It began in 2005 as a one-day event with two films: the 1985 Akira Kurosawa epic "Ran" and the 1996 crowd-pleaser "Shall We Dance?" in which a mild accountant comes alive through dance.
The one-day "Japanese Movies at the Crest" is now the three-day Sacramento Japanese Film Festival, running tonight through Sunday at the Crest Theatre. Its content narrative films from veteran directors and up-and-comers, and historical documentaries is more daring than it was that first year and clearly was chosen by a savvy programmer.
Or rather, a programmer who has grown savvier over the years.
Barbara Kado, 71, head of the film festival's selection committee, had no film experience when she planned the 2005 event. But she learned a lot as she went.
"I do a lot of (Web) surfing, a lot of reading, and I check out the Toronto International Film Festival," Kado said, referring to the highly influential festival held each September.
She also has shown a tenacious streak. She first read about the film "Abraxas," in which the lead character, a Buddhist monk, finds peace in heavy rock 'n' roll, when it screened in early 2011 at the Sundance Film Festival.
She contacted the distributor, but "it took forever to get a response from Japan," Kado said. She pursued the film for most of last year, finally receiving a "yes" in December. The Japanese Film Festival will show "Abraxas" at 8 p.m. Saturday.
The film represents the best of the "eccentric, thoughtful" movies being made by today's Japanese directors, Kado said.
Crest Theatre general manager Sid Garcia-Heberger, who works with Kado in securing films, said Kado has grown more ambitious over the years.
"When the festival first started, Barbara relied a lot more on me to help her (obtain) Japanese films that already played in the United States," Garcia-Heberger said. "But she has been really branching out and looking at product that has not played in the U.S."
"Abraxas," for example, has played in festivals in the United States but not in regular theaters.
Japan's rich cinematic history and the then-fledgling Sacramento French Film Festival first sparked Kado's desire to show Japanese films in Sacramento.
After seeing crowds gather for the French Film Festival's subtitled films, Kado suspected there would be an audience for Japanese films as well.
Kado started with a solid base. The Sacramento Japanese United Methodist Church, which Kado attends, presents the festival each year. That first year, Kado and fellow organizers found sponsors who guaranteed that the cost of the event would be covered, regardless of how many people showed up.
That first outing drew a healthy audience of about 400 people. In the years since, the festival committee through which Kado vets all film selections has grown, and festival attendance more than quadrupled.
Kado keeps refining the mix. This year, for instance, the festival will not show a classic by Kurosawa or Yasujiro Ozu, as it usually does. But it is showing "Porco Rosso," a 1992 film from master animator Hiyao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away"; "Howl's Moving Castle").
"Miyazaki is a very significant filmmaker, and he obviously has a great deal of creativity and individuality," Kado said.
Here is the lineup for the 2012 Sacramento Japanese Film Festival:
8 p.m. "A Good Husband": A comedy with touching moments, this movie follows the disintegrating marriage of a famous but immature photographer and his kind, dissatisfied wife.
1 p.m. "Porco Rosso": This 1992 film by Japanese animation master Hiyao Miyazaki focuses on a 1920s pilot with a pig's face and Humphrey Bogart's manner.
3 p.m. "A Boy and His Samurai": A modern single mother and her young son discover a samurai who has time- traveled from the Edo period to the present.
5:10 p.m. "Sugihara: Conspiracy of Kindness": This documentary pays tribute to Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania during World War II. Sugihara defied his government and issued thousands of travel visas to Jewish refugees.
8 p.m. "Abraxas": A Buddhist monk (musician Suneohair) rediscovers himself through his past as a guitarist with a penchant for Nirvana-style hard rock.
1 p.m. "Kabei: Our Mother": The wife of a professor and political prisoner (jailed by his own government) must raise two daughters on her own during World War II. Based on a true story, this film by Yoji Yamada ("The Twilight Samurai") celebrates mothers with gracious dispositions and steel backbones.
3 p.m. "The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom," paired with "David & Kamal": The 40-minute "Tsunami," in which survivors of the 2011 disaster tell their own stories, was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary short. In the fictional, 78-minute "David & Kamal," filmmaker Kikuo Kawasaki creates a friendship between a Jewish boy and a Palestinian boy in Jerusalem.
SACRAMENTO JAPANESE FILM FESTIVAL
Where: Crest Theatre, 1013 K St., Sacramento
Cost: $10 for individual screenings, $35 all-festival pass. Tickets available at the door or through www.tickets.com, (800) 225-2277