‘The Harimaya Bridge’ Tells a Universal Story Characters Come From Different Countries, Races, Generations

BRIDGE-BUILDING — Victor Grant and Saki Takaoka in a scene from “The Harimaya Bridge.”

In a new movie, “The Harimaya Bridge,” premiering in San Francisco on April 23, an American journeys to Japan, a country he has long resented, to collect some items that belonged to his estranged son, who died there two years prior.

Confronting painful memories and long-held stereotypes — his own and those others hold against him — Daniel Holder (played by veteran stage actor Ben Guillory) comes to an understanding of the importance of family — those we are born into, and those we create.

Said to be the first feature film directed by an African American in Japan, the movie was executive-produced by Danny Glover and features the noted actor in a minor role.

The film’s writer/director, Aaron Woolfolk, who taught English in the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program in rural Kochi Prefecture, returned there to shoot the film, which is filled with luxuriant scenes of the prefecture’s breathtaking nature. A thoughtful, often quiet film, it artfully combines uniquely American and Japanese sensibilities.

Woolfolk will participate in question-and-answer format sessions after screenings of the film on Friday, April 23, and Saturday, April 24, at the UA Stonestown Twin.

The Nichi Bei Weekly interviewed Woolfolk over e-mail.

Nichi Bei Weekly: How did your experience as an English teacher in Japan influence this film? Did you incorporate any of your personal experiences?

Aaron Woolfolk: I like to say that the film was inspired by but not based on my experiences in Japan. The movie is completely fictional, though the time I lived there and the many times I’ve been back definitely influenced the story. I’d say that the whole of my relationship with Japan went into the film, even if not directly.

NBW: How did you come up with the movie’s plot, and what about this idea inspired you?

AW: I think what initially inspired me was to make a film in Kochi Prefecture, the rural part of Japan I lived and worked in. I wanted to show why I fell in love with the place. Also, at the outset I had hoped that the project would be different enough to make me stand out.

I really wanted to do a cross-cultural story set in Japan that dealt with people of different countries, races and generations. From the very beginning I determined that the main character would not be the young English teacher — which, of course, I can directly identify with — but his father.

As a writer, you strive to come up with a strong central conflict…a big obstacle that the main character must get through to achieve what he or she needs to achieve. You also want to have a full character arc that the protagonist traverses as he or she makes their way through that obstacle.

I decided the best way to tell the story would not be to follow the young English teacher, who loves Japan, but to follow his father, who doesn’t love Japan. The English teacher is still a major character in the film, but it is the father’s journey through which the themes of the film are explored.

Writer/director Aaron Woolfolk

NBW: You are (said to be) the first African American to direct a feature film in Japan. Do you feel you were able to tear down any stereotypes through this project?

AW: I hope so. From the beginning I wanted to show there is more to African Americans than just what is commonly seen in the media. As with any other group, blacks are a diverse and multi-faceted people that come in all stripes and have all sorts of experiences. But it seems like the mainstream media is only interested in a very limited, narrow view of how blacks act, talk and live their lives. It’s certainly a lot better than it used to be but still not good enough, in my opinion.

For example, it’s funny to me how people often come to “The Harimaya Bridge” with pre-conceived notions of what it will be. It’s a movie by a black director with black characters, so they assume it will have a hip-hop vibe and black characters taking an urban jungle mentality to Japan. As I’ve said before, I like hip-hop and gritty urban movies as much as anybody else. But not every story with black central characters has to be like that, and this one certainly isn’t.

When I tell people that there are a lot of African Americans and Africans living and working in Tokyo, or that I’ve bumped into other African Americans walking down the streets of Kathmandu, they often don’t believe me. Because according to what we see in the mainstream media, only whites have international experiences. So I’m proud that “The Harimaya Bridge” shows a reality that is not usually seen.

In terms of the Japanese characters, I wanted to get away from the usual stereotypes seen in so many Western films that deal with Japan. I wanted to show the kind of people that I knew: just real, normal, everyday people. People that, yes, have their cultural differences. But what I discovered from all the time I’ve spent in Japan and my travels to other places is that beneath that thin surface we call culture, people really aren’t that different.

It doesn’t matter much what part of the world people are in, or what people’s history is, or what gods people worship, or what have you. People really aren’t that different.

What I’m most proud of is how so many people have told me they think “The Harimaya Bridge” is a universal story. Black, white, Asian, Latino, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, atheist, rich, poor … the whole roll call! I’ve had so many people from all of those groups and more tell me they love the movie and that they can see themselves in the characters. And that’s really what I always wanted: to make a movie that everyone can feel they identify with, and that just happens to have black and Asian characters in the central roles.

NBW: How do the reactions to the film differ among Japanese and American audiences?

AW: I’ve been fortunate enough to travel all over Japan promoting the film and speaking to audiences at screenings and also doing the same thing somewhat here in the U.S. In a nutshell, the Japanese audiences notice a lot of subtle nuances. But then, that makes sense since the bulk of the film was shot in Japan. It’s also interesting how both audiences often laugh at different things in the movie and for different reasons.

NBW: In another interview, you said, “A lot of people who saw the film didn’t believe that it wasn’t made by a Japanese filmmaker. They said that I was an American who has a Japanese soul.” Why do you think this film has that sensibility? Did you consciously aim for that aesthetic or did it come naturally?

AW: Two things. First, I went into this project wanting to make a film in the style of 1950s Japanese films that I discovered as a young man in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Films like Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” and Yasuhiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Monogatari.” Those two in particular are among my all-time favorite movies. So, kind of in homage to them, I wanted to make “The Harimaya Bridge” in that quiet, pastoral style…a style in which a film is not afraid to take its time to tell its story.

And that is so different than most of the films today. That means letting the camera linger on things that a lot of people today will tell you to cut. That means taking those extra moments to capture human behavior or the ambiance of a location when today those kind of moments are usually left on the editing room floor…

All of that said, though, I always make sure to tell people that I am in no way an expert on Japan. It would be silly to think of me as such. But, having lived there and having subsequently spent a lot of time there, I think I have a perspective on Japan that can be considered legitimate.

Kind of like how many of my favorite films about the U.S. and American life are by filmmakers that weren’t born and raised here, but that have spent enough time here to have a legitimate take on us.

For more information about “The Harimaya Bridge,” visit www.theharimayabridge.com.

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