The Megumi Nishikura Story: Filming the distant dance of multiracial Japanese identity


BALLET AND BROADWAY — The late multiracial ballerina Sono Osato is the subject of Brooklyn, New York-based filmmaker Megumi Nishikura’s next feature documentary. photo by Carl Van Vecten

Filmmaker Megumi Nishikura Stephan Schmidt

To many in Japan, Megumi Nishikura doesn’t look like a Megumi.

“People would assume that I was fully Japanese and when I would go meet them in-person they would do a double take,” Nishikura said. “They would be shocked that I look like I do and speak as well as I do, and when I would hand out my business card people would just stare at my name … look at me and stare back at my name.”

Nishikura, born to an Irish American mother and a Japanese father in Tokyo in 1980, recalled her experience as a multiracial Japanese filmmaker in Japan in 2006. After spending the last 11 years of her life living and studying in the United States, Nishikura returned to her city of birth at the age of 26 to pursue a Rotary Peace Fellowship at the International Christian University in Tokyo. 

Returning to Japan as an adult, Nishikura was confronted by the “constant and exhausting” experience of being hafu, or half Japanese. She simultaneously began to notice how many international couples with children there were in Tokyo. 

“Despite seeing a physical change in demographics there wasn’t enough representation in their experiences, but this has been changing since I made the film (‘Hafu: The Mixed-Race Experience in Japan’),” Nishikura said. 

The film was released in 2013 after Nishikura and Lara Perez Takagi, another multiracial filmmaker, spent three years documenting the experiences of five ethnically half-Japanese individuals living in Japan. The idea, Nishikura said, was to make visible the lived experiences of multiracial Japanese individuals and to answer the questions; “What does it mean to be hafu” and “What does it mean to be Japanese?”

“The response was phenomenal,” Nishikura said. “People felt like they hadn’t seen themselves represented on the big screen before, and I just feel like there are so many more multiracial Japanese stories to be told. Whenever possible it’s the kind of story that I want to tell.” 

After about a year of touring and screening “Hafu” in Japan, Nishikura moved to New York and began working as a producer and director for Blue Chalk Media, a documentary video production company. In 2015, she produced the documentary short film “Fall Seven Times, Get Up Eight,” which followed the stories of three Japanese “war brides” from World War II, this time addressing the question, “What does it mean to be Japanese/Japanese American?”

While working on the film, Nishikura recognized that even within the Japanese American community there were mixed perceptions on whether these women who married American men and moved to the U.S. to start a new life during the 1950s were truly Japanese American. 

Nishikura recalled that many of the daughters of the women depicted in the film expressed their frustrations around society’s lack of recognition of their parents’ experiences, especially when compared to the visibility of the Japanese American wartime incarceration experience. 

BALLET AND BROADWAY — The late multiracial ballerina Sono Osato is the subject of Brooklyn, New York-based filmmaker Megumi Nishikura’s next feature documentary. photo by Carl Van Vecten

For Nishikura, recognition and representation matters. In 2017, the same year Hollywood whitewashed the Japanese science fiction “Ghost in the Shell,” Nishikura met long-time researcher Cindy Nakashima for coffee to discuss heroine Sono Osato.

Born in Omaha, Neb. Aug. 29, 1919, Osato was an Asian American ballet dancer. Like Nishikura herself, Osato was multiracial, her father being a Japanese immigrant and her mother, Irish-French Canadian.

Having toured with the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo and made her way onto the Broadway productions of “One Touch of Venus” and “On the Town,” Osato faced challenges both personally and professionally during World War II while trying to break into Hollywood as a multiracial Asian American woman. 

“Dancers at that time were trying to transition into Hollywood and there weren’t a lot of roles for Asians in Hollywood. When she did receive parts, she mainly played seductresses. I think ultimately she got tired of how hard it was,” Nishikura said. “Still, she continued to be involved in dance.”

Since receiving Osato’s autobiography, “Distant Dances,” from Nakashima, Nishikura has spent the last few years interviewing Osato’s family members, poring over boxes of photographs and letters and working with Nakashima and Phil Chan, the associate producer of the forthcoming film, “Sono.” 

Sono Osato. photo by Shoji Osato

They are working to highlight the life and contributions of the multiracial figure through a feature length documentary film. 

“Growing up, there were very few role models for mutiracial Japanese. I just want to give them a role model to look up to. I want them to embrace all of who they are if they want to,” Nishikura said. “They shouldn’t feel like they have to hold back or deny some part of themselves because they couldn’t be both or had to choose one side. Hopefully, people feel empowered by the people they’ve seen in my films.”

“Sono,” which Nishikura said was originally slated for a 2022 release, has slowed its production due to the COVID-19 safety restrictions. 

Still, Nishikura is determined to see the film through to completion, and to ensure that Osato’s, and countless others’ stories are told. 

To learn more about Nishikura and her work, visit her Website


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