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Bringing the love of short films to a local audience

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

If there was a birthday cake for the Brillia Short Shorts Theater, it would probably be an elegant, minimalist affair — no excessive decorations, nothing too calorific and five slim candles giving off a modest orange glow. One of just four movie theaters in and around Tokyo dedicated to short films, Brillia Short Shorts turns 5 years old this month. And the good news is: People really seem to like it. Not in a spectacular, queuing around the block kind of way, but just enough to fill the 128 lipstick-red upholstered seats, each embroidered with its own gold number, and have the lobby cafe (a secret find for foodies) thronged by discerning fans who see no reason not to have an artisanal latte just because they’re at the movies.

All this has taken industry skeptics somewhat by surprise. Japan’s movie industry has never really favored short films, unlike in the United States and Europe where mastering the medium is often a prerequisite to a successful feature film career.

But there is one local insider who has worked tirelessly to promote the merits of the short-film medium in Japan, and that’s actor Tetsuya Bessho, 47, founder/director of Brillia Short Shorts.

“I first discovered the enormous capacity of the short-film medium back in 1997, when I reported on the Academy Awards for Japanese TV, ” Bessho tells The Japan Times during an interview at the theater.

That year was a turning point for Bessho, and not only because he hosted the ceremonies for the Japanese broadcast of the Oscars. It was also the year “Visas and Virtue” was released in the U.S. and won an Oscar for best short film (live action) — marking Bessho’s first realization of just how powerful a short movie can be. “Visas and Virtue” is based on the life of Chiune Sugihara, Japanese ambassador to Lithuania during World War II. Later known as the “Japanese Schindler,” Sugihara issued thousands of exit visas for Lithuanian Jews trying to flee the Nazis and wound up saving the lives of 6,000 people.

“That movie really did it for me,” recalls Bessho. “I started going down to USC (University of Southern California) where they have a short-films archives and watched as many as I could.”

Interestingly, the actor made his Hollywood debut in the Richard Sarafian-directed “Solar Crisis” (1990) — which also starred Charlton Heston — and was one of the first Japanese actors of his generation to become enamored with the idea of cutting it in the U.S. film scene. While flying back and forth across the Pacific, Bessho had opportunities to meet with film students at USC listen to lectures and get acquainted with Hollywood industry logic, so radically different from Japan’s.

“I was really impressed by the passion and freedom that permeated the U.S. film industry in general. And I was especially taken by short films because the medium seemed to afford even more freedom. No rules is the only rule. Meaning, you could really and truly do what you liked with it. There was endless space to explore.”

Bessho discovered that American cinema icons such as George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis debuted through short films (“They were really, really good”) and that the medium was widely respected in the U.S. — enough to warrant three different Academy Awards categories. “These weren’t even broadcasted in Japan,” says Bessho. “There just wasn’t a similar stage for short films in Japan that there is in the U.S.”

It’s true: Japanese filmmakers generally cut their teeth on commercials, music videos and TV, while across the Pacific, directors tend to start with short films and go on to features. Bessho says the U.S. approach could perhaps be a major reason why its industry is so “rich and dense and full of cinematic experience.” He likens the art of short filmmaking to draughtsmanship, and points out that both in painting and in films, it pays to learn to draw speedy but detailed sketches. “To me, short films are athletic and sensitive at the same time. They have the sprinter’s physique and technique.”

Once he got back to Japan, Bessho saw that visuals and music were being herded to a whole other venue — the high-speed Internet. “Everything was going to be downloadable.” says Bessho. “A lot of people said this meant the end of movies and theaters but I felt the opposite was true. We were about to see movies come back, this time as a more accessible, affordable form of entertainment. You know, Thomas Edison invented the penny (Kinetoscope) movie theater, where you could insert a couple of coins into a box and look at moving pictures, and it was available to everyone. I had the feeling we were about to see a similar thing happening. And for this, the short film was perfect. Short didn’t have to mean less value. Faster, easier, cheaper — those were going to be keywords.”

Bessho also says that the Japanese have an inherent regard for the small and intricate. “We have an instinctive respect for anything that’s pared down, reticent and uncrowded. The short film utilizes all those concepts, so I was actually surprised that it hadn’t taken off in a big way here. The haiku poem is a mere 17 syllables. The tea ceremony features a single cup of matcha. So we have an appreciation for these things. Why not the short film as well?”

The short film’s appeal says, Bessho, lies in its clear, unimposing purity. “Like a well-made espresso, it gives you a nice little hit. Maybe it won’t bowl you over like a feature film but it certainly has the capacity to make your day.” And with the emergence of crowd-sourced films such as “Life in a Day” — which was made up of short films submitted by people from all over the world — and the widening accessibility of easy-to-operate video cameras combined with desktop moviemaking, the world will probably be seeing more rather than fewer short shorts. And in Yokohama, the Brillia Short Shorts Theater is ready for that.

The Brillia Short Shorts Theater in Yokohama is running the hour-long “Academy Awards” program made up of four Oscar-winning/nominated short films from Feb. 18 through March 15. For more information, visit www.brillia-sst.jp/en.html.