By Chris Gallagher
TOKYO (Reuters) - The 24th Tokyo International Film Festival kicks off Saturday with a diverse slate of art house and mainstream fare, but the biggest theme at the annual event may be the country's real-life struggle to recover from the massive March earthquake and tsunami.
Organizers at one stage even pondered whether the Oct 22-30 show could go on after the devastating disaster threw the nation into a period of "jishuku," or self-restraint, which resulted in many events being canceled. In addition, the Fukushima nuclear crisis scared away many foreign tourists.
But organizers decided to carry on, to send a message about Japanese strength to the world, festival chairman Tom Yoda told Reuters in an interview.
"We had some difficulty getting people to understand that Tokyo is safe, but I think we overcame that problem," he said.
In fact, entries totaled nearly 1,000 films from 76 countries, up 17 percent over the previous year, and participants at TIFFCOM, the contents market which runs alongside the main festival, are up 10 percent with all booths sold out, he said.
Director Paul W.S. Anderson's 3D swashbuckler "The Three Musketeers" and Jackie Chan's historical drama "1911" get the festivities started in a special double opening, with Chan, Anderson and "Musketeers" star Milla Jovovich set to walk the ecology-themed Green Carpet in central Tokyo's Roppongi Hills.
The festival will also hold a day of screenings in the northeastern city of Sendai, in the coastal area that suffered major tsunami damage, as well as show films that were shot after the disaster such as "Tokyo Drifter" and "Women on the Edge."
In the main competition section, 15 films will vie for the $50,000 Sakura prize, before the festival wraps with baseball drama "Moneyball," starring Brad Pitt.
The festival used to lean more toward art films, but for the past few years has been trying to screen more mainstream movies with commercial possibilities, especially in its opening and closing selections, in a bid to reach younger audiences, said Yoda, who is also CEO of Japanese film company Gaga.
But he also acknowledged that Tokyo's coming at the tail-end of the festival circuit makes it hard to compete, after heavyweight events like Venice and Toronto in September attracted filmmakers looking to showcase their works ahead of awards season.
"Tokyo is the last major film festival in the calendar year, therefore many major films have been taken by other film festivals," Yoda said.
South Korea's booming Busan festival, which runs earlier in October, has also become one of the hottest venues for Asian filmmakers and has no doubt stolen some of Tokyo's thunder.
Busan earlier this month opened a new Busan Cinema Center, a massive $140 million complex, where it screened over 300 movies, including 89 world premieres. By contrast, Tokyo will screen 126 films and 22 world premieres.
Yoda stressed that Tokyo is not competing with Busan and said the festival would make do with its current scheduling.
"We try to work together and we have no intention to schedule the festival earlier than October, because there are already festivals every week in September and October," he said.
"Japanese filmmakers send a lot of films to Busan," he added.
(Editing by Elaine Lies)