Short films have traditionally been seen as a director’s starting block toward making their first feature. Yet with the art of filmmaking becoming ever cheaper, many have been sidestepping the short-film format, instead heading straight for a low-budget feature film. Yet short films are an art form in themselves, an idea celebrated by Japan’s annual Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia.

The festival, which is running until June 26, was first established in 1999 in Tokyo’s Harajuku district. It has since become one of Asia’s biggest festivals and is still the only one of its kind in Japan. The event has spread across five locations in the Kanto area, including Tokyo’s Roppongi and Shinjuku districts as well as Minato Mirai in Yokohama, to accommodate the enormous amount of films being screened.

This year’s festival will showcase some of the best domestic and international short films the industry has to offer, from both established and emerging talent. The festival’s curators describe themselves as “mining a diamond in the rough.” This claim may hold true, as they have patiently sat through as many as 4,200 films sent in to the festival. From this abundant selection, 68 films have been selected from 23 countries.

What distinguishes Short Shorts from other international film festivals is the sheer number of categories the films can compete within. Films are shown over nine divisions; as well as the usual international and Asian brackets, there is a classification titled Stop! Global Warming, which is a collaboration with grassroots environmental group Team 6% that is now in its fourth year and showing 13 films. Other unusual categories include the Let’s Travel! Project, in association with Japan’s Tourism Agency: Nine films have been selected from the 71 submitted, which will show off the allure of Japan hot spots from Hokkaido to Okinawa.

In 2004, the success of the festival was realized when it was recognized by Hollywood’s Academy Awards. This means that the Grand Prix winner of the festival is eligible to be nominated for the Short Film Category at the Oscars. Eligible categories at the festival are the International program and the Asia International & Japan division.

Some of the more established directors hitting the festival this year are in the International section. Actor Rupert Friend of “Pride and Prejudice” fame has entered “Steve,” written and directed by Friend and with an all-star cast that includes Keira Knightley (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) and Colin Firth (“The King’s Speech”).

The film “Some Boys Don’t Leave” features Jesse Eisenberg, who recently starred in the Oscar-winning film “The Social Network”; actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt of “Inception” fame directs the short film “Sparks,” which will also be screened at the festival.

Japanese domestic talent will come from director Ken Ochiai, whose “Blood Ties” is an intense seven-minute film in which a doctor must choose between the life of his own elderly mother and that of a young boy.

The event is spread over 11 days, with nine categories and five different locations to choose from. It may seem hard to choose which films to see, but if you can manage to navigate your way around the festival’s equally intricate website, you will surely find yourself a treat or two. Several of the films even offer free entry such, as those in the Stop! Global Warming and Let’s Travel! Project categories, while others have varying prices. As for the dress code, we assume long trousers are not preferred.

Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia 2011 runs till June 26. Tokyo locations are Omotesando Hills Space O, Laforet Museum Harajuku, Cinemart Shinjuku and Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills; the Yokohama cinema is Brillia Short Shorts Theater in Minato Mirai. Ticket prices vary from free to ¥1,200; a special “passport” that allows access to all films is available for ¥8,000. For more information, visit www.shortshorts.org/2011/en.

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