Myles Matsuno’s feature debut ‘Christmas in July’ premieres in theaters, streaming

“Christmas in July” writer-director Myles Matsuno. photo by Katelyn Adair

To understand Nikkei filmmaker Myles Matsuno and his debut feature-length film, “Christmas in July,” one needs only to look to Matsuno’s personal motto, passed on to him by his Issei great-grandfather, Ichiro Kataoka.

“Honesty and kindness are best in business.”

Long before the war, Kataoka ran the Aki Hotel in San Francisco’s Nihonmachi. In order to drum up business he would personally meet and greet newly arriving Issei immigrants at the pier, offered them his place to stay and helped them settle into their new lives in America. 

Matsuno’s late grandmother, Mary Matsuno, told him this story in his documentary short film, “First to Go: Story of the Kataoka Family,” which premiered at Nichi Bei Foundation’s Film of Remembrance in 2017 and went on to win numerous awards and nominations.

Mary Matsuno, daughter of Ichiro Kataoka, eventually became the owner of Aki Travel Service, a longtime Japantown business that served the community for decades after the war. 

Traditional Japanese values of honesty and kindness, as well as compassion, empathy, respecting one’s elders and a deep love of family have made a lasting impression on mixed-race Yonsei Myles Matsuno, a Los Angeles native with an extensive background in film and television. And by staying true to these core values and beliefs, his goal is to inspire others through his films. 

FADING MEMORIES — Sylvia (Bonnie Johnson), who is suffering from memory loss, in “Christmas in July.photo by
Jonathan Smith

Set in a small town in Tennessee, “Christmas in July” tells the story of a grandson (Reiley McClendon) who wants to throw his ailing grandmother Sylvia (Bonnie Johnson) a special, last Christmas party for her in July when he knows she will be gone by August due to Alzheimer’s and a heart problem. Along the way, Daniel also deals with family dysfunction, a loss of life and inspiration, a family reconciliation and a budding romance. 

The film, which opened in theaters nationwide on July 16, is not a Japanese American story, nor does it feature any Japanese American or Asian American characters. But it delivers a heartwarming and universal message of love, compassion and family — and is full of kimochi (feeling) and kokoro (heart) — all because of who Matsuno is, and his deep roots in San Francisco’s Nihonmachi.

“I think it’s really important to stay true to your vision,” says Matsuno, on a YouTube video posted on his Matsuno Media Website. “Not by what culture or the media or anyone else is trying to say to you. Because it comes down to the way you see life. That’s what I love and that’s why I direct.”

Maintaining this laser focus on his vision and values is important due to the fact that the majority of the mainstream films out there today are heavy on special effects and non-stop action, and light on family-friendly, faith-based values.

Because of this, “Christmas in July” could be seen as “old-fashioned,” and a throw-back to another era when Americans, especially those in middle America, respected their elders and knew their neighbors well enough to ask them for a favor (as Daniel does in the film). It was a time when honesty and kindness mattered. 

In this sense, perhaps Matsuno — the film’s writer, director and executive producer — is offering up this movie to middle America and Americans in general as a reminder of who we used to be, and to inspire us to be that way again. 

At the end of the film, Grandma Sylvia reflects back on her life and her Christmas in July. “That was one Christmas I got not because of the calendar, but because of the people I love. Because of my family. And that’s the thing that makes it Christmas: Family. No matter what time of year it is.” 

“Christmas in July,” which opened in select theaters on July 16, was released through digital outlets Apple TV, Amazon, Fandango and Google TV on July 20. For more information, visit the movie site at https://facebook.com/christmasinjulyfilm.

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