Film sheds light on mother of Nikkei sculptor Noguchi

Isamu Noguchi file photo

TOKYO — A film about the younger days of Japanese American sculptor Isamu Noguchi through the eyes of his mother has hit theaters across Japan.

The film “Leonie,” directed by Japanese filmmaker Hisako Matsui, depicts the story of Noguchi and his American mother Leonie Gilmour, a journalist who fell in love with a Japanese poet but went through a heartbreaking separation in the early 20th century.

Matsui was inspired by Noguchi’s biography written by Masayo Duus. Matsui describes Gilmour as an educated, open-minded and courageous woman full of curiosity about the world in and outside the United States.

Gilmour met Japanese poet Yonejiro Noguchi in New York and started to help publish his poems in English. Through the artistic process, it did not take long before the two started up an international romance, rare at the time.

But when Gilmour told Yonejiro she was expecting their baby, he did not accept it and returned home by himself. Gilmour raised young Isamu in California with her mother but a few years later she decided to reunite Isamu with his father in Japan.

To her huge disappointment, however, she found that Yonejiro was already married to a Japanese woman in Tokyo and also had a mistress. Gilmour left Yonejiro and started teaching English to intellectuals and military officers to make ends meet.

The mother and son moved to Chigasaki, a coastal town south of Tokyo, where Isamu already started to show his artistic talent when he designed his first work — their house.

While in Japan, she had a second baby with her Japanese student of English, whose identity is not disclosed in the film. Again, she raises her as a single mother.

“There are no boundaries for artists. There are no borders,” Gilmour kept encouraging her son, who felt torn between both sides of the Pacific.

“The art is your weapon and your voice,” Gilmour also said, in words critics say show her eternal love for Yonejiro as it was art that brought them together and can be a message to their son, Isamu.

But as World War I continued, Gilmour made up her mind to let Isamu return to the United States in 1918 to help him escape Japan’s military draft. Isamu first took up medicine at Columbia University, but later he finally decided to live as a sculptor.

After World War II he became a prolific artist who left works ranging from furniture, theatrical stage sets, stone carvings and monuments and parks in many parts of the world, a move critics say reflected his struggles to search for a resting place before he died in 1988.

In Japan, his most noted works include a monument in Hiroshima, depicting a bridge, for the victims of the U.S. atomic bombing. A huge fountain in Moerenuma Park in Sapporo is another masterpiece of his.

British-born actress Emily Mortimer who appeared in films including “Shutter Island” and “Match Point” plays Gilmour while Japanese Kabuki actor Nakamura Shido plays Yonejiro.

The theme music was composed by Polish-born Oscar winner Jan Kaczmarek while attire designer Kazuko Kurosawa, the eldest daughter of Japanese film giant Akira Kurosawa, also contributed to the film by arranging kimono costumes.

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