Not long ago, director Yoshida Keisuke was little known both in Japan and abroad, though he scored the occasional festival invitation with films like the 2008 quirky comedy “Café Isobe” and the 2016 thriller “Himeanole.”
A former lighting director to cult favorite Tsukamoto Shinya, Yoshida was one of many Japanese filmmakers laboring in the middle zone between low-budget indies and major commercial films. Then this year he released “Blue,” a boxing film informed by his own three-decade involvement in the sport that won glowing reviews for its insider insights and played widely at festivals, starting with its world premiere at Toronto this June.
Yoshida has followed up with “Intolerance,” a hard-hitting drama about the fallout from a fatal traffic accident that also earned raves following its September release in Japan. Now Yoshida is the subject of a director in focus section at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, which will screen “Intolerance,” “Blue” and “Himeanole.” “Of course, I’m happy,” Yoshida tells Variety.
“But when (the section) was announced I didn’t quite understand why they’d done it. At least I’ll be able to see the films together with an audience,” he says with a laugh.
Following his directorial debut in 2005 with “Nama-natsu,” a film about a middle-aged businessman’s obsession with a schoolgirl, Yoshida says, “I made films inspired by otaku (geek) culture. I wasn’t an otaku when I was a student, but as a filmmaker, I wanted to make films about things I didn’t know much about.”
In his more recent work, however, Yoshida has been channeling more of his own environment. “I grew up in a slum area, so I was familiar with violence,” he says. And that violence has since appeared in his films, with “Himeanole,” whose average-guy hero battles a crazed serial killer, being a turning point.
Also, since the start of his career, Yoshida has mostly worked from original scripts instead of taking the more usual industry route of directing manga or novel adaptations for hire. “I don’t get a lot of offers,” he says. “So, I just do what I want to do. That’s the influence of Tsukamoto, who only makes what he wants to make. The difference is that Tsukamoto self-finances his films. I also do what I want but with other people’s money.”
Another reason why Yoshida sticks mainly to original material: “I don’t have the confidence to make something based on what other people think is interesting,” he says. “I have to make what I think is interesting.” The most recent example is “Intolerance.”
“It’s based on what I’ve actually experienced,” he explains. “My one and only friend died, and it hit me like a body blow. The film is about coming to terms with that kind of loss.”
But his films are not exercises in gloom and despair, he is quick to add. “A lot of the situations are harsh, but in the end, you can see some light.” he says. “I like to mix art and entertainment that way. But until recently, festivals were looking mainly for art. So, I didn’t get invited.”
Clearly, TIFF is an exception and, as Yoshida is now discovering, far from the only one. The light is shining on him – and shows no signs of dimming.