way they pick up two cowardly peasants who provide comedic relief. George Lucas was inspired by this 1958 film when he was making the original Star Wars movie, particularly in terms of having two often bickering and absurd characters telling the story — in his case R2-D2 and C3PO. The actual Japanese title, Kakushi Toride no San Akunin is The Three Villains of the Hidden Fortress.