Filmmaker’s childhood inspires movie magic

MAKING MOVIE MAGIC — (At right): Academy Award-nominated filmmakers Ru Kawahata and Max Porter. photo by Michael Takeuchi

Filmmaker Ru Kuwahata spent her childhood in the Tokyo suburb of Chiba living in a place that was seemingly conjured up by the minds of Studio Ghibli. While living in an idyllic setting that included a vast rice field with a forest of trees surrounding a comfortable home that appeared to be bulging at its seams thanks to the countless manga (comic books) she and her brother collected, Kuwahata learned about the art of imagination from Hayao Miyazaki’s films “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and the NHK educational television program “Dekirukana?” (Can you do this?).

She also learned from watching an unlikely source, her father.

Kuwahata and her husband Max Porter have taken a small slice of her childhood experience and turned it into movie magic. In the middle of a globetrotting film festival run, the couple’s five-and-a-half-minute stop-action animated short film “Negative Space” was nominated for an Academy Award last month. Kuwahata is the fifth Japanese filmmaker to be nominated in this category, with the first being Koji Yamamura for “Mt. Head” (“Atama Yama”) in 2002. Countryman Kunio Kato became the first Asian to win in the category for his film “La Maison En Petits Cubes” in 2008. The winner of this category and the rest of the Oscars will be announced at the Dolby Theatre on March 4.

It has been an incredible experience, one that included some priceless moments, Kuwahata said.

“I’m surprised, but I was more shocked by my husband’s reaction,” Kuwahata said, laughing. “He made this hand gesture and then squealed. I had never seen any kind of reaction like that from our 11 years of marriage.”

“It was quite a shock, and now the nomination… I’m still not able to completely grasp it,” Porter said, smiling while good naturedly watching a video of his reaction for the umpteenth time.

courtesy of Ru Kuwahata

While the film, a touching story of a son bonding with his oft-traveling father via packing, is a two-year project that was adapted from a work of flash fiction by Pasadena, Calif.-based writer Ron Koertge, it also has elements of both filmmakers’ respective childhoods. For Kuwahata, the poem reminded her of watching her father, a Japan Airlines pilot, prepare in detail for a flight to some far off land every couple of weeks. As a child, Kuwahata picked up from these journeys a curiosity that ultimately gave her a sense of her own desire to expand her horizons.

“My father gave me the notion that the world wasn’t so big,” she said in Santa Barbara, Calif. “One day he’s in Europe, another day in the U.S. Then he’d be in Dubai or South America. I would look up to see where he was going, and learn about each place. So when it came time for me to go, the world felt so close to me so leaving home wasn’t such a big deal in that sense.”

At just 16, Kuwahata came from Japan solo to California to attend Dunn School in Los Olivos, a town filled with ranches and wineries just a Catbus jaunt over the Los Padres National Forest into Santa Barbara.

“It was a struggle, understanding the language, high school and teenagers, plus it was really difficult not having any family around,” she said. “I knew I couldn’t come back because my parents didn’t want me to leave Japan to begin with, but they let me go because they knew I really wanted to and was pretty insistent on going. So I knew I couldn’t go back.”

In addition to having a few good friends for support, she played on the tennis, basketball and lacrosse teams while also throwing herself into her art.

“She worked so, so hard,” said Karen Gearhart Jensen — who along with Cam Jacoby was Kuwahata’s art adviser at Dunn. “She overcame the language barrier to really thrive in school. I think a lot of that is because of her gumption. She was so determined to succeed.”

From there, she went to New York to study animation at the Parsons School of Design. After graduation, she met Porter and they later married while forming their own animation company called Tiny Inventions. At their Baltimore, Md.-based studios, they’ve produced four short animated films as well as commercials for companies like Arm and Hammer and Ben and Jerry’s.

While normally working on their own in previous projects, they used an entire French production company for “Negative Space” while filming in France. To add a nice touch to the miniatures being used for the film, some of the furnishings were reproductions of furniture from Porter’s parents’ home in Brooklyn, and some of the miniature artwork in the background was produced by Kuwahata’s family.

“This really was part of both of us,” she said.

“Negative Space,” which also garnered an Annie Award nomination, was produced in four different locations throughout France and is now spanning the globe at festivals once again … once the Academy Awards are over, of course. In the future, the couple is planning a feature film based on Kuwahata’s own experiences she had while coming to the U.S. titled “The Dandelion Seed.” But for now, the couple is going to enjoy the experience as much as they possibly can.

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