The mid-1980s ushered in an unprecedented flourishing of a vibrant, fervent cinephile culture in Tokyo. The bubble economy was in full swing, some of which trickled down to the cultural sector. Across the city, arthouse cinemas began sprouting up by the dozen, drumming up interest in auteur cinema. In no time, the post-New Wave generation of filmmakers then in vogue – Andrei Tarkovsky, Thodōros Angelouplos, Víctor Erice, Jim Jarmusch – became household names. And riding high on that wave was the first-ever edition of the Tokyo International Film Festival, which took place in 1985 to much fanfare just as the cinephilic fervor reached its crescendo.

The main attraction for that inaugural edition was no other than Paris, Texas – Wim Wenders’ Palm d’Or-winning instant classic of Americana – which was screened to a rapturous reception at the 3,500-capacity NHK Hall in Shibuya, helping to catapult its young bespectacled West German director – then barely 40 years of age – to a near rock-star status within these shores. That emphatic Tokyo premiere would eventually pave the way for a record-breaking 30-week continuous run of Wings of Desire – his 1987 follow-up to Paris, Texas and likely his finest achievement – at one of the Japanese capital’s legendary arthouses, the Chanter.

The return this year of Wenders to the Tokyo Film Festival, this time as the head of the competition jury, marked a full circle for the festival and Wenders alike. As if as a token of this long friendship, Wenders brought a gift to the festivalgoers in the form of the opening film, Perfect Days

And one could hardly ask for a more ideal opener to kick start the proceedings than this deeply affecting crowd-pleaser starring Yakusho Koji, Japan’s biggest star, and appropriately set in the fest’s host city. Surprisingly accessible by the German meister’s standards, with Perfect Days, Wenders lifts a lid on the days and work of its unlikely everyman hero, Hirayama-san (Yakusho). A reticent and stoic middle-aged toilet cleaner with an immaculate work ethic, who leads a solitary – but by no means lonely – existence in the quietude of the old quarter of shitamachi, he sweats by day scrubbing public toilets downtown and spends his downtime taking small pleasures in thumbing through dog-eared paperbacks of William Faulkner and Patricia Highsmith, slurping ramen at his regular haunt, listening to his treasured cassette tape collection of Lou Reed and Patti Smith.

There is a meditative diurnal rhythm to Perfect Days, which becomes immediately apparent as Wenders opens the film with Hirayama-san’s morning ritual of waking up to the sound of an elderly neighbour sweeping the streets of his neighbourhood before he dons his blue overalls and gulps down a canned Boss coffee to start his day. 

In a series of dialogue-free sequences that follow, Wenders follows a typical day in Hirayama-san’s life by unobtrusively – and tactfully – observing him perform his thankless and demanding duty with dignified care and dedication, as he shuttles from one downtown public loo to another that dot his assigned beat in the fast-gentrifying Shibuya district.

Perhaps, working in a language he lacks the command of has necessitated him to simplify his idiom. With only minor variations, Wenders audaciously repeats Hirayama-san’s firmly established routine for the rest of the film. And while Perfect Days is one of those films where “nothing happens” – save for the occasional moments of comic relief provided by his loquacious 20-something colleague Takashi (Emoto Tokio) or the abrupt appearance of his runaway teenage niece (Nakano Arisa) who, for a couple of days, breaks the monotony of his voluntary solitude – the film’s very quotidian tempo and repetitive structure become its very strength. Wenders extracts nothing short of the essence of life from repetition and difference, in how a janitor’s well-ordered waking hours are nonetheless subtly – and almost imperceptibly – altered by ever-changing urban space around him, which gradually steeps into his subconscious, only to take life on its own as his nightly reverie (which Wenders renders exquisitely in black and white as though shadow plays). In this sense, like all his best works from 1974’s Alice in the Cities onwards, Perfect Days is also a road movie of sorts. Except in this case, his hero is a gentle-mannered creature of habit who stays where he is, in which the journey is towards the interior, which echoes the Nietzschean dictum: “Where you stand, dig deep and pry! Down there is the well.”1

Born in 1945, the year of Germany’s capitulation in World War II, Wenders remains very much a product of the Cold War, belonging to the postwar generation of German artists who grew up amid the ruins of a tattered and divided nation – not unlike Anselm Kiefer, the titan of contemporary art and the subject of Wenders’ new 3D documentary, Anselm, which was also shown out-of-competition here. 

Now a silver-haired elder statesman, the German auteur’s stock may have fallen somewhat in the intervening three-decades-plus since the mid-1980s – the heady era of the Cold War, the bubble economy, and Paris, Texas. In that time, the world itself has undergone nothing short of a paradigm shift. The Berlin Wall – above which the coterie of celestial guardian angels hovered over in Wings of Desire – is no more. With China and the Global South now in the ascendancy, the buzzword today is “multipolar,” which has all but replaced the Cold War-era notion of bipolarity where the fate of the world hung in the fragile balance of two vying superpowers.

Over that same period, the Tokyo Film Festival has also gone through numerous iterations and transformations. But perhaps no more than the dramatic shift in direction seen in recent times. In the short span since Ichiyama Shozo assumed artistic control in 2021, he has overseen a drastic makeover of Tokyo in his quest to find it a new identity, one that he hopes better reflects its status as Japan’s – and hopefully in the near future Asia’s – premier film fest. Now in his third year at the helm as Programming Director, Ichiyama continues to steer TIFF eastwards in its “pivot” to Asia. The former maverick producer of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Jia Zhangke, Ichiyama has been unapologetic when it comes to implementing Asia-centric programming for Tokyo, often at the expense of selecting Anglo-American titles. (“Since we didn’t intend to invite Hollywood stars,” Ichiyama deadpanned to Variety ahead of this year’s event, “there is not a direct influence from Hollywood strikes.”)2 

For TIFF 2023, as in the previous two editions under him, the bulk of the 15-title competition lineup hailed from the Asian region. In addition to three mandatory home slots allocated for Japanese titles (of which debutant director Kotsuji Yohei’s near-three-hour A Foggy Paradise, a leisurely-paced bifurcated narrative of parallel worlds and urban alienation, most impressed), there were, for example, as many entries from China, including the much-anticipated premiere of Gu Xiaogang’s Dwelling by the West Lake. The second installment in the 35-year-old’s ambitious trilogy chronicling contemporary Chinese life, Gu’s over-the-top melodramatic depiction of a fraught mother-son relationship did not exactly meet the high bar set by his highly acclaimed debut, Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains (2019), however.

This year, Ichiyama did change his tack somewhat by unexpectedly sneaking in a New York indie title, Maryam Keshavarz’s semi-autobiographical The Persian Version. But even then, Keshavarz’s bilingual dramedy about an “all-American” Iranian girl growing up stateside set aside a sizable portion of the film’s running time to an extended flashback recounting, in Farsi, her mother’s hardship of giving birth to her first child in the godforsaken rural backwater of pre-revolutionary Iran.


The American-born Keshavarz’s cross-cultural autofiction was not the only competition entry to represent Iran’s increasingly visible and influential diaspora community. Another was Tatami, a muscular and gripping – if politically uneven-handed – directorial debut from Iranian-French star Zar Amir Ebrahimi, in which the titular square judo mat is transformed into a microcosm of the Middle East’s fierce regional rivalry. Fresh off her award-winning performance as the adroit investigative reporter hot on the heels of a serial killer in Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider (2022), Ebrahimi teams up with her Israeli directing partner Guy Nattiv to give a single-day, blow-by-blow account of an ace judoka on the Iranian women’s national team. Leila (Arienne Mandi), who is competing in the World Judo Championships held in Tbilisi, Georgia, progresses further into the knockout stage by deftly overthrowing her opponents, and comes under mounting pressure to withdraw from the tournament to prevent the possibility of facing off against an athlete representing Israel – her country’s sworn enemy. That is a scenario that her noxious handlers – acting on the behest of the Iranian regime and tasked to keep a watchful eye on her – are bent on averting at all costs. But with a real shot at winning gold within her reach, Leila makes a darling decision to disobey her minders’ order even at the risk to her own life.

Shot in black and white in a hard-edged, high-tempo kinetic style, Ebrahimi and Nattiv tightly box in Leila’s hijab-framed visage in a series of lacerating closeups, heightening the film’s tense and suffocating atmosphere inside Tbilisi’s imposing Soviet-built sporting edifice where much of the action takes place. 

There is much to commend about this topical and urgently told sports movie cum political thriller, not least for turning the spotlight on Iranian women’s defiant struggle for freedom in the face of inequality and injustice meted out by the ultraconservative Islamic regime and their notorious morality police, which is symbolized here by Leila’s two-front battle of fighting her adversaries on the mat and taking on Iran’s entrenched patriarchy off it.

That being said, if one is not entirely convinced by Ebrahimi and Nattiv’s collaborative film – particularly with regards to its unevenly balanced view on Middle Eastern geopolitics – Tatami (which won the Special Jury Prize from the Wenders-led jury) raises some troubling questions vis-à-vis its implicit pro-Israeli bias (where one could detect the hands of Nattiv).

While the filmmakers of Tatami – quite rightly – do not pull their punches when it comes to condemning the Islamic Republic’s brutal and dehumanizing oppression against women, where their film is disappointingly found wanting is that, save for one single line that makes an opaque reference to an “Israeli occupation”, it conveniently turns a blind eye to – and opts out of addressing – one of the primary reasons why Iran’s leadership (and many Arab and Muslim-majority states besides) officially maintains – right or wrongly – its boycotting of Israeli athletes. Which, after all, is to show solidarity for the Palestinian cause in the face of Israel’s occupation, land grabbing, and blockade of the Palestinians’ historic land.

And this glaring omission – particularly for a film that purports to put the topic of sports boycotting front and centre – became all the more conspicuous and pronounced once viewed in the context of the reignition in anger of yet another cycle of violence and bloodshed engulfing the Holy Land, which had been all over the front page in days and weeks leading up to the festival.

Indeed, the 36th edition of Tokyo was a festival that was largely overshadowed by the latest tragic chapter in the long-simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this time triggered by Hamas’ deadly October 7 attack on southern Israel that precipitated Israel’s large-scale bombardment of the Gaza Strip. The dire prospect of an Israeli Army ground invasion of Gaza, a tiny coastal enclave home to more than two million Palestinians, clouded the proceedings, inching ever closer as the festival got underway on October 23. (By the time the festival wrapped up nine days later, on November 1, the death toll from intensifying Israeli airstrikes would rise to more than 8,000, according to the Gaza health ministry.)3

As if to reflect the reality of living on this rapidly warming planet beset by constant and endless strife, and compounded by the effects of a yearslong pandemic, TIFF 2023 saw an uptick in filmmakers reengaging with Big Themes. In fact, this year’s most outstanding efforts did not shy away from tackling vital and timeless subjects, ranging from humanity’s troubling relationships with nature and animals in the late Tibetan master Pema Tseden’s eventual Grand Prix-winner Snow Leopard to Felipe Gálvez’s scathing dissection of the brutality of colonialism in his Patagonian Neo-Western Los Colonos (The Settlers). To this list, one may also add Sermon to the Birds, a meditation on war, ill-fated love, and God from Hilal Baydarov, Azerbaijan’s visionary wizard of slow cinema, which was easily one of this edition’s most indelibly haunting titles.


2023 marks the 120th anniversary of the birth of Ozu Yasujiro, and to commemorate this special occasion, TIFF took the initiative to organize a celebration of the venerable Old Master in conjunction with the National Film Archive of Japan. The festival proper screened as many as 18 of Ozu’s digitally-restored classics, including the 4K remasters of perennial favorites like Tokyo Story (1953) and Late Spring (1949). Concurrently, the NFAJ separately mounted a “Yasujiro Ozu Week” at its Kyobashi cinema (which is conveniently located within walking distance from most TIFF theatres), presenting 16 titles altogether that, for the most part, covered his silent period, some with live piano accompaniment, and all in 35mm prints (!) with English subtitles.

Therefore, savvy and discerning moviegoers could have had an entirely constructive week or so spent discovering – or getting themselves reacquainted with – one of the most singular and inexhaustible bodies of work in the history of cinema for the duration of TIFF, without actually bothering with the fest’s official selection. (The icing on the cake was an Ozu symposium entitled “Shoulders of Giants” whose all-star panel consisted of Kelly Reichardt, Jia Zhangke, and Kurosawa Kiyoshi, which, needless to say, sold out days in advance.)

But for those willing to plunge headfirst into the hubbub and brouhaha of festival-going – an activity that often involves the frantic chase for “newness” that drives the ecosystem of the film festival the world over – there is perhaps no better place than Tokyo’s Asian Future sidebar, where the shiniest of rough diamonds can be unearthed, thanks to the section’s longtime programmer Ishizaka Kenji’s eye for spotting budding auteurs. 

For this year’s programming, Ishizaka assembled seven debuts and three sophomores for the ten-title lineup, from nine countries that stretched from Hong Kong to as far afield as Turkey. Given the sidebar’s niche in spotlighting emerging talents, the filmmakers gathered here roughly fell into the age bracket of millennials. As such, their films too inevitably expressed this generation’s immediate concerns that tended to be, broadly speaking, more intimate in scope than their counterparts in the main competition. And all the more poignant for it. 


Take, for example, first-time Turkish filmmaker Baran Gunduzalp’s slow-burning domestic drama, Rosinante, a tender yet ultimately hard-hitting account of a family of three navigating the crippling cost-of-living crisis, which packed the biggest emotional punch across the whole of 2023’s official selection.

Gunduzalp’s flair for tragicomedy and his knack for acutely fleshing out underdog characters with humour and sympathy – already hinted at in his 2014 short – is vividly illustrated in Rosinante. A narrative of a middle-class Istanbul household plunged below the poverty line, and forced to take up the gig economy just to make ends meet, Gunduzalp effectively transposes De Sica’s neorealist classic Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948) to a contemporary Turkish setting, amid the country’s worst economic crisis in a generation.

Tired of getting rejected at job interviews, Salih (Fatih Sönmez), an affable 30-something husband currently out of a job, leaps at starting an app-based gig as a motorbike taxi driver, against the wishes of his highly educated wife Ayse (Nilay Erdönmez) (who herself peddles insurance packages at a call centre despite her aspiration to become an architect).

Things turn for the worse once Ayse is promptly let go from her job, and Salih’s titular “Rosinante” scooter one day goes mysteriously missing. With no recourse to pay for their mounting bills and up to their neck in debt, overwhelmed with caring for their autistic son Emre (Can Demir) – who, at the age of six, is still unable to utter so much as a word and requires expensive tuition fees – their marriage begins to unravel as the sheer pressure of life takes its toll.

Though the name of Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian ruler goes purposefully unmentioned in Rosinante, Gunduzalp’s exceptionally assured first feature is, in many ways, an indictment of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s spectacular financial mismanagement (under whose watch the country’s annual inflation rate skyrocketed to over 80 percent in 2022). And despite the film boasting perhaps the most copious amount of a married couple’s bickering over their depleting finances and monetary worries since Naruse Mikio’s blue-collar shomin-geki, if Gunduzalp’s unflinching look at precarity and insecurity manages to win over his audience, it is thanks to the silent and nonjudgmental gaze of their son Emre through whom the film quietly observes their travails – that is, with the empathy and love that only a child can view their parents.


Speaking of intimate subjects, there was, finally, Kazakh filmmaker Aizhan Kassymbek’s Madina, a strikingly minimalist Bressonian study of single motherhood from Central Asia. For her second outing as a director, Kassymbek has enlisted her friend, dancer and actress Madina Akylbek, in a titular role tailor-made for her, to dramatize some of the most trying episodes from the latter’s own life.

At the heart of this quietly captivating portrait is the strong-willed professional dancer and mother of a two-year-old girl, leading, like Gunduzalp’s Istanbul family of three, a precarious existence in Kazakhstan’s Caspian port city of Aktau. Subjected to almost daily harassment by her ex, and saddled with the responsibility of supporting her aging mother and her gambling brother with whom she shares a dilapidated Soviet-era flat, Madina works as a dance instructor by day and moonlights as a showgirl at a gaudy local nightclub, where the country’s newly moneyed elites dine, wine, and unwind.

Unlike some of her Asian Future peers whose efforts exhibited show-offy stylish flourishes (such as Mahdi Asghari Azghadi’s Maria, a virtuosic, if gimmicky, rehashing of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) from Iran, which nonetheless earned the sidebar’s top prize), it is obvious that Kassymbek is only interested in what is essential and elementary. In Kassymbek’s unadorned but profound minimalist idiom, which brings to mind the spartan work of Darezhan Omirbayev (Kazakh cinema’s most lauded arthouse export), something as unembellished as the wintry grey of the becalmed Caspian Sea (one of the film’s starkly beautiful visual refrains) becomes the byword for Madina’s precarity, unmooredness, and alienation. 

Though hardly a perfect film, what a viewer comes away from watching Madina with is the understanding that Kassymbek’s scenes could not have been filmed any other way, that there is a carefully calibrated weight to each and every one of her shots, which could not have been said about any other official selection titles at this year’s TIFF. Madina is probably as close as a film can get to being portraiture. What is clear is that Kassymbek believes in cinema as an instrument to capture something of the essence of being. And that is a lost art in itself.

Tokyo International Film Festival
23 October – 1 November 2023


  1. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974), p. 41.
  2. Patrick Frater, “Tokyo Film Festival Rebounds After Navigating Current Affairs Obstacle Course, Says Ichiyama Shozo: ‘China’s Revival Happened at the Right Time for Us’ ”, Variety, Oct. 24, 2023.
  3. Mark Landler, “Israel’s Pace May Suit Enemies as Well as Allies”, The New York Times International Edition, Nov. 1, 2023, p. 1.