Film commissioned by UCLA professor earns spot at Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes

Published: May 7, 2024
Koji Yamamura’s animated short “Extremely Short” translates into film a story by Hideo Furukawa, read by the author himself.


The animated short was conceived and brought to fruition by Yanai Initiative director Michael Emmerich

Sean Brenner

Among the responsibilities UCLA professor Michael Emmerich figured he might have this academic year, making arrangements for a filmmaker to travel to Cannes was probably not one of them.

But booking flights to the south of France are now on his to-do list, because an animated short film that Emmerich conceived and helped bring to fruition has made the cut for a screening at the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight, which takes place May 15–25. The Fortnight is an independent sidebar to the main Cannes Film Festival.

The movie, “Extremely Short,” is directed by the renowned animator Kōji Yamamura and based on a short story by Hideo Furukawa, who also recorded the narration for the film. The source material for “Extremely Short” is a prose poem-like story that imagines the shortest thing in Tokyo: the last breath of a dying man. That breath forms a syllable that, it turns out, finds echoes in every moment of the man’s life, and every conversation in the city, uniting everything.

Putting Yamamura and Furukawa’s talents together was the brainchild of Emmerich, UCLA’s Tadashi Yanai Professor of Japanese Literature and director of the Yanai Initiative, a joint venture between UCLA and Japan’s Waseda University.

Among the Yanai Initiative’s goals are bringing new attention to contemporary Japanese writers, creating opportunities for Japanese translators and inspiring new generations of scholars to research and teach Japanese literature. To advance those efforts, Emmerich came up with the idea to develop films based on recent books, poems and other written forms.

“This seemed like a way to get Japanese literature out there to reach audiences who wouldn’t otherwise encounter it, and to highlight independent animators who are doing really interesting work,” he said.

The prevailing perception of humanities professors may be that they “only” analyze and teach about works of art. But Emmerich said that having a hand in actually bringing a new piece of art into the world isn’t all that different.

Michael Emmerich, UCLA’s Tadashi Yanai Professor of Japanese Literature and director of the Yanai Initiative
Reed Hutchinson/UCLA Michael Emmerich, UCLA’s Tadashi Yanai Professor of Japanese Literature and director of the Yanai Initiative

When professors teach literature and art, we’re really partnering with our students to try and transform the way we all experience those artworks. We want to learn to see them differently,” he said. “Creating the chance for a work of literature to be reimagined through animation is just another way of doing that — inviting people to engage with the art in a new way.”

Yamamura — who plans to travel to Cannes for the festival — was nominated for an Academy Award for his 2001 short “Mt. Head,” but “Extremely Short” is his first work to be screened at the Fortnight. He said was “thrilled” by the invitation.

“The work, which combines literature, animation and music, is only about five minutes long, but for me it crystallizes something essential about what it is to be alive,” he said.

“Extremely Short” is the first film to emerge from “Bungako Bideo” (Japanese for “literature videos”), a planned series of films commissioned by the Yanai Initiative. The second movie, based on a Japanese prose poem by Makoto Takayanagi, is already in development.