Tetsuya Bessho Featured

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Tetsuya Bessho

Redefining Cinema through Short Films

A veteran actor, producer, and radio presenter, Tetsuya Bessho is no stranger to the Japanese entertainment industry. Following his Hollywood debut in 1990, Bessho has starred in many Japanese and American films, most notably Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth and Parasite Eve. In addition, he has performed in stage productions of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, among others. Bessho is also the founder and director of the Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia. Since its creation in 1999, Bessho has promoted the short film culture across Japan through collaboration, online cinema, and the festival itself. Tokyo Journal Editor-in-Chief Anthony Al-Jamie sat down with Bessho to discuss his personal experiences, passion for film and, of course, the Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia.

TJ: You’ve had a very long career as an actor. How many films have you acted in?
BESSHO:
Many. My first Hollywood movie, Solar Crisis, was not very successful. Despite starring famous actors such as Charlton Heston, Peter Boyle, Tim Matheson, and Jack Palance, the movie lacked the international acclaim I was hoping for. Following its completion, I returned to Japan and joined the cast of Godzilla vs. Mothra. I also acted in Ultraman and several television dramas. Aside from on-screen acting, I was cast in theater performances such as Les Misérables and Miss Saigon.

TJ: That’s quite impressive. Do you have a favorite film that you’ve acted in?
BESSHO:
Filming Godzilla was a very interesting experience due to the emergence of high-definition television, cameras, and systems. While it was a challenge, we chose to use the new technology and produced an incredible film. Nowadays, actors and directors combine their creativity with advanced technology to produce wonderful stories. It was a great experience to have been at the forefront of such an experimentation.

TJ: Your English is fantastic. How old were you when you moved to the United States and how long did you live there?
BESSHO:
I was 23 or 24 when I graduated from Keio University in Tokyo. Believe it or not, I actually majored in international law. I wanted to be a diplomat or to work for a trading company internationally, but I ultimately decided to pursue my love for acting. When I was about 23, I joined the Lee Strasberg Institute, an acting school in New York. Unfortunately, I don’t have many opportunities to speak English while living in Tokyo. Hopefully, I’ll have the chance to join another Hollywood production soon so I can continue to improve my English!

TJ: You were a law major! Did you disappoint your parents by being an actor?
BESSHO:
Yes. My father, uncle, and grand- father all work for a bank, so everyone assumed I would too. But I never really wanted to. My parents aren’t disappointed, but initially they didn’t think I would have the talent or ability to survive in the entertainment industry. Now they understand and really support the life and career that I have built.

TJ: How long have you been coming to the U.S.?
BESSHO:
I have been back and forth many times, but in total it has been almost 30 years.

TJ: Tell me about your film festival—what makes it unique?
BESSHO:
Back in 1997, I watched 10 short films at Sony Pictures Studio in California. I was shocked because even though they weren’t feature-length movies, they were still able to create a magical world and received a wonderful response. Filmmakers were trying to create a wonderful new world through the use of short-form, and I really, really loved that. Short film is similar to Japanese haiku; they both leave so much room for imagination. After the screening in 1997, I went to the University of Southern California and discovered 11 short films directed by George Lucas. At that time, no short film festival existed in Japan, but we quickly worked to create one. The film festival began in 1999 and was the first short film festival to begin internationally. In honor of George Lucas, we named the festival’s Grand Prix—the top prize—the “George Lucas Award” in 2018.

TJ: If you win the Grand Prix you qualify to enter the Oscars, is that right?
BESSHO:
Since 2019, a total of 4 winners from the Official Competition (International Category, International Asia Category, Japan Category) and the Non-Fiction Category, can be eligible for a nomination to the Academy Awards. We also would like to mention that this year, we are happy to collaborate with Sony as a sole supporter of the official competition, which acts as a path to the Academy Awards Short Film category. Sony has long supported the dreams of creators as an entertainment company powered by the latest technology. Also, Sony and Sony Mobile Communications will jointly host the “Creators’ Junction partnered with the XperiaTM” event, which dives into the potential new trends of cinema at SSFF & ASIA 2020.

TJ: Have you ever considered stopping?
BESSHO:
While it does take a lot of time and effort to manage a film festival, I have always had the financial support of the Tokyo government and local clients. Back in 2011, there was a large earthquake in Tohoku. At the time, I considered canceling that year’s festival, but filmmakers and other creators across Japan suggested it would promote the strength of Japan and deliver the message that Japan would not be left behind because of the earthquake. Ultimately, we had the festival that June and it was very successful in bringing people together during such a difficult time.

TJ: Was it difficult to recover in the years after that?
BESSHO:
Generally speaking, yes. Recovery is rarely quick. But Japan’s economy continues to strengthen. Clients and supporters of our festival are coming back, particularly multinational corporations such as Netflix, who provide a lot of financial support. 2011 was a difficult time, but we’ve been getting stronger ever since.

TJ: What would you say is the key to success in running a festival?
BESSHO:
The people, especially the festival staff and the movie lovers. They love to watch the shorts and have a great appreciation for the talent and effort required to make these films. The people that surround me are a great source of motivation.

TJ: What’s the most exciting part of your job in running the festival?
BESSHO:
The discovery of new talent and creativity. Every year we have more than 10,000 submissions from all over the world. We receive so many colorful, beautiful short films. I love to invite filmmakers from around the world to join the film festival in Tokyo and for people to discover the greatness of Japan. This kind of international communication and cultural exchange is wonderfully exciting for me.

TJ: I realize that event schedules are uncertain in 2020. What month is the festival usually held in?
BESSHO:
We usually have the festival every June, even if it’s the rainy season. We have some theaters, mainly in the Omotesando area, such as Omotesando Hills and Shidax Hall. This year, SSFF & ASIA 2020 was postponed to September 16 to 27.

TJ: Are you still committed to acting? It seems like you’ve been putting a lot of energy into the festival.
BESSHO:
: I respect Robert Redford. He is a great actor who also started and still runs the wonderful Sundance Film Festival. I also really respect Robert De Niro. He, too, is an amazing actor and he founded the Tribeca Film Festival. I think, for me, it’s 50/50. I keep improving my craft as an actor, but I have a great passion for film festivals and running them. I hope to continue to do both.

TJ: What happens with short films when the festivals finish? Is there a business life for short films?
BESSHO:
This is a very good question. Nowadays, there are many opportunities for short films. Some short films are streamed online and sometimes we use films at several different festivals. We also sell some of the streaming rights to companies that want to use our short films. We have some platforms to screen short films so that they are available on several different media platforms such as Apple and Android. When companies use shorts commercially, the profit is paid back to the original creators.

TJ: Do you see this as a growing industry then?
BESSHO:
I believe so. In Japan and other Asian countries, the demand for short films is increasing. People watch short films on their laptops and cellphones, and it seems as though this market is steadily growing.

TJ: What difficulties do you face in the market right now? Is there something that’s been blocking it from growing?
BESSHO:
Musical rights clearance is the biggest challenge. Sometimes filmmakers don’t know how to request the rights to include music in their films. However, it is very important if a creator wants to make their short film available for use commercially. The other big issue pertains to the rights, the copyrights, and the master rights of actors and actresses. It’s exactly the same thing as what happens in feature-length movies, but feature-length movies are very systematic. Major studios take care of guaranteeing certain rights for each party. The short film market has many more young filmmakers trying to create experimentally, so these are very important issues to overcome.

TJ: What is your dream for the future of your festival?
BESSHO:
I would like to introduce more young and upcoming Japanese filmmakers to Hollywood and the greater international film industry. I love to introduce their creativity and talent to the world and I hope to create a wonderful future for Japanese cinema. That is my dream.

TJ: Tell me about the relationship between Naomi Kawase, EXILE, and your festival.
BESSHO:
Almost three years ago, I started a project called Cinema Fighters, which is a compilation of short stories based on six different songs. EXILE’s Hiro is the executive producer of the film. He invested a lot of money and creative effort into its production. On the other hand, Kawase-san was the first director to join the project. Uniting together, a great creative triangle began. The project isn’t a music video by MTV’s standards, but through the use of music, creators have been able to tell incredible stories.

TJ: How can new filmmakers submit their films to your festival?
BESSHO:
You can submit your short film online with an entry form. It must be less than 25 minutes. Those are the only conditions we have. No matter who you are or where you are from, you can join us!

Are there new developments in the types of short films being made?
BESSHO:
Let me explain a little bit about the branded short, which is a new wave of advertising. On TV, you have a 15-second or 30-second advertisement, but nowadays companies are producing branded shorts. Some companies have begun to make short films to deliver their own company or product message. This is a new trend in which short films will feel more like a commercial advertisement and is a new way you will be able to enjoy short films.

tj

The complete article can be found in Issue #280 of the Tokyo Journal.

Written By:

Anthony Al-Jamie

Anthony Al-Jamie lived and worked in Japan for over 20 years. His in-depth understanding of Japanese language and culture has allowed him to carry out interviews with many of the most renowned individuals in Japan. He first began writing for the Tokyo Journal in the 1990s as Education Editor, later he was promoted to Senior Editor, and eventually International Editor and Executive Editor. He currently serves the Tokyo Journal as Editor-in-Chief.



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