Japanese American filmmaker Kerwin Berk plans to premiere his latest film “Kikan – the Homecoming” Aug. 18 in San Francisco’s Japantown. Set in the 1940s, Berk tells the story of Jimmy Ibata (Ryan Takemiya), a Japanese American soldier returning to America after fighting in Europe with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. “Kikan” features a multi-generational cast of Japanese Americans directed by the director of “The Virtues of Corned Beef Hash” and “Infinity & Chashu Ramen,” two films predominantly set in the ethnic enclave. The Nichi Bei Weekly interviewed Berk, a Sansei, about his latest film.
Nichi Bei Weekly: What inspired you to make this story and were there any major challenges in realizing your vision?
Kerwin Berk: Japantown inspires me. Our community inspires me. Our culture, traditions and history inspire me. At Ikeibi Films we believe that Asian Americans need to tell our own stories, in our own voice, using our own talent both in front of and behind the camera. If we don’t do this we risk that others will tell our stories — and unfortunately for the most part they do only sporadically and often incorrectly.
“Kikan” is a period film set in the 1940s, so recreating that era and giving it a sense of authenticity was one of our biggest challenges. We’re lucky in San Francisco because many exteriors and buildings from that time still exist. The uniforms and weapons were also a priority and we were lucky enough to be outfitted by a local professional, who specializes in military costumes and equipment.
NBW: I know you’ve worked with some of the cast and crew before, but how did you bring them together?
KB: Because of the nature of the story, we felt it was important to use as many Japanese American actors and actresses as possible. And, we think our cast and crew reflects that idea. It runs the gamut of Nisei, Sansei, Yonsei, Gosei, Shin-Issei and Shin-Nisei performers, filmmakers and musicians.
I’ve worked with some of the actors before: Hiroshi Kashiwagi has been in three films, Chizu Omori has been in two and Ryan Takemiya has worked on an Internet series. We filled out the cast with other Nikkei actors — Kealoha Nakamura, Roji Oyama and Miyoko Sakatani. Our lone newcomer to acting is Ken Takeda, who lives in Japantown and brought a genuineness to his portrayal. His daughter, Himari, is a scene stealer. Ben Arikawa is our director of photography and Kealani Kitaura is our producer.
NBW: And how did you work on the dialogue and setting to make each shot appear and sound authentic?
KB: We felt it was important to capture somewhat realistically the idiom of the Issei and Nisei at that time. We benefitted tremendously because all of us for the most part grew up in a household that spoke some Japanese. So pronunciation wasn’t an issue; it was more what would we say and how would we say it. Miyoko, Roji, Chizu and Ken were extremely helpful when we had questions in this regard.
For example, we decided that the grandmother would only speak Japanese. The Issei parents would speak English with an accent. The Nisei speak Japanese with differing degrees of fluency but they would understand it for the most part. Interactions between Ken, Ryan and Wendy would be different than interactions between the members of the Ito family.
NBW: I noticed some very specific nods to San Francisco’s Japantown, like Maruwa and Yasukochi’s.
KB: Many of us grew up in Japantown and are familiar with its history and with its community institutions. Because part of the film is set in modern time, we made references to places such as the now-defunct Maruwa market, which was the predecessor to Nijiya. One of our characters also loves “crunch cake” — which is one of the signature treats at Yasukochi’s Sweet Stop. These places are iconic to Japantown and bring back many memories. So naturally, they become part of our story — and our film.
NBW: Finally, what is the message you want the audience to take away from this movie?
KB: It’s important to remember our past — both as individual families and as a community.
The world premiere of “Kikan – The Homecoming” (40 min.) will be held Sunday, Aug. 18 at New People Cinema, 1746 Post St., in San Francisco’s Japantown. Showtimes are at 2 and 4 p.m. with a Q-and-A session with cast and crew following the film. Tickets are $12 in advance or $15 at the door. A portion of the ticket sales will go toward the Nichi Bei Foundation. For tickets and information, visit https://ikeibifilms.com.