Framing history, life and truth
The Sacramento Japanese Film Festival brings important cultural stories—old and new—to the screen
Approximately only seven cities host Japanese film festivals in the entire country. They include expected culture hubs like New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco—and, since 2005, Sacramento.
The Sacramento Japanese Film Festival returns Friday, July 15, through Sunday, July 17, to the Crest Theatre. It will feature seven movies that have never been shown on a big screen in town before.
Now in its 12th year, the festival remains smaller and perhaps less well-known than the Sacramento French Film Festival, but it’s growing at a slow, steady rate. The inaugural, one-day edition in 2005 attracted roughly 400 people. Five years later, it morphed into a three-day event. Last year, more than 2,500 people attended the festival.
It’s a badge of pride for festival founder and director Barbara Kado, a Sacramento native and Davis resident. She remembers attending one of the first Sacramento French Film Festivals at the Tower Theatre.
“I thought it was a really great experience, that there was a need for that type of film in Sacramento. And I thought it was really, really easy—all you have to do is rent the films,” she says, laughing.
Since then, she’s learned otherwise.
“It’s a good deal more than that,” Kado says.
Now, she works on the festival year-round, soliciting funds almost entirely from individual donors. Most are Japanese. She estimates about 60 percent of attendees each year are Japanese as well.
Kado was born in Sacramento in 1940. One of her most treasured family photos depicts what she calls “the last Sunday at Southside Park.”
“Here’s little Barbara examining the bugs and pebbles, and all the parents were laughing and talking,” she says. “And of course, immediately, we were sent to Tule Lake.”
Kado is referencing the Tule Lake Segregation Center, where Kado and other Japanese-Americans were interned by the U.S. government during World War II. At this point, Kado’s memories of the internment camps are hazy. She recalls the layout and the tiny barrack she and her parents called home.
“There was a lot of dust and a lot of dirt, but the children didn’t mind. They played,” she says. “It was tougher on the parents, who were worried about their homes that they left so abruptly.”
Since Kado was so young at the time, she says the camps didn’t impact her life so much as the general climate she grew up in.
“Certainly the United States wasn’t as heterogeneous a society as it is today,” she says.
One thing she always loved—and helped expand her world view—was cinema. She saw her first Japanese film as a student at UC Berkeley: the 1950 movie Rashomon, now considered a masterpiece.
“I think films were much more important than they are now,” Kado says. “There are so many choices today. Back then you had radio. The general public would wait for a film.”
Not only is Hollywood churning out an obscene number of movies, but the quality of television right now is at an all-time high. In the age of Netflix and chill, what’s the role of a film festival?
“Film festivals have at least two important functions,” Kado says. “One, they offer a venue for your emerging filmmakers—and that’s really important, because you don’t create stuff in a vacuum. The second thing is that they’re not mainstream, so they’ll show movies that will not be optioned through your major channels yet are some of the most significant films out there.”
And in Sacramento, festivals offer a reliable, annual way to get some foreign film action. To Kado, all great films—regardless of country of origin—deal with universal themes about human existence. Still, many Japanese movies tend to revolve around a common idea.
“Japan has a very codified, rigid society,” Kado says. “One of the main themes of Japanese movies is the protagonist trying to find himself or rebelling against that mold.”
The festival opener, Pale Moon, speaks to resisting Japanese conformity. It’s like a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde and took home several awards in Japan.
The Sacramento Japanese Film Festival always shows one classic and one anime. On Saturday, the classic will be Stray Dog by Akira Kurosawa, often heralded as one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of cinema. It stars Toshiro Mifune, one of Japan’s legendary actors, as a detective searching for his stolen pistol throughout post-World War II Tokyo. In Kado’s words: “I don’t know if it’s a great film, but it’s certainly a near-great film.”
The animated feature, When Marnie was There, comes from Studio Ghibli, the famous studio co-founded by renowned director Hayao Miyazaki. He produced gems such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. In addition to receiving a best animated film nomination in the 2015 Academy Awards, Marnie is rumored to be Studio Ghibli’s final movie. It screens on Saturday.
On Sunday, the festival will screen another internationally recognized film, Sweet Bean. It was shown at multiple major festivals, including the esteemed Cannes Film Festival, and explores the patient art of dorayaki.
A documentary, Fall Down Seven Times, Get Up Eight: The Japanese War Brides, wraps up the festival on Sunday with a visit by one of the filmmakers, Karen Kasmauski.
Will the Sacramento Japanese Film Festival expand to the size of, say, the Sacramento French Film Festival, with multiple weekends and multiple theaters and offshoots throughout the year? Probably not. But, the Japanese Film Festival isn’t going anywhere, thanks to the stable support of nearly 100 people who donate funds as well as the 24 committee members who volunteer their time to make the whole event possible. Like Kado, they all believe in the power of cinema.
“Films are an important form of expression,” Kado says. “Do they have the ability to mold public opinion? In some cases, yes. It’s a really important social, artistic force that also brings people together.
“The world is really a fragmented place and I think now, at this time, all of us on this earth are going through a time of declining resources and almost overwhelming need. And it’s going to be documented and filmed.”