The Vibrancy of Modern Japanese Cinema Extends All Over France

The 17th Kinotayo festival featured modern, tender films that tell important stories and can be viewed in France until 31 January.


WordsRebecca Zissmann

© 2023「Tsugaru Lacquer Girl」film partners

The 2023 edition of the Kinotayo Japanese contemporary film festival was held in Paris in December, and was met with great success. The team was extremely pleased with the increase in attendance and the engagement shown by their community on social media. This level of interest was well deserved, and was the result of the quality of its programme, which is extended every year. This programme can be experienced in different regions in France, as the films selected for the competition are being shown in Lyon, Strasbourg, Montargis, Marly, Saint-Malo, Cannes and Grasse until the end of January 2024.

The feature films that were selected and awarded prizes during the 17th edition of Kinotayo are characterised by the fact that they showcase powerful and complex female characters, and by their skilfully crafted storylines that connect the trajectories taken by their protagonist to key social issues in Japan past and present. Let’s take a look at a few of them, which will hopefully be released in cinemas across the world eventually.

‘No Place to Go’—When injustice and inequality fuel a desire to rail against everything

© 2022 「NO PLACE TO GO」Film Partners

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck Japan, the most vulnerable individuals were those hit hardest. In this case, one such individual is Michiko, a 40-year-old single woman, who loses her job and her apartment in the wake of the emergency measures imposed by the government.

Directed by Banmei Takahashi, who started out in pink cinema working with Koji Wakamatsu, it is no surprise that this film has a political dimension that it tackles head-on. No Place to Go immerses the audience into a world seldom explored in mainstream Japanese cinema, namely that of the homeless. Depicting the glaring inequalities present in Japanese society, the narrative does not simply list these, but rather endows the characters with a remarkable political resolve and spirit of rebellion against the system and society. This uplifting feature film is driven by a five-star cast (Yuka Itaya, Akira Emoto, Reiko Kataoka, Mariko Tsutsui).

‘Tea Friends’—The elderly want to love too

© “Tea Friends” Film Partners 2022

A young woman, Mana, offers an escort service, and all her escorts have the distinctive characteristic of being elderly women. These companions are called upon to ‘come and drink tea’ by retirees, and around them, a small group of social outcasts forms. This tender, original screenplay depicts the epidemic of solitude and the invisibility of people once they pass a certain age. This masterpiece addresses one of the blind spots in our communities, and was awarded the Grand Prix at the 17th edition of the Kinotayo festival.

‘I would like this film to be seen in France as a story about love and family, as a human story and not just a social film.’ This is Bunji Sotoyama’s third feature film, with his first having previously dealt with old age and the quest to find a final partner. A month before the film in question was released, he heard the true story that would go on to inspire Tea Friends, with the only difference being that in reality, the encounters were orchestrated by a 70-year-old man. Deliberately forgoing fixed shots, which are typical of Japanese cinema, and instead using an action camera, he opts to convey his characters’ feelings of unease. This is one director to watch.

‘Tsugaru Lacquer Girl’—Transmission is quite an art

© 2023「Tsugaru Lacquer Girl」film partners

Miyako assists her father within the family Tsugaru lacquerware business. However, her father wants to hand over the reins to her older brother once he retires, except the latter refuses. The narrative appears relatively conventional at first sight, but soon takes a surprising and unexpected turn. The director’s stroke of genius lies in how she lets highly modern themes develop within a setting that is conditioned by tradition. Not forgetting the magnificence of the craftsmanship behind the lacquerware, which unfolds in sensual images in which the material, in vibrant colours, particularly red, is manipulated expertly.

Keiko Tsuruoka studied cinema with Kiyoshi Kurosawa at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. While writing the screenplay, she spoke to artisans from Tsugaru and came to understand how they have to go through several phases just to make one object, lacquering and then polishing almost half of what was lacquered. This process, similar to that followed when making a film, pushed her to take the time to transcribe this art as accurately as possible. Tsugaru Lacquer Girl was awarded the Soleil d’Or at the 17th edition of Kinotayo, the audience award.

‘Father of the Milky Way Railroad’—Staying true to oneself in spite of social pressures

© 2022 ‘Father of the Milky Way Railroad’ FILM PARTNERS

This biopic retraces the life of one of Japan’s most loved poets and writers, Kenji Miyazawa.  The narrative unfolds from the end of the 19th century to the start of the 20th century in a poor area of Iwate prefecture. Out of political consciousness, the writer refused to follow in his father’s footsteps by working as a moneylender. He was the oldest child but aspired to a literary career. While this is a mainstream entertainment film, the subject is transcribed faithfully and the narrative permeated by delicate social issues, particularly for the time. How do we approach madness? What becomes of those who object to a destiny that is imposed upon them? Nothing was certain for Kenji Miyazawa, whose life was marked by pain and who did not experience success while he was alive, despite being recognised for his talent as an agronomist.

Izuru Narushima, screenwriter and director whose film Rebirth was awarded the Japanese Academy Prize in 2011, directed the film. Many popular actors lend their presence to the film, including Kōji Yakusho as Kenji Miyazawa’s father and Masaki Suda in the title role. Father of the Milky Way Railroad was awarded the Jury Prize at the 17th edition of the Kinotayo festival.


The Kinotayo festival is a non-profit project that members of the public can now support. The 18th edition will take place in autumn 2024.

The award winners and the Kinotayo Festival team © Philippe Henriot