News Column

Sacramento Japanese Film Festival focuses on strong women

July 7, 2013


July 07--Sacramento Japanese Film Festival organizers will spend whatever it takes to obtain quality films from or about Japan.

"You only are as good as the films you show," said Barbara Kado, chairwoman of the festival's presenting committee.

Exhibition rights and shipping costs can run into four figures for a single film -- a small fortune for a modest, volunteer-run festival.

Last year, the festival dropped a bundle on "The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom," an Oscar-nominated documentary about the 2011 Japanese tsunami and its survivors' resilience.

"It was very expensive, but we felt it was a film that was really worth showing," Kado said.

Good thing ticket sales in 2012 were up 20 percent from the year before, organizers said.

An insistence on quality has raised awareness of the festival since it began as a one-day event in 2005. The inaugural event drew 400 people. Last year's drew 1,700.

The festival's ninth edition will run Friday through July 14 at Sacramento's Crest Theatre, offering seven feature-length Japanese-language films with English subtitles.

Few of the recently made Japanese-language documentaries and narrative films shown at the festival would get exposure otherwise in Sacramento. But the bigger treat is seeing classic films by Japanese masters on a big screen.

The festival previously screened works by Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, and at 12:45 p.m. Saturday it will present "Every Night Dreams," a 1933 silent film by social drama specialist Mikio Naruse.

"Dreams" follows the struggles of Omitsu (the lovely, highly expressive Sumiko Kurishima), a single mother who works as a bar hostess to support her young son.

By 1933, most American filmmakers had moved on to talkies, but in Japan "the filmmakers who were very technically forward stayed with silent films for longer," Kado said.

Naruse, for example, was known for modern-looking close-ups, shot from the ground up.

The 1933 film also is "very precious because so many of those early works were destroyed in the fire bombings" during World War II, Kado said. (Though the "Dreams" print survived, its musical soundtrack did not, so the film will be truly silent at the Crest).

"Every Night Dreams" shares a sensibility, in its implications that bar hostess Omitsu must ply her sexuality to earn a living, with frank American 1930s "pre-Code" talkies. Like many American films made before the censorship guidelines, Naruse's films were concerned "with the plight of women," Kado said.

The festival's closing film, "Mrs. Judo: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful" (4 p.m. next Sunday) also addresses barriers facing '30s women. But the 2012 documentary's subject, Keiko Fukuda -- who began studying judo at age 21 in the 1930s and became a master -- was better able than Naruse's heroines to knock those barriers down.

The Japanese-born Fukuda, who died in February at age 99 and not long after the film was completed, was the last living student of Jigoro Kano, judo's founder. She also was the only woman to hold a 10th-degree black belt -- judo's highest designation.

Unlike most Japanese women her age, Fukuda chose not to marry, devoting her life to her sport instead. She taught judo for years in Japan but earned only a pittance.

In 1966, at age 53, she immigrated to the United States, establishing a San Francisco dojo and teaching judo at City College of San Francisco and Oakland's Mills College.

It was highly unusual for a single woman to move from Japan to the United States at that time, "Mrs. Judo" director Yuriko Romer said. And "in the end, (moving) gave her a lot more freedom to do what she was doing."

With the move, Fukuda met two goals -- making a living teaching judo and spreading judo's message far and wide, as Kano encouraged.

Women's rights activist Shelley Fernandez -- Fukuda's San Francisco housemate for decades -- advocated on Fukuda's behalf, helping her win greater recognition as a judo pioneer. Her reputation spread, and she held clinics and camps along with regular classes.

Fukuda spent her last years in a wheelchair but continued to offer instruction at San Francisco's women-only Soko Joshi Judo Club, which she founded.

Romer lives just blocks from the dojo but learned about Fukuda through a story in a national magazine. Romer, who was born in Japan, introduced herself to Fukuda at the dojo and conversed with her in Japanese. They were well- acquainted by the time Romer began filming five years ago.

"Mrs. Judo" charts Fukuda's final visit to Japan, where the judo community welcomed her as an honored guest and a role model.

Fukuda attended the film's San Francisco premiere and other Bay Area screenings before she died. She thanked Romer for making the movie, the director said, on behalf of herself, Kano and judo.

"She had this life's mission to get judo out in the world, and she thought this would help continue that mission," said Romer, who will appear at the Crest with "Mrs. Judo."

Affiliated with the Sacramento Japanese United Methodist Church, the Japanese Film Festival donates proceeds to charitable causes, which have included adult-literacy and disaster-relief efforts.

The film committee consists of cinephiles from inside and outside the church.

The festival's audience has evolved, organizers said. At first composed mainly of members of the Japanese American community, it now runs 40 percent non-Japanese.

Whether they were there at the start or came aboard later, many audience members support the event so fully that they buy all-festival passes, even if they don't attend all the screenings.

"We have a very, very loyal base," Kado said.



--7:30 p.m. "Haru's Journey": The festival opens with this road movie and multigenerational family story in which an older, ailing fisherman and his granddaughter take a trip in search of a relative to care for the grandfather.


--12:45 p.m. "Every Night Dreams": Mikio Naruse's 1933 silent film explores poverty, desperation and marriage in compelling close-up as a young woman, abandoned by her husband, struggles to support her son by working as a bar hostess.

--2:20 p.m. "A Letter to Momo": In this hand-drawn anime film, a girl whose father has just died moves with her mother to an island where she encounters strange occurrences, and later, fantastical residents.

--4:45 p.m. "The Knot": This complex psychological drama centers on a married woman haunted by her experiences with a teacher who took advantage of her when she was in junior high.

--8 p.m. "13 Assassins": There are shades of "Seven Samurai" in this story of a master samurai who gathers fighters to take down a sadistic, dangerous lord. This 2010 film from Japanese director Takashi Miike won four Japanese Academy Awards.

July 14

--1:30 p.m. "Key of Life": The twists keep coming in this farcical comedy-drama-thriller from inventive filmmaker Kenji Uchida. The story involves a Type A magazine editor who sets a wedding date without yet securing a groom; a suicidal actor; and a hit man who loses his memory after slipping on a piece of soap. Identities are assumed, love blossoms and contracts are taken out.

--4 p.m. "Mrs. Judo: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful": San Francisco filmmaker Yuriko Romer caught judo master Keiko Fukuda near the end of her life in a documentary in which Fukuda reflects on her bold choices (judo over marriage, immigrating to the United States) as others praise her impact on the sport.


When: Friday through July 14

Where: Crest Theatre, 1013 K St., Sacramento

Cost: $10 single tickets; $35 all-festival pass

Information: (916) 421-1017,,


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