Film

Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia casts Tokyo in a special role

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Now in its 18th edition, the Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia, which will unspool from June 2 to 26 at six venues in Tokyo and Yokohama, has grown into a world-class showcase for short-form cinema.

In addition to competitions in seven categories, the festival will present an array of special programs and events. The total number of films is 200, winnowed from nearly 6,000 submissions.

Where to begin? Veteran festival director Seigo Tono shared some of his picks with The Japan Times in a recent interview and discussed the festival’s development from its 1999 start as a passion project of actor Tetsuya Bessho, who wanted to raise the then-low profile of shorts among Japanese audiences.

The famous Hollywood names in the program are obvious eye-grabbers. One is Martin Scorsese, whose comedy “The Audition” stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro and is set in Macau.

“It’s a light-hearted comedy in which DiCaprio and De Niro end up reading for the same part in Scorsese’s new film,” says Tono. It also serves as promotion for Asia’s gambling mecca.

Also adding to the celebrity power is recent best actress Oscar winner Brie Larson, who co-directed and stars in the romantic comedy “Weighting.”

“A lot of actors in Hollywood have directed shorts and that trend is now extending to Japan as well,” Tono says. One prominent example of this is television and film star Takumi Saito, who has been directing shorts since 2012, including “half & half,” which was nominated for an International Emmy Award last year in the Digital Program: Fiction category. On June 23, Saito will screen his work and talk about the future of short films, of which he is sure to be a part. “Unfortunately, that event is already sold out,” Tono says.

Tickets for many other Short Shorts programs are still available, however, including the three main competition sections — International, Asia International and Japan — as well as competitions for environmentally themed films, animated shorts, music videos and tourism promotion films. The winner of the festival’s Grand Prix, which is selected from among the awardees in the three main competitions, will be submitted for Academy Award consideration.

“I highly recommend the Competition screenings for first-time (Short Shorts) festivalgoers,” Tono says. “The quality is high and, like all our screenings, they are free.”

The festival is also showing “Stutterer,” Benjamin Cleary’s Oscar-winning short about an isolated man with a speech impediment who faces a dreaded (and highly anticipated) first date, as well as “Ave Maria,” Basil Khalil’s drama about a convent’s cultural collision with an Israeli family, presented in collaboration with the Cannes Film Festival. These two films show aspiring filmmakers what to aim for, though they are hardly on the schedule for that reason alone.

Those seeking more concrete advice on scaling the short film heights can attend Road to Cannes, a new initiative sponsored by Short Shorts and the Nara International Film Festival that includes a June 10 presentation by Cannes honoree and jury member Naomi Kawase on making it into the world’s most prestigious festival, together with a two-day September workshop in Kawase’s native Nara for selected participants.

Starting this year, the festival will also enlist five young Competition filmmakers in the new Short Film & Tokyo Project, co-sponsored by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, to make shorts about Tokyo as promotion ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. One selectee, Indian filmmaker Pia Shah, whose film “Waterbaby” will screen in the Asia International Competition, was preparing for her one-day shoot when she spoke to The Japan Times.

“(The sponsors) suggested a location — an antique market — and are supplying a local crew but they are not telling me what to shoot,” Shah explains. She says the sponsors are “looking for an outsider’s perspective on the country,” which she, as a first-time visitor to Japan, is happy to supply, if not necessarily in a conventional way. “In a short film you can experiment with different ways of storytelling,” she says. “In ‘Waterbaby’ I mixed live-action with animation. I would like to try something not usually seen in this type of film — and just have fun with it.”

The festival is also expanding the geographical reach of its programming beyond its base in Japan and the short film strongholds of Europe and North America, as indicated by another of Tono’s picks: the Southeast Asia program.

“Last year we screened films from six Asian countries,” Tono says. “This year, with this new program, we’ve added five from Southeast Asia: Vietnam, Brunei, Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia.”

Yet another highlight from the region is the Focus on Singapore program featuring “7 Letters,” an omnibus of seven films by prominent Singaporean directors that are intended as “love letters” celebrating Singapore’s 50th year as an independent city-state.

Tono is also big on Branded Shorts, a program that presents corporate-sponsored videos streamed on smartphones, tablets and other devices. Freer in form and content than traditional ads, they connect with viewers who may not be a target market — or even realize what product is being pitched.

“For example, Lexus made a very popular video that didn’t have any cars in it,” Tono says with a smile. “It’s a big trend here. I think the program might be interesting for foreign residents (in Japan).”

The festival will close with “Utsukushii Hito” (“Beautiful People”), a short set in Kumamoto directed by veteran filmmaker Isao Yukisada.

“It’s the first film I’ve shot in my hometown — I wanted people to know what a great place Kumamoto is,” Yukisada told a Short Shorts press conference. “I never thought Kumamoto Castle, which has such an image of strength, would crumble (in the recent earthquakes). When I think of Kumamoto’s now-vanished beauty captured in the film, my heart wants to burst.”

As indicated by the above, shorts have become a wide-ranging medium, attracting both novice and veteran filmmakers, as well as varying in subject matter from light entertainment to deep-dish documentary exposees. Japan, as might be expected, has its own, unique trends.

“We’ve been seeing a lot of Japanese films set in schools,” Tono says. “In Europe and the rest of Asia, there are more films about families. But for some reason Japanese filmmakers prefer to set their (short) films in schools — there are an awful lot of high school love dramas.”

At the same time, he has noticed an improvement in quality. “Everyone here is using modern digital equipment now, so the technical aspects of these films are improving. Where Japanese short filmmakers lag behind the rest of the world, Tono believes, is content.

“They make a lot of comedies that are funny, but don’t have much substance,” he explains. “Elsewhere in the world, with the refugee crisis and so on, filmmakers tend to be more serious about current events. There is some of that in Japan — films about the nuclear plant disaster and so on — but in general filmmakers are focused on the personal, not the political.”

Also a major trend, notes Tono, is the migration of shorts from the cinema and other traditional platforms to YouTube and elsewhere on the Internet, where they can draw a huge audience immediately.

“There are more business opportunities for these films,” he says, including opportunities for their makers to advance their careers. A corollary: “(Short films) here used to be very personal, but now their makers care more about the audience.”

One thing has not changed: For many filmmakers short films are still a professional first step, whether it leads to Academy Award honors or YouTube fame — or both.

Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia takes place at various venues in Tokyo and Yokohama from June 2-26. Admission is free with the exception of some special events, and most films will be subtitled in English and Japanese. For more details, including prices and showtimes, visit www.shortshorts.org.