Think of Japanese movies, and two things readily come to mind: samurai and anime. But organizers of the L.A. EigaFest — a showcase of contemporary cinema from the Land of the Rising Sun — aim to show Angelenos that the nation's filmmakers are up to much more than that.
The festival, now in its second year, runs Friday through Sunday at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and features films on such topics as an unraveling supermodel, a time-traveling Roman architect and a single mother raising two werewolf children.
Hayato Mitsuishi, president of the Japan Film Society, which is organizing the festival, said programmers aren't just targeting niche groups such as Japanese Americans, anime fanatics or hard-core cinephiles. The goal, Mitsuishi said, is to "get the American audience to know Japanese culture through Japanese films and entertainment."
EigaFest — eiga means "film" in Japanese — opens Friday with the North American premiere of the samurai movie "Rurouni Kenshin," a live-action adaptation of a hugely popular manga and anime series. Directed by Keishi Otomo and starring Takeru Sato, the film is about a wandering swordsman who is trying to atone for his blood-stained past as a government assassin and has sworn never to kill again.
Thanks to the manga and anime, "Kenshin" comes with a built-in fan base, and Mitsuishi said anticipation is high among stateside fans. He also hopes the film will have crossover appeal. "It's a great transition to bring in American anime fans to come watch a live-action Japanese film, and from there get more mainstream film lovers," he said.
Two more live-action manga adaptations screen Saturday evening in a double feature: "Helter Skelter" and "Thermae Romae."
Directed by Mika Ninagawa (a photographer well-known for her vivid color palette and lavish portraits), "Helter Skelter" is a macabre, erotically charged satire about a top Japanese model (Erika Sawajiri) whose extensive plastic surgery begins to deteriorate, sending her into a grotesque downward spiral. The film's skewering of celebrity and fashion culture may well resonate with American viewers.
"Thermae Romae," meanwhile, offers a bit of only-in-Japan weirdness. Hideki Takeuchi's film follows a bathhouse architect (Hiroshi Abe) in ancient Rome who discovers a portal to present-day Tokyo at the bottom of one of his spas. He then proceeds to shuttle between the two locations, taking inspiration from contemporary Japan back home to please his emperor. The film was a box office hit in Japan, earning more than $74 million and becoming the second-highest-grossing film of the year to date.
Sunday's programming is anchored by another double feature, beginning with the animated film "Wolf Children," about a young woman who falls in love with a wolf-man and is forced to raise their two children on her own when he dies unexpectedly. The film is the fourth-highest-grossing film in Japan this year, and given its graceful animation, strong female lead and coming-of-age themes, it's evident why director Mamoru Hosoda has been compared to the iconic animator and Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki.
"Wolf Children" will be followed by "The Floating Castle," directed by Isshin Inudo and Shinji Higuchi. At once an homage to samurai period films (or jidaigeki) and a comedy playing with genre conventions, "Floating Castle" tells the story of an inexperienced young king (Mansai Nomura) who must rally his warriors to defend their home from a ruthless warlord.
Other festival highlights include a screening of "Roadside Fugitive," the third film in a hip-hop trilogy likened to "8 Mile"; a short-film exhibition; a program on Japanese food anime accompanied by a pop-up ramen booth; and a panel discussion about bringing Japanese intellectual property to Hollywood.
Mitsuishi said he sees EigaFest complementing a larger trend of Japanese entertainment looking outward, toward global audiences. These days even the country's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has embraced exporting Japanese culture via its "Cool Japan" campaign.
The challenge, Mitsuishi said, is that Japanese and American audiences have different tastes, and finding something that appeals to both isn't always easy.
"No one's really figured that out yet," he said, "so we're trying to test the water."
Where: Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd.
When: 6 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Friday; 11:45 a.m.-midnight Saturday; 11 a.m.-10:40 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $8-$11 per screening, business panel $25 (select programs are free)