Friday, July 21, 2023

LA Doesn't Have A Japan Society And It Sucks: Interview with Peter Tatara & Alexander Fee

By Jonathan Bilski

The jealousy we have in LA for New York when it comes to Japanese film screenings always gets hotter when Japan Cuts comes to the big apple. And, with it a few weeks away, it starts July 26th this year, you can feel the heat. 

New York.

Why should they get all the North American premieres? Why should they get all the special screenings? Why should they get anything, when LA is the entertainment capitol of America?

The Japan Society!

An organization we don't have. Sure, we have others. We have Anime Expo and the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation or SPJA. We have Japan House showing off artsy Pokémon as this article is out. We have our own Japan Film Festival LA (they try) and we had LA EigaFest, g-d rest its soul. Let's not forget the easy to remember Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival or LAAPFF.

Alexander Fee
We don't have a Japan Society and it sucks. So, I chatted with Japan Society's Peter Tatara, Director of Film and Alexander Fee, Film Programmer over why New York gets the all the good stuff and LA gets the anime. The following is excerpts from our conversation.

Jonathan: So, Peter and Alexander can you tell me what you both do?

Alexander: Sure, I'm Alexander Fee, I'm the Film Programmer here at Japan Society. I'm mostly in charge of curating the film programs we have here, particularly the retrospectives that would do year round. The exception being Japan Cuts, our sole focus on contemporary Japanese film.

He continued how they get accessibility to Japanese films that might have no showings in America. They bring them here and even in many cases make English subtitles for them.

Peter: Yeah, Peter Tatara, I'm the Director of Film here at Japan Society, work with Alexander on programming stuff. Beyond that, looking at the business end of running this year round. And, managing it together with the other parts of Japan Society. Prior to this, I spent 20 years working in live events in Japanese entertainment. Worked for New York Comic-Con for about a decade. And, was the founder of Anime NYC, that is the second largest Japanese pop culture event in the US.

I ask how they got the North American Premiere of Shin Kamen Rider.

Peter: I think anything we do, it's all about the relationship. Whether it being contemporary cinema or some classics rarely seen here it's all about the relationships.

He continued how he had relationships with Japanese cinemas big players like Toei and the American company Fathom Events. And, was happy tickets sold out in hours for the premiere.

Peter: What was exciting was seeing the audience that showed up for the event [Shin Kamen Rider]. As it was everyone from hardcore Rider fans to anime fans to cinephiles, corporate executives, Japanese consulate members. So, all of these different worlds coming together. 

The Kamen Rider premiere reminded me of LA having many a live action Japanese film premiere. I asked point blank, why that seems to be happening less.

Peter Tatara

Peter: What I will say is Japan Society, as an organization, the space we work for, it is a hundred-year-old non-profit focused on bringing Japan and US culture together.

Continuing, he added they have their own building to screen what they want in and do over 200 events per year.

Peter: It's everyone from Kurosawa to Mifune. It's all of the greats they've all been here. And, we have our own theater. We're able to do things as we have the equipment. There's weight and meaning when we present things, [because of their long history] be it classic cinema, premieres or giant karate bug men.

Earlier I mentioned the various organizations of LA to Peter and Alexander and how I still want more film.

Peter: While, there's a number of organizations in LA, I don't think there's any single organization that has made the same commitment to film. ...There's more Japan focused organizations in LA then exist here [NY]. I think what they choose to present or what they're able to present is different.

Peter went on to say they all do marvelous things, but they're forefathers did not make the commitment  to film like his society.

Peter: That being said, I do think LA gets more premieres in the pop culture world.

I was taken aback by this. And wondered what he meant.

Peter: A lot of that is driven by the anime companies. So, Crunchyroll is San Francisco and LA based. Aniplex is LA based. Bandai is LA based. All of the big anime publishers are West Coast based. And very likely for any big launch, they'll do big stuff out there.

And, I realized, Oh, yeah, we kind of get the Anime Premieres out here. Take that other American cities!

Peter: What I'm jealous about; you look at the big events that go on out there. So, Aniplex just did this massive Demon Slayer event. Doing a live concert with performers. Bringing out the voice actors. New York never sees anything like that.

A smile grew wide on my face. They might get the live action goodness, but we get the anime out here.

Peter then talked about getting a Suzume event after LA had its big premiere for it from Crunchyroll.

Peter: A lot more happens in LA. And, it's driven by the publishers themselves. 

After adding how he'd like if Japan Society had more anime events and was happy to help facilitate that with those companies. He added another point.

Peter: LA has more BIGGER, stately theaters. They have a ton more movie palaces that still exist. When, Demon Slayer did their event it was in a beautiful thousand plus space. When those kinds of venues are unicorns in New York. There's not a lot of movie palaces that match the splendor that are still out there on the West Coast.

Then, Peter went over Japan Cuts being fully back since 2019. And, how excited he was for it and how it was the main focus right now.

Alexander then took us down another road. That of cooperation, as getting films from Japan can be expensive and taking them on tour across the country can lessen the cost. By sharing the films, more people can see it around the US and I learned they've worked with our local American Cinematheque to get films over to our side of the country.

Alexander: A lot of the stuff we do is working directly with Japan. And that's typically quite prohibitive in terms of expenses. And, that makes it hard for areas to screen Japanese films. Japanese distributors work very differently than American distributors. That makes it very unique.

Alexander was making the point of how smaller venues in the US can't get the same films because of t that process.

Peter did some New York praising that I'll leave out on how great the city is but went over the end goals of getting Japanese film other than getting stuff for New York.

Peter: We would love to see those films expand out into other theaters. Wider circulation and US distribution. We love showing films for the first time in the US. But, the hope is, it's not the last time in the US.

Then, we shifted to their Japan Cuts film festival again, the schedule wasn't out yet when this interview took place. Peter told me he used to attend it before being a member of Japan Society and was looking forward to it greatly.

Peter: We looked over a hundred screeners this year for it.

Alexander: It seems now, in this era people want to come back see movies in the theater. So, this is why it's very exciting that were doing it all completely in person. This is the first year with Japan that you see it's now open. Last year, it wasn't such. Now, we can bring the festival back as it should be presented. I'm particularly excited for our next generation slate, which is our independent, up-and-coming film makers. There's something for everyone.

We then went over final notes on what LA could possibly do to get more Japanese film love.

Peter: If there are Angelenos that want classical or contemporary Japanese cinema or anime, tell people. Tell people what you want. If any LA venues want to talk to us to collaborate, we're very happy too. 

Alexander and Peter then mentioned the Academy Museum and Vidiots as places they saw standing out. And, hoped to hear more news from on what they'd be doing.

Alexander: I think there is great opportunity for Japanese film to be showcased in LA now. There seems to be, in my mind, more excitement about doing these series looking past Hollywood. There' s an interest in international cinema, that maybe wasn't there before. From an outsider view, I think this is great time for this to happen.

And, then we just chatted about film.

If in the New York area, do yourself a favor and check out the 16th annual JAPAN CUTS: Festival of New Japanese Film, July 26-Aug 6.

It looks like LA needs to step up and have a stronger Japanese/Asian film group. Maybe, something through Vidiots or Alamo Drafthouse or just something new to get close to what Japan Society pulls off. I'll just say it sucks we don't have one.

I'd like to thank Japan Society's Peter Tatara, Alexander Fee and Allison Rodman, who set up the interview.