Monday, September 19, 2011

Historica: Made in Japan, for Fans of Jidaigeki

I’ve known Ken Takahashi since he was a mischievous three-year-old, and I was a Junior Year Abroad student rooming with his aunt in Tokyo. Many’s the weekend Ken-chan, his big brother Dai-chan, and Bebu-chan (that’s me!) would go on family excursions, romp in the backyard, and watch silly shows on TV. I never dreamed back then that both of us would grow up to make movies.

On my most recent trip to the ancient city of Kyoto, a very grown-up Ken gave me a tour of the legendary Toei Studios, where he serves as production manager. These days Toei operates its own theme park, a sort of pint-sized Universal Studios, where visitors can hang out with costumed actors on a Tokugawa-era Japanese street, watch a high-energy ninja show, and explore the origins of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. But I was privileged to go behind the scenes, discovering a self-contained world that must resemble, in miniature, the Hollywood studios of the 1930s.

Toei, which has been making film for some 90 years, has it all: a costume shop; a huge assortment of props and decorative pieces; a martial arts dojo; a staff of calligraphers who turn out appropriate signage; some beautifully-detailed standing sets. With jidaigeki (period drama) not as popular as it once was, the honchos at Toei have come to realize that taking full advantage of their facilities requires some creative thinking. Enter Historica to fill the void.

The full name of Historica is Kyoto Historica International Film Festival. Three years old, it is an ambitious combination of film screenings, talks by celebrated makers of historical dramas, and activities designed (in the words of Historica’s hosts) “to bring to Kyoto historically themed content from around the world, encompassing film, anime, games, music, dance, costumes and food.” This includes the opportunity for “cosplay,” a Japanese-English word that’s new to me: basically, you get to dress up to reflect the period of your choice, in the company of others who enjoy taking a Renaissance Pleasure Faire-style approach to the past. Toei’s picturesque Edo houses and alleyways are just the place to indulge your inner Toshiro Mifune (or Sonny Chiba).

Historica will unspool in several Kyoto locales from November 19 through December 1, 2011. One special four-day period (November 28-December 1) will include the Kyoto Filmmakers’ Lab, an intimate hands-on workshop for young filmmakers of all nations who aspire to make epics of the samurai sort. To be accepted for the lab, you must submit a sample of your work, and be able to communicate in English. (Whew!) Last year’s participants—who shot a period film under expert supervision—came from such varied lands as Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, Korea, Lithuania, Lesotho, Macedonia, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam. If you’re one of the lucky few who make the cut, you’ll receive partial travel expenses of 60,000 yen, and your housing will be provided too. So what are you waiting for? Applications for the lab are due by October 17. Whether you’re interested in the lab or the film festival, the place to start is Historica’s English-language website.

Ken Takahashi, whose brainchild this is, has become the point person for the entire Historica project. That’s why, at age 46, he is working on his English language skills, which have been much neglected since his school days. So far, as he’s quick to point out, he’s merely proficient in “Kenglish.” But if you have questions for him, he’ll be glad to attempt an answer.

Tell him Bebu sent you.


  1. Thank you for spreading HISTORICA. We are looking forward to meet new talent, and idea of surprising historical movie!

  2. Gokuro-sama, Ken-chan. I hope a lot of interested (and interesting) people contact you!

  3. Wow, this is an amazing post, Beverly! I am a huge fan of the films and television works from Toei Studios. How coincidental that the last few days, I've posted five reviews for the legendary Sonny Chiba and his movies. Toei and Chiba go hand in hand. I'm going to link this on my blogs FB page.

  4. Thanks, Brian -- or should I say "Arigato gozaimashita"?

  5. I'm here through the biographer's craft, Beverly. I'm into autobiography myself but intrigued by those who prefer to tell us about the lives of others. It's good to meet you and your Japanese friend.

  6. How nice of you to write, Elisabeth! As a biographer, I love to explore the lives of other people. My own life has been mostly happy (thank goodness), but I don't think there's enough drama there to make for a good autobiography. Still, I do enjoy those "memoir moments" when I can return to the people and incidents that have helped shape me over the years. Ken Takahashi and his family have played a very special part in my life, and it's wonderful to highlight Ken's adult achievements. Glad you enjoyed this trip down Memory Lane.

  7. Congratulations to Mr. Takahashi for his position in such a prestigious studio, and for this excellent Film Festival and the Filmmaking Lab - sounds like a lot of interesting cinematic action was going to be taking place in the last days of 2011 - any updates on how everything went?