Michael Sasaki ’05 Wins Best Short Film at Málaga Film Festival

May 02, 2022
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Michael Sasaki poses with a young male actor holding a clapperboard.

Shortly after his mother died, Michael Sasaki ’05 received a package from Japan. He opened the box, removed his mother’s kimono, put it on, picked up her Japanese hand fan, and began dancing.

“My connection with my mom was so powerful as I danced the traditional style of Japanese Nihon-buyō dance she’d practiced and loved so much,” Sasaki said. “I knew immediately that I had to express the power of this moment.”

Six years later, the culmination of Sasaki’s quest to express this moment is resonating with audiences worldwide. Masaru, a short film inspired by Sasaki’s mother, recently won the Best Short Film at the renowned Málaga Film Festival in Spain. Masaru centers on a Major League Baseball player who discovers his passion for Japanese traditional dance and must choose between embracing his true identity or resigning himself to the pressures of family, loyalty, and honor.

Dancing Toward Home

The road to filming Masaru was filled with stops and starts. Sasaki began acting in 2008 not long after his 2005 graduation from Soka. In 2010, he took a break from acting and went back out on the road as a figure skater. After retiring from show skating, he settled in Los Angeles in 2016.

Later that year, his mother and father died from cancer within five months of each other. “At that moment,” Sasaki said, “I realized how short life is and began asking myself an important question: ‘If you could do something for free for the rest of your life, what would it be?’”

The answer was clear: acting and making movies.

Not just any movies though. As an SUA alumnus, Sasaki wants to be involved in projects that are transformative rather than just “mainstream” entertainment. “Through film, I want to tell the stories of the voiceless, of minorities whose stories are not frequently told,” Sasaki said.

Sasaki wrote the script for Masaru, which is based on events in his life, during the first summer of the global pandemic. He took Japanese dancing lessons as a kid, and his mother was a talented Japanese Nihon-buyō dancer. Though not identical to his father, the father in the film represents the traditional views of gender roles held by many Japanese men. Linda Harada, Mrs. Sasaki’s former dance instructor, plays Iwamoto Sensei, the titular character’s dance teacher in the film. Though she had no acting experience, Sasaki said, Harada graciously gave acting a try. The echoes and resonances of these real-life connections and histories imbue the film with a depth of feeling that belies its short 12-minute running time.

As often happens on film sets, some creative tug of war occurred during the early production of Masaru. As filming neared, people from different departments offered critical feedback on the original script. While some of it was difficult to hear because of the film’s autobiographical roots, Sasaki realized the critiques were not personal; rather, they were motivated by their desire to ensure the success of the film.

Sasaki saw that some of his team was beginning to shut down at the crucial moment of disagreement. He took swift action, engaging in dialogue with every producer and uniting the team at the moment when pre-production could have collapsed. “I was reminded by this experience that it requires this kind of death-defying dialogue to make sure people aren’t just smiling, but rather are truly united and engaged,” Sasaki said. “And by ‘dialogue,’ I’m not talking about just chatting. I mean really challenging people.”

Masaru Comes Full Circle

Sasaki’s ethos as a filmmaker can be traced, in part, back to his study abroad experience at Soka. Living in Spain for half a year enabled him to step outside his own narrow vision and realize that people have their own distinct stories like his—albeit refracted through a different cultural lens. Navigating these new, unfamiliar rhythms of language and custom, Sasaki realized there is something people share in the essence of their varied experiences. “‘I want to be happy. I want to express myself.’ Studying abroad showed me that beyond cultural borders, people everywhere yearn for such things.”

His experience abroad was further enriched by the diversity of living on campus at SUA, which Sasaki remembers as its own kind of on-campus study abroad experience in which one learns to creatively co-exist with and grow from encounters with other cultures. “I believe that’s what Soka founder Daisaku Ikeda has tried to instill in students from the very first class: respect for all people regardless of our differences,” Sasaki said.

Masaru’s victory in the Best Short Film category at the Málaga Film Festival is a moment of coming full circle: Sasaki’s first major award as an artist happens to be from the country where he studied abroad and began thinking seriously about the meaning of global citizenship. The Málaga Film Festival is one of the most prestigious film festivals in the Spanish-speaking world and is celebrated in several venues around Málaga, including the Picasso Museum and the University of Málaga.

Don’t Rush, Don’t Give Up

Sasaki is in the early stages of turning Masaru into a feature-length film. He originally intended Masaru to be a feature, but as a first-time filmmaker, he decided to start with a short film and lay the foundation for a feature-length film in the future.

He recently debuted as the lead in the play Masao and the Bronze Nightingale at the Casa 0101 theater in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. The play tells the story of a Japanese American young man who faces racism after World War II in Little Tokyo after surviving the internment camps for three years.

When asked if he has advice for Soka students interested in pursuing a career in the arts, Sasaki thought for a moment, smiled, and said, “Don’t rush. It’s not going to happen overnight. But also, don’t give up.”