28 November 2012

Hatsumi (ハツミ, 2012)

Hatsumi: One Grandmother’s Journey Through the Japanese Canadian Internment (2012)


Tonight sees the launch of the DVD of Chris Hope’s moving documentary Hatsumi: One Grandmother’s Journey Through the Japanese Canadian Internment (2012) at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre (JCCC) in Toronto.  Since the official Japanese Canadian Redress in 1988 many Nikkei have come forward to tell their stories of forced relocation.  In recent years, at the prompting of their children and grandchildren, many more stories have come to light that add to our understanding of this dark chapter in British Columbia’s history.

Many of the adults who experienced the forced internment have been reluctant to speak of their experiences.  In his animated documentary Minoru: Story of Exile; for example, Michael Fukushima speaks of “those silences” which are such “a large part of [his] identity.”  In Hatsumi, Chris Hope attributes those silences to the notion of shikata ga nai (仕方がな).  This expression literally means “it cannot be helped” and is generally used to describe circumstances that our beyond one’s control.  In North America, the idiom has often been used to explain how the Japanese were able to maintain their dignity in the face of the unavoidable circumstances they found themselves in after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Chris Hope describes how he often tried over the years to get his Nisei “Nana”, Nancy Hatsumi Okura, to tell him about her wartime experiences but that she was unwilling to share the whole painful story.  On the occasion of her eightieth birthday, after her stroke and recovery, Hope decides that the time has come to try to one last time to preserve Nancy Hatsumi's story for posterity.  Okura’s decision to tell her story reveals a wealth of information about herself and her immediate family that had previously remained in photo albums, diaries, and written correspondence.

Told in a straight-forward, first person documentary style, what makes Hope’s film stand out from previous films about the internment experience is his family’s remarkable archive.  His late Issei grandfather, Kenji "Ken" Okura, was an avid photographer and documented his family and his community in remarkable photographs and home videos both before and after the war.  He even managed to smuggle his camera into internment with him and documented his experiences as a forced labourer in Jasper. 

A young, well-to-do Vancouver couple with an infant daughter, both Ken and Nancy Hatsumi kept detailed journals of their experiences from the moment they sold off their dry cleaning business to move to Telegraph Cove on Vancouver Island at the beginning of the war.  Hope first tries to get his grandmother to tell her story by having her read parts of her journal out loud but she finds it too painful.  He changes tack and offers to take her to British Columbia to retrace her wartime journey.    

In the 1940s, Telegraph Cove was a quiet fishing village but today is a centre for ecotourism.  The wooden home that Ken Okura built still stands in the village and can be rented by tourists (see: Okura House).  As Nancy Hatsumi tours the house for the first time in over sixty years, the memories come flooding back as if it was yesterday.  An historical plaque dedicated to the Okuras marks the house and she is even able to meet with former neighbours who still live in the cove.  The passage of time has done nothing to dampen the feelings of both parties of the injustice done to the Okuras when they were given only three hours notice to throw together the possessions that they could carry before being shipped off to internment camps.

Hope and his grandmother also visit the unwelcoming livestock building that was used to house the women and children after they were separated from their husbands.  The building looks remarkably unchanged and brings home the inhumanity of how these Canadian citizens were treated by their own government.  Through historical documents such as NFB propaganda films and archival photographs, Hope demonstrates how a terrible combination of fear, ignorance, racism, and greed brought about this shameful injustice.

The most moving moment in the film comes when Chris Hope discovers that his grandmother’s brother, whom she always spoke of in the past tense, is still alive and living in Japan.  At the end of the war, the Japanese were still forbidden from returning to the Pacific Coast and were given two options: to move elsewhere in Canada or to return to Japan.  Nancy Hatsumi’s parents and siblings chose to return to Japan.  Eventually her parents and sisters returned to Canada, but her brother Tadao Hashimoto stayed on in the small city of Gobō in Wakayama Prefecture. 

Hashimoto suffered the most out of all of his family.  Born with childhood glaucoma, the forced internment meant that the family lost the means to pay for his medical treatment and he ended up going blind.  The blind have a special status in Japan – it has the largest Braille library in the world – and since the Tokugawa period blind people have traditionally been trained as anma masseurs.    Hashimoto received an education in Japan and had a successful career as a shiatsu masseur. 

Like his sister, Hashimoto proves reluctant to dwell on the past.  The subtle cultural differences between Canada and Japan raise their head in this sequence with confusion over what to say when entering the house and Hope’s inability to sit Japanese style.  Hope speaks only a few words of Japanese and Hashimoto has lost most of his English, so Nancy Hatsumi acts as the interpreter. In another example of shikata ga nai, Hashimoto is ambivalent towards the internment.  Although he has every right to be angry and bitter, Hashimoto seems content with how his life turned out.  Upon leaving, Nancy Hatsumi displays her “Canadianness” when they leave by embracing and kissing her brother and sister-in-law.   This moving reunion between a brother and sister after more than half a century brings home the terrible wrong done to them by the wartime government.  

With Hatsumi, Chris Hope has created an invaluable record of his grandmother and her family.  She is their last living link to traditional Japanese culture as Japanese Canadians rarely marry other Japanese (see: One Big Hapa Family).  At the same time, the film is an important contribution to the education of current and future generations of Canadians.  Not only does the film teach us about the past, Hope points out that Nancy Hatsumi’s courage in difficult times demonstrates that “the past should never limit a positive outlook for the future.”

Hatsumi is currently available to order via Amazon Canada.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012

27 November 2012

Minoru: Memory of Exile (ミノル:逃亡のメモリー, 1992)

“Let our slogan be for British Columbia: No Japs from the Rockies to the sea.”

These were the words famously spoken by Ian Alistair Mackenzie the Liberal Cabinet Minister for Vancouver Centre during the 1944 federal election.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mackenzie had played a key role in the government's decision to intern Japanese-Canadians living on the Pacific coast for the duration of the war.  In the 1970s and 1980s literature and film began to surface addressing the injustices suffered by Japanese-Canadians in British Columbia.  Pierre Burton addressed the subject on his television show and the materials presented were published by Janice Patton in her book The Exodus of the Japanese: Stories from the Pierre Burton Show (1973) and journalist Ken Adachi wrote The Enemy That Never Was: A History of the Japanese Canadians (1976).  Two semi-autobiographical works, Shizuye Takashima’s A Child in Prison Camp (1971) and Joy Kogawa’s novel Obasan (1981), have become staples in the Canadian classroom because of the moving way that they tell their stories from the point of view of a child.

Since Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s official apology to the victims of this abuse of human rights in 1988, many Nisei, Sansei, and more recently Yonsei have come forward to share their family stories.  Michael Fukushima’s animated documentary Minoru: Memory of Exile (1992) was one of the first of the post-redress films.  His proposal to make an animation based upon his father Minoru Fukushima’s story landed on the desk of William Pettigrew at the NFB at about the same time that they were contacted by the Japanese Canadian Redress Secretariat (JCRS) about the possibility of funding educational films about the internment.

Fukushima did not learn of his father’s experiences until the issue of redress raised his head in the late 1980s.  According to the film’s first-person narration, in the fall of 1987, at the age of 26, Fukushima asked his father for the first time about his childhood.  Fukushima’s guiding voice is interwoven with the voice of his father and accompanied by traditional Japanese music played on the shamisen, koto, and taiko. The animation uses a variety of media including cutouts, paintings, and photographs.

The past and the present are also interwoven through Fukushima’s use of relics of the past in the form of family and archival photographs and archival documents.  As Minoru begins to tell of his happy early childhood in Vancouver, the image of Minoru as a child comes to life in a faded family photograph.  A colourful cutout of Minoru jumps out of the picture and leads us through archival photographs of Vancouver’s city streets.  Minoru looks back fondly on his childhood in Vancouver.  He describes how his parents ran their grocery store for almost 20 years from when they arrived in Canada until their internment.

Minoru speaks of how they were sheltered as children from news of the war.    Even the internment camp didn’t seem that bad to the kids: it was almost like a summer camp and he recalls learning how to swim there.  This is a sentiment shared by renowned environmentalist David Suzuki in his 2007 eponymous autobiography, who wrote that his love of nature was came from the idyllic time he spent in the interior of British Columbia – a time when he was blissfully unaware of the hardships endured by his parents until after the war.   

It is not until the end of the war that things take a turn for the worse.  The Fukushima family discovers that despite being Canadian citizens, they must make a choice of moving somewhere outside of British Columbia in Canada or be deported back to Japan.  It turns out that the internment of Japanese-Canadians ignited “long-standing anti-Japanese sentiments” and local merchants, fishermen, and farmers supported the government in the seizing of all Japanese property and liquidating it.  The funds raised from the sale of their property was used to fund the cost of their own internment.

Uncertain as to what would be best for the family Minoru’s father decides to take the Japan option although Minoru and his siblings cannot speak any Japanese and are Canadian citizens.  They return to their father’s village where they encounter poverty and resentment by the locals who see them as foreigners.  By the time Canada reverses its policy on Japanese Canadians in the late 1940s because of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, their family it too poor to be able to afford the journey back to British Columbia.  In a case of bitter irony, when the Korean War breaks out in 1950, the Canadian government tries to recruit the same Japanese-Canadians they had banished a few years earlier.  Minoru jumps at the chance along with about 40 others and thus begins his journey back to the only country that ever felt like home to him – despite the injustice and racism he experienced there. 

Minoru: Memory of Exile is an early example of an animated documentary – a medium that has become more common nowadays with great films like Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008) and Ryan (Chris Landreth, 2004).  It demonstrates the unique ability of animation to express things with greater depth and poignancy than mere archival footage or interview footage could ever do.  The animation fills the “silences” that Fukushima speaks of as being a large part of his identity as a Sansei Canaidan.  Following in his footsteps, Yonsei Canadian animator/documentary filmmaker Jeff Chiba Stearns also used animation to bring to life his Uncle Suey Koga’s stories about the internment in his feature length documentary One Big Hapa Family (read review). 

Michael Fukushima directed at least one other animation at the NFB before beginning his transition into becoming a producer.  Over the past decade he has built a reputation over as one of Canada’s top animation producers.  Minoru: Memory of Exile shows us his roots as an artist in his own right.  It is both informative and moving in how it tells the story of Minoru.   A warm tribute from a son in recognition of the sacrifices made by both his father and his grandparents to enable him to grow up Canadian.  

Related Reading: Michael Fukushima: The Art of Producing Art

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012

Michael Fukushima

Minoru Fukushima
Michael Fukushima

animation assistance/colour rendering
Faye Hamilton

William Pettigrew

additional colour rendering
Colette Brière
sound design
Normand Roger

John Endo Greenaway

Teresa Kobayashi

Takeo Yamashiro

animation camera
Jacques Avoine
Ray Dumas
Lynda Pelley

Jean-Pierre Joutel

apprentice mixer
Terry Mardini

23 November 2012

Michael Fukushima: The Art of Producing Art

As part of its Canadian Spotlight, the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival hosted an evening with renowned NFB producer Michael Fukushima on November 7, 2012 entitled Michael Fukushima: The Art of Producing Art.  The evening was moderated by Aram Siu Wai Collier and featured both conversations with Fukushima and a selection of films.  Fukushima notably worked with Koji Yamamura on Muybridge’s Strings (2011).  Other notable animated shorts that he has produced include Christopher Hinton’s Genie-award winning cNote (2005) and Ann Marie Fleming’s I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors (2010.) The evening’s proceedings were uploaded onto YouTube.  I have summarized the proceeding below with some added context and links to related NFB content.

Original Programme:
Minoru: Memory of Exile (Michael Fukushima, 1992)
cNote (Christopher Hinton, 2011)
Flutter (Howie Shia, 2006)
Jaime Lo, small and shy (Lillian Chan, 2006)
Dimanche (Sunday, Patrick Doyon, 2011)

Due to technical difficulties they weren’t able to screen cNote (but you can watch it online here).  The evening began with Fukushima’s directorial debut Minoru: Memory of Exile.  Fukushima was very modest about his abilities as an animator, but this is a very impressive film which I have been meaning to write a review of for some time.  Fukushima’s proposal for this film is what brought him to the NFB in 1990.  His invitation was thanks to what he called “a whole series of wonderful serendipitous convergences.”  His proposal landed on producer William “Bill” Pettigrew’s desk at around the same time that he was asked to look into funding projects that addressed the internment of Japanese living on the west coast of British Columbia during the Second World War.  This followed in the wake of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s historic apology to Japanese Canadians on September 22, 1988 and the compensation offered to victims of the internment.  The redress included funds for educational materials.

Minoru: Memory of Exile by Michael Fukushima, National Film Board of Canada

Minoru: Memory of Exile is an animated documentary about Fukushima’s father Minoru and his experiences during and after the internment.  It took about two years to make this 18 minute film which was handmade and shot on film.  It won a couple of awards including Best Short Documentary at the Toronto Hot Docs festival in Toronto in its inaugural year.  At the time, the genre of animated documentary was a new form.  Fukushima himself had actually conceived of the film as a completely fictional animation but during the development process, it became clear to Fukushima and Pettigrew that in order to make the story more poignant, it needed to have more of an element of the real.  

Pettrigrew had himself started out at the NFB as a documentary filmmaker with films such as Kuralek (1967), Oskee Wee Wee (1968), Epilogue (1971), and The Vinland Mystery (1984) and recognized the potential of bringing animation and documentary together.  It had never occurred to Fukushima before that one could “marry documentary and animation” so this was a significant moment in the creative process for him.

The producer David Verrall helped Fukushima edit his film.  Verrall produced more than 240 films during his NFB career including Bob’s Birthday (Alison Snowden and David Fine, 1993), When the Day Breaks (Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, 1999), Village Idiots (Rose Newlove, 2000), Ryan (Chris Landreth, 2004), The Danish Poet (Torill Kove, 2006).  Through his experiences with Verral and Pettigrew, Fukushima “came to realize that being a producer is more than just being a manager” and said that he thought that “it was at that moment that the seed was planted” for his trajectory to becoming a producer.

I was surprised to learn that Fukushima was initially resistant to the idea of making Minoru the film more personal because “It was still raw.  I honestly didn’t think I could do it.  .  .  to give justice to the story.  .  .”  He had only just recently discovered the story of his father because of Minoru Fukushima’s receiving of a compensation package from the government.   This had prompted his father to tell him the story.  Fresh out of college and with no experience with documentary filmmaking, Fukushima was concerned about how to tackle the subject matter.  At the time there was a huge debate in the documentary community about “veracity” with people asking “Who gets to tell stories?” and it seems that Fukushima was very sensitive about this.  In the end, Pettigrew recognized the potential for how Fukushima as an artist could make the important story his father had to tell much more accessible and poignant for audiences while at the same time being “very subversive.”  Fukushima credits Pettigrew with teaching him that “animation has a way of sneaking up on audiences and catching them unawares, and having a greater impact because of that.”

After Minoru, the Reel Asian audience watched Flutter (Howie Shia, 2006) and Jamie Lo, small and shy (Lillian Chan, 2006).  Jaime Lo came out of the Talespinners Collection which was an initiative designed to encourage young, relatively inexperienced animators who reflect Canada’s ethnic diversity to make animated films for children.  First the NFB took the “safe route” of optioning a number of children’s books by non-white authors to adapt.  Fukushima produced one of this first batch of films and while he was pleased with the result felt that they could push it further and suggested putting out a call for proposals from young filmmakers about the minority experience in Canada.   It was through this they discovered great talent like Lillian Chan and Jonathon Ng.  They produced some terrific films for kids that were not necessarily about “being Asian” or “an ethnic minority” but were rather “coloured by their experience of being Asian.”

Flutter by Howie Shia, National Film Board of Canada

Fukushima was introduced to Howie Shia by the Hothouse emerging filmmakers programme for which Shia had made the great short short animation Ice Ages (2004).  Shia came to Fukushima with the idea behind Flutter: a boy that just “runs and runs and runs.”  It turned into what Fukushima calls a “beautiful, elegiac poem about search; about love; about how.   .  .  you just have to dive into life and life takes you.  .  .”  The film went on to win the Open Entries Grand Prize at the Tokyo Anime Awards in 2007 – the first animation produced outside of Asia to do so.

Asthma Tech by Jonathan Ng, National Film Board of Canada

After the films were screened Lillian Chan and Jonathan Ng – director of another great Talespinners film called Asthma Tech (2006) – joined Fukushima on the stage to discuss Fukushima as a producer.  Ng was concerned that he might end up becoming too “gushing” about Fukushima.  He praised him as behind different from other producers because he has a knack for understanding the needs of the director.  In Ng’s case, he likes to be left alone during the creative process and he was appreciative of the fact that Fukushima gave him “a lot of leeway,” which is quite remarkable as Ng did not have a lot of experience as an animator at the time.

Collier asks if this hands off approach is something Fukushima tailors to specific animators or if it is his “style” as a producer and Fukushima says that to him “getting engaged on a filmmaker’s personality and their working style is fundamental to being a good producer for me.  It’s a relationship.  With animation it can be a 2, sometimes 3 year relationship and it’s pretty intimate.” Because of the deep emotional investment that he has as a producer, it’s important to Fukushima that he find animators with whom he can foster a good working relationship.   He sees no point in badgering an artist like Ng, who prefers to be left alone, when that won’t bring any results.  He also mentioned that he enjoys picking apart films and discussing them, but finds that it isn’t always productive or useful.  It sounds like a very delicate process. 

Jaime Lo, small and shy by Lillian Chan, National Film Board of Canada

Lillian Chan said that she moved to Montreal to work on Jaime Lo, small and shy and that Fukushima warned her at the outset that production meetings can sometimes involve tempers and people walking out of the room and that that was okay and a normal part of the process.  Chan was surprised to realize that it could be “that intense of a process.”  She doesn’t recall having any shouting matches with Fukushima herself, but she remembers that initially the story for the film wasn’t fully fleshed out and she was given several months just to work on the story.  She really respects Fukushima for giving her the time that she needed to get to the right space with the film on her own.  Fukushima would give her a critique of the film that would identify very precisely what the problems were with the film, but would not tell her how to solve the problem.  She wanted definitive answers for her problems, but Fukushima instead offered suggestions, encouraging her to problem-solve issues on her own.  This forced her, Chan explained, to come to terms with her own creative process.

Chan asks Fukushima how he finds it different working with young filmmakers like her and Ng as opposed to more experienced filmmakers as she imagines that this would be a different experience.    Fukushima claims that there is often very little differences working with a veteran as opposed to an emerging filmmaker as long as the framework of the roles of producer and director have been set up clearly from the beginning.   He addresses the fact that it is not only a two way relationship but a three way relationship which includes institution of the NFB.  The NFB is “a very scary beast for veteran filmmakers and it must be terrifying for younger filmmakers.”  The most important thing for Fukushima is establishing his relationship with the filmmaker.  He sees his role as not only an advocate and champion of his artists, but also someone who will challenge them artistically.  The only difference is that veteran filmmakers tend to have greater self confidence and a greater sense of what will work and won’t work for them artistically.

The final film of the evening was Patrik Doyon’s Oscar nominated film Dimanche (2011).  Like Ng, Doyon was not classically trained as an animator, but rather had training in illustration.  He also came into contact with Fukushima through the Hothouse project.  After Hothouse, Doyon approached the NFB with a proposal about life as a child in rural Quebec .  It ended up being a co-production with the French language ONF studio (the French branch of the NFB).  Dimanche won Doyon the 2012 Jutra Award for Best Animated Film.  Many people at the NFB pushed it as a children’s film, but Fukushima obviously thinks that it is more than that.  They pushed the NFB to send it to the Berlinale where it won a prize, which led the NFB to get behind the film even more.

Unfortunately they seem to have run out of time at this point in the evening.  I had been looking forward to hearing to listening to Fukushima talk about his transition from director to producer.   He seems to have a close relationship with Reel Asian however and there was a suggestion that they would invite him back at some point in the future.  I was impressed by Aram Siu Wai Collier as the moderator for the event.  He asked very thoughtful and engaging questions.  With the online availability of these superb short films plus the video record of the event, it was the next best thing to being there in person.  

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2012


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