The short film gave birth to the cinema — the first narrative film, “The Great Train Robbery” (1903), is all of 11 minutes long, but the format is now in the shadow of the full-length feature. That is probably not going to change anytime soon, just as short-story collections are not going to replace doorstop-thick novels at the top of the best-seller list.
But as can be seen from the lineup of the 15th Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia, Japan’s largest celebration of short films, longer is not always better. Those who think of shorts as being the medium of the beginner will be surprised by not only the high technical quality of many entries (one example being the Pixar-like polish of Mark Nelson’s CG comedy “The Jockstrap Raiders”), but also the sophistication of the storytelling. Yukinori Makabe’s “Tokyo Sky Story,” made to commemorate the festival’s first anniversary of screenings at the new Tokyo Skytree tower, deftly weaves two storylines — one about a couple on the verge of a breakup, the other about two junior high schoolers discovering first love, into a lyrical climax, with Skytree serving as the perfect romantic backdrop. (Think the Eiffel Tower on the Arakawa River.)
Its other virtue, which it shares with many films on the program, is its lack of waste motion. Without feeling busy, “Tokyo Sky Story” says more in its 15 minutes than many an ambling feature. And if its entwined love stories are not to you taste? Another film more to your liking will probably be along — shortly.
For its program, which screens through June 16 at five venues in Tokyo and Yokohama, festival organizers have gathered films from around the world, as well as from Japan. Its two main competition sections — International and Asia International & Japan, attracted 5,000 entries from 118 countries and regions, which have been winnowed to about 80.
At a gala dinner on closing night, the jury will give a Best Short Award to one film in the International section, as well as to one from the Asian region and one from Japan. One of these three winners then receives the Grand Prix and becomes eligible for the Academy Awards Short Film Award the following year. Various other prizes, including the Moet Star Award (which rewards the winner with a free trip to France courtesy of the Moet & Chandon Champagne company), an Audience Award and Best Actor and Best Actress honors, are also bestowed.
“I think the notion of our festival as a ‘qualifying short-film festival for the Academy Awards’ has definitely raised credibility, encouraging filmmakers from all over the world to send in their works,” says festival director Seigo Tono. Prior to its recognition by the Oscars organization, SSFF & Asia received about 1,500 competition submissions annually. The number has since more than tripled.
Also rapidly changing, Tono notes, is what he describes as the “production quality” of the films submitted. “When I joined the film festival as the office manager in 2000, we used to receive VHS cassette tapes and the formats of filmmaking were various, from 8 mm, 16 mm and regular video to 35 mm,” he comments. “More than a decade later, most of the young filmmakers are using digital cameras and the editing is done with computer software.”
What has not changed, though, is the festival’s role as a career launching pad, for local talent especially. “Some of the Japanese Best Short Award winners, such as Hiroyuki Nakao and Ken Ochiai, went on to make commercial feature films,” Tono says. “Filmmakers who were nominated in the past festivals are also very active in the film industry today. They are sure to become the next generation of Japanese filmmakers.”
In addition to its two main competitions, the festival will present competition sections for CG animations, nature shorts and tourism promotion videos, as well as special focuses on Korea, Taiwan, Croatia, Nagoya, soccer-themed films presented by the J. League to commemorate its 20th anniversary and the SFX films of Tsuburaya Productions, an iconic production house best known for its “Ultraman” tokusatsu (special effects) series.
There will also be a video workshop with director Yukihiko Tsutsumi, a visual stylist whose many hits include the “Spec” series and the “20th Century Boys” trilogy; a “Creator’s Seminar” with Masato Harada, director of the award-winning dramas “Climber’s High” and “Chronicle of My Mother”; and a talk show with Iranian director Amir Naderi, whose shot-in-Japan film “Cut” was a hit here last year.
Finally, to celebrate its 15th anniversary, the festival will screen shorts from such big-name talents as Ang Lee, Terry Gilliam, George Lucas and Shia LaBeouf, as well as Grand Prix and Audience Award winners from past editions and a special section of five shorts coproduced by famed Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and the Lexus car brand.
Despite the rising tide of submissions, Tono sees no reason to expand (“We are a good-size film festival now,” he says). He does have a goal, however: “We would be very happy if, one day, our Grand Prix filmmaker, no matter where he or she is from, receives the Oscar statuette in the Short Film category at the annual Academy Awards. Even better, it would be great if this filmmaker went on to make feature films and received the Best Picture or Best Director Oscar statuette.” And, of course, if they gave due credit to SSFF & Asia in the acceptance speech.
Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia takes place at various venues in Tokyo and Yokohama through June 16. Starting times vary. One-program tickets cost ¥1,000, and one-day tickets cost ¥1,300 in advance. A Special Passport for all films costs ¥4,000 in advance (the price will rise to ¥5,000 as of June 1). For more information, visit www.shortshorts.org.