More than 100 community members gathered at New People Cinema in San Francisco’s Japantown Sept. 25 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Kayo Hatta’s groundbreaking film “Picture Bride.”
According to the film, some 20,000 young women from Japan, Okinawa and Korea journeyed to Hawai‘i between 1907 and 1924 to meet their new husbands — men they had only known through exchanging letters and photos — and start their new lives.
The film was written, directed and produced by Asian American women, and featured Youki Kudoh (“Mystery Train,” “Snow Falling on Cedars,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”); Akira Takayma (“War And Remembrance,” “Snow Falling on Cedars”); Tamlyn Tomita (“Karate Kid, Part II,” “The Joy Luck Club”); Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (“Rising Sun,” “The Last Emperor,” “Pearl Harbor”); and the legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune (“Seven Samurai,” “Yojimbo,” “Red Beard,” “Shogun”). It won the Audience Award at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival.
Honoring the Issei
The Nichi Bei Foundation’s event aimed to honor the Issei women who helped establish the foundation for the modern-day Japanese American community and recognize both Hatta’s work and that of the cast and crew.
“Picture Bride” depicts a young Japanese woman’s desperate attempt to leave her troubled past behind for a new life in Hawai‘i. Riyo, played by Kudoh, exchanges letters and photographs with a young and handsome Matsuji (Takayama), who woos her with poetry. Upon arriving in Hawai’i, however, Riyo is dismayed to learn that her husband is in fact older than her late father was. Her idealistic view of life in paradise is shattered by the brutal and unforgiving reality of life as a sugarcane plantation worker.
The cast and crew themselves encountered obstacles and setbacks in making the film, starting with enduring the long days of working on location in the sugarcane plantations on the North Shore of O‘ahu.
As with many film projects, Hatta was forced to cut various elements out of the film. “Picture Bride” initially depicted a labor strike among the plantation workers, but it was largely edited from the film in order to focus on the love story between Riyo and Matsuji.
Despite the cuts, the film managed to depict the racial hierarchy and strife on the plantation, with the Filipino workers complaining that they are paid less than their Japanese counterparts.
At one point during filming, the film ran out of funding, causing Kudoh to fly back to Japan, where she successfully raised enough money to help complete the project.
A Grassroots, Women-led Film
The film, as those who were involved in it point out, was a grassroots production. Tomita, who starred as Kana, recalled that women in Hawai‘i” made the actors’ costumes “painstakingly,” and “with love.”
Hatta said in an excerpt of “The Journey of Picture Bride,” a documentary on the making of the film, that she had been “blessed to have had an amazing team of women” behind her. She praised the “women warriors” for helping her to realize her “epic vision.”
Riyo and Kana’s characters were special to the Hattas, co-screenwriter Mari Hatta said, noting that she and her sister had modeled the lead characters after their grandmothers.
The nonprofit hosted two screenings of the film, Q-and-A-format sessions and a reception. San Francisco State University Asian American studies Professor Christen Sasaki led a discussion on the film and the picture bride experience, and an informal Q-and-A-format session after the first screening. Tomita and Julie Yumi Hatta, the late filmmaker’s sister, joined the discussion after the first screening.
Reflecting on the Journey
Prior to the second screening, the audience also saw an excerpt of the documentary. Kayo Hatta got the idea for her film while she was attending the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. She said in the documentary that she learned about the influence women had in changing the plantation structure, helping to stabilize the bachelor societies. And with time, the Issei’s dreams of going back to Japan faded.
Through her research, the filmmaker learned about the hole hole bushi (folk songs) the workers sang while in the canefields. These songs, she said, were both the genesis and the soul of the film.
The evening event, a fundraiser for the Nichi Bei Foundation, offered a few surprises for the Hatta family and audience alike, beginning with a video message from Kudoh. Kudoh shared her gratitude for being able to make the “miracle movie.” She also recognized the “amazing” cast, crew and location.
Jan Yanehiro, director of the School of Multi Media Communications at the Academy of Art University, emceed the benefit screening, the second Q-and-A-format session between Tomita and co-writer Mari Hatta, as well as the reception.
Tomita described “Picture Bride” as a film “about Japanese people who became Americans.” She expressed her gratitude for the opportunity to tell a “special and specialized” turn of the century story about Asian Americans, and added that “Picture Bride speaks to so many Americans from so many other motherlands.”
Tomita praised Hatta’s “strong, powerful vision” and “gentle, but persistent spirit” as a director, she told the Nichi Bei Weekly.
Likewise, Takayama recalled in the event’s program booklet that he was “immediately impressed” by the filmmaker’s commitment to the project. “It was obvious to me that she was more than just another director working on another movie. Her heart and her spirit were in the project. It showed!”
The accolades for the film continued throughout the event, with Nichi Bei Foundation Board President Kenji G. Taguma and Board Chair Kiyomi Takeda sharing Hawai’i Gov. David Ige’s commendation proclaiming Sept. 25 “Picture Bride Day,” in recognition of the film’s legacy, and the nonprofit’s 20th anniversary screenings.
San Francisco District 1 Supervisor Eric Mar also presented certificates from the board to the Hatta sisters and Tomita.
The audience then watched a brief photo tribute to Hatta, who passed away in 2005, that Taguma made.
The evening continued with a musical performance by Francis Wong, Wesley Ueunten and Friends from Genyukai Berkeley, joined by Tomita on vocals. She also performed odori.
During the reception, audience members mingled with Tomita and the Hattas and sampled sake. The menu included Spam musubi, sushi, poke, lomi lomi salmon, kalua pig, strawberry haupia and butter mochi.
Mari Hatta, Julie Yumi Hatta and Megumi Hatta-Wong shared their words of gratitude, as well as remembrances of their sister and aunt.
They acknowledged that Asian American filmmakers Emiko Omori (“Rabbit in the Moon” and “Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm”) and Felicia Lowe (“Carved in Silence” and “Neighborhoods: The Hidden Cities of San Francisco – Chinatown”), both of whom had inspired Kayo Hatta, attended the event.
Mari Hatta, who noted that the 20th anniversary of the film also marks the 10th anniversary of Kayo Hatta’s passing, said that she has been trying to bring her late sister’s personal writing and art to the public, possibly via a Website.