Head of international short film festival finds fertile ground up north

Toshiya Kubo pursues dreams while fostering an independent and individualist spirit


Special To The Japan Times

Toshiya Kubo consistently gravitates to the peripheral. As a teenager, while his friends rushed to buy Beatles records, Kubo searched for lesser-known musicians; the mainstream in media flocked to Tokyo while Kubo preferred Hokkaido, the prefecture of his birth; producers look toward feature films as the pinnacle of success while Kubo favors shorts as “the purest origins of film.”

“It always felt more meaningful for me to support the underdog. I think it is dangerous for people to lean toward one side only,” he says. “Maybe what I want to do is balance out the world.”

Kubo, 56, laughingly calls himself an amanojaku (contrarian) in Japanese but he chose a more positive, English equivalent to name his company. As a creative consultant and film producer, university lecturer and founder of Maverick Creative Works, Kubo forges a road not yet imagined out of tumbleweeds and possibility, a nod to independent spirits worldwide. His dream: to hammer out new paths to creativity in Japan.

One of his paths spreads out across the globe in the form of the Sapporo International Short Film Festival, officially established in 2006. In eight years the festival has grown to one of the most prestigious in Asia, attracting over 3,500 entries from around the world.

He first wrote up the idea for the city of Sapporo in 1990, but it took more than 15 years for his imagination to match reality. “I wrote a lot of plans and brought them to a lot of different people. It didn’t work out for years, so I built up my idea over a long period of time,” he says.

In the early days, Kubo was encouraged to take his idea to Tokyo, but he was determined to bring international film to “the outskirts.” He explains; “Compared with Tokyo, Sapporo is seen within Japan as provincial, but by hosting the festival in Sapporo we actually received more entries and international attention than by doing it in Tokyo, since we planned it from the start to be an international event modeling it after other film festivals from all over the world.”

Kubo also targeted a weakness in the Tokyo film mindset: “The Japanese film industry is well connected within Japan, but at that time it had not yet reached out to the world. We purposely invited people from many different countries to Japan and focused on making the event truly international. For someone overseas, Hokkaido and Tokyo are the same anyway, just two cities in Japan, so there was no drawback to hosting an international festival in Sapporo.”

Hokkaido and film were with Kubo from birth, but it took several detours for him to find his path home. He was born in Otaru, where relatives ran a small movie theater. “I don’t remember a lot of details about that time, but somehow the feeling of movies and images obviously seeped into my mind from an early age.”

His father’s company moved the family to Sapporo and then to Tokyo when Kubo was 8 years old. He would spend the next 20 years in the capital.

Kubo graduated from Nihon University’s Department of Broadcasting in 1980, focused on a promising creative career. When he was still in school he worked as an assistant for Nagaharu Yodogawa, the late famous film critic, historian and popular host of TV Asahi’s “The Sunday Overseas Movie.” He trained in 8 mm films, building on his love of photography, interned in producing music and studied film journalism. Kubo thus laid the groundwork for his artistic route.

The job market in Tokyo proved difficult, however, and Kubo had a young family to consider. “I couldn’t find employment in broadcasting right away so I started off as a salaryman with a necktie to provide for my wife and son. Even as I tried other work, I still could not rid my mind of creative ideas.”

When his company transferred him for two years to Sapporo, he couldn’t stop dreaming of settling down in Hokkaido either. “Once I experienced the lifestyle of Sapporo as an adult, everything tired me about everyday life in Tokyo, the large crowds of people, the two-hour commute, and I felt such a big city was not really a good place for humans to live.” After being sidetracked for eight years, Kubo finally found work in commercial advertising in Sapporo and he moved his family to Hokkaido as he turned 30 in 1987.

“I was like a fish confined in a tank that is finally released into the ocean,” Kubo says, paraphrasing a Japanese proverb. He worked in a variety of creative fields, including developing digital animation, localizing American games for the Japanese market and hosting an international media contest to create virtual characters. These experiences allowed him to develop the international perspective, which he later refined for the Sapporo Short Film Festival.

As Kubo sees it, building up an avenue for creativity is all about laying a path, starting with the local community and moving abroad. “Movie education is one of our core goals with the festival, so we host a local workshop for elementary school students, each year forming a ‘Children’s Jury.’

“We also hold an ‘Iron Filmmakers Contest’ modeled after our sister-festival in the U.S., the California Independent Film Festival, attracting many guerilla-style, student productions. From there, we connect to overseas, as I travel to the International Short Film Festival in Clermont-Ferrand, France, each year in addition to being a jury member for the California festival. We’re also in the Independent Short Film Conference as the representative in Asia. It’s all about laying the path, connecting the local to the global, so we all become connected to the world.”

By creating a short film festival, Kubo also felt closer to the creative side of moviemaking. “Short films are the origins of all movies, and it is only as films developed more and more into a business that the system of paying for an hour or two of viewing became normal. In the business side, of course, you must create a movie that will sell. Short films have thus become more and more free without the interference of business considerations, and we wanted to make a film festival with true opportunity for young filmmakers just starting out,” he says. “Also, nobody had done it before in Japan, so I wanted to do something no one else had done.”

Kubo’s tireless work with film festivals is completely volunteer. He earns his living from lecturing at two art universities in Hokkaido and by his creative consultant work. His experiences with a wide spectrum of creative talent — paid and unpaid — have made him a champion for building a better infrastructure for ideas and creativity within Japan.

“In creating, an individual’s inspiration and talent are the most important, but nobody pays struggling artists for their original ideas,” he says. “Individualism is not valued in Japanese society, and I want to create a structure where those with the ideas and the talent can rise to the top. If not, the weak will always remain weak, while the strong keep getting stronger.”

Before his success with the film festival, Kubo was commissioned by the Sapporo Municipal Government to form Inter-cross Creative Center in April 2001, a cultural incubation center offering low rates to tenants to attract young, creative entrepreneurs in various fields, including IT, design and film production. Tenants include the Short Film Fest and Sapporo Artist-in-Residence (S-AIR), a government supported program bringing foreign artists to Sapporo for cultural and artistic exchanges. Inter-Cross recently moved to a new facility more centrally located with the chance to open up even more to the community, planning short film screenings and open lectures in the beautifully designed artistic space.

Now focused on taking what has worked in Sapporo to the rest of Japan, Kubo continues to make inroads into Japan’s creative world. “Because I’ve worked so closely with the local government, we’ve built national connections, so I’d like to keep adjusting the system, promoting cities in the countryside with consulting or finding new ways to recognize the importance of creators by instigating design fees or planning fees for artistic work.”

Kubo also admits he has unexplored pathways for his own creative ideas. “I’ve done photography ever since middle school, and in movies the visual appeals to me more than the screenplay, so I’d like to explore more visual storytelling myself with photography or film.” Kubo stops, taking a breath for balance. “I still have a lot of dreams.”

For more information on the Sapporo International Short Film Festival, visit sapporoshortfest.jp/en/ .

  • He has changed the creative landscape in Sapporo and made many things possible for many people. Including me.