Movie News & Reviews

Sacramento Japanese Film Festival marks 10 years of consistent growth

Corporate CEOs might want to look at the Sacramento Japanese Film Festival, celebrating its 10th year Friday through Sunday at the Crest Theatre, for tips on cultivating a growth enterprise.

Run by volunteers and so low-key it did not bill itself officially as a “film festival” during its first five years, the event nonetheless has increased attendance every year since it started in 2005.

That first, single-day event, called “Japanese Movies at the Crest,” showed two known quantities: “Shall We Dance?” a 1996 crowd-pleaser in Japan and in U.S. art houses that later was remade into a Jennifer Lopez-Richard Gere film, and “Ran,” Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 epic and winner of the best costume Oscar.

About 400 people attended, “and we were happy to see every face that came through the door,” said Barbara Kado, chair of the committee that plans the Japanese Film Festival, which is affiliated with the Sacramento Japanese United Methodist Church.

Over the years, Kado and other organizers added more days and films, settling on seven movies and three days. The content became more ambitious, including recent Japanese films that did not have American theatrical distributors and thus could not be seen in the United States outside of film-festival showings.

The SJFF, one of only four festivals in the continental United States dedicated exclusively to Japanese cinema, also has consistently brought black-and-white films to the big screen. These range from Kurosawa classics to last year’s lesser-known selection “Every Night Dreams,” a compelling 1933 silent about a single mother forced to work in a bar.

Audience numbers bore out SJFF’s ambitions. Last year, attendance hit 2,200, and pre-sales indicate another increase in overall attendance this year, Kado said. The 10th SJFF kicks off at 7:30 Friday with “Rebirth,” a drama in which a woman who was kidnapped as a baby confronts the haunting nature of the crime. Released in Japan in 2011, “Rebirth” won 10 Japanese Academy Awards, including those for picture, director and lead actress.

“There is a market for foreign films (among) people who are film aficionados,” Kado said. “Sacramento is growing up as a city” and now holds more cinema buffs, Kado said. “And they come to our festival.”

Once those cinephiles make it to the Crest, festival organizers work hard to keep them coming back. The SJFF offers festival passes for a reasonable $35, and always seeks, and heeds, audience feedback.

“The festival has very carefully studied audience response and listened to suggestions” about what festivalgoers did and did not like, said Sid Garcia-Heberger, general manager of the Crest, home to the SJFF since its start. Organizers also closely monitor attendance.

“They evaluated the numbers, evaluated attendance, looked at ‘how did we do compared to last year and where are we growing?’ ” Garcia-Heberger said. “Careful reflection and responding to the data has served them very well.”

Kado said Garcia-Heberger, whose theater holds many Sacramento film festivals, has been instrumental to the SJFF’s success. “We couldn’t have survived without her,” Kado said.

Kado, a 73-year-old retired director of a nonprofit aimed at seniors, came up with the idea for a Japanese film festival while attending an early edition of the Sacramento French Film Festival. She saw, among the crowds gathered there, enthusiasm for foreign-language films in Sacramento.

She approached her church, which provided an office and a congregation through which the first Japanese Movies at the Crest could get the word out. But the church would not determine content. A separate film festival committee was formed, along with a specific film-selection committee.

But Kado knew nothing about “film formats,” she said, or other film-festival detail work. Or how to obtain films. Garcia-Heberger initially made the calls to distributors. These days, Garcia-Heberger still handles “the nuts and bolts” of the operation, but Kado, on behalf of the 11-member film selection committee, does most of the programming.

“She has really stretched her wings in terms of where she is looking, also,” Garcia-Heberger said. “We have many films that come straight from Japan, as opposed to films that are programmed for a U.S. audience” by U.S. distributors.

Kado doesn’t stop at Japan. One of the 2014 festival’s most intriguing offerings is “Dirty Hearts” (1:40 p.m. Saturday), a partly Portuguese-language 2011 film from Brazil. Based on a true story, it follows a 1940s terrorist group composed of Japanese immigrants in Brazil. The terrorists dismissed reports of Japanese surrender in World War II as propaganda and attacked the “traitors” who believed them.

Through the years, the festival also has included several English-language films that illuminate the Japanese American experience. Many come from “emerging filmmakers,” Kado said. In honor of its 10th year, the festival has started an Emerging Filmmaker Award, the first of which will be handed out Sunday to Tadashi Nakamura of Los Angeles.

Nakamura’s documentary “Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings” is a portrait of the ukulele star and will close the festival at 3:55 p.m. Sunday. The SJFF showed Nakamura’s documentary “Yellow Brotherhood,” about an Asian American youth basketball team, in 2006.

Nakamura is a visually accomplished filmmaker who does not impose himself on his subject matter, Kado said. In “Life on Four Strings,” “he lets Jake speak for himself,” she said.

The SJFF’s consistent support for emerging directors “is one thing I am very proud of,” Kado said. “Every year that we have shown films, we have shown a new filmmaker.”

With the festival hitting its 10th year, one might even call it a tradition.