Four short films take artistic look at camp

Four short films at the 11th annual Films of Remembrance will highlight filmmakers’ artistic interpretations of the wartime experience of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Under the Artistic Interpretations Shorts Program, the Nichi Bei Foundation will present “Hanami” (4 min., 2021) by Lisa Maeda; “An Uninterrupted View of the Sea” (15 min., 2020) by Mika Yatsuhashi; “Sansei Granddaughters Journey” (28 min., 2020) by Ellen Bepp, Kathy Fujii-Oka, Na Omi Judy Shintani, Reiko Fujii and Shari Arai Deboer; and “Sincerely Miné Okubo” (13 min., 2021) by Yuka Murakami.

The women-made short films each take a unique approach to illustrate how art can be used to process what some 120,000 people of Japanese descent in the United States suffered during the 1940s.

“Sincerely Miné Okubo.” courtesy of Yuka Murakami.

Among the films, Murakami’s short documentary on Okubo is the most orthodox presentation. Murakami retraces the life of the renown author of “Citizen 13660,” the first Japanese American account of the concentration camp experience published in 1946. Murakami, who works at the Japanese American National Museum’s Watase Media Arts Center, made the short documentary to play at the museum’s current ongoing exhibit: “Miné Okubo’s Masterpiece: The Art of Citizen 13660.” The film covers Murakami’s research into the late artist’s life before, during and after the wartime incarceration.

“She was this extremely prolific artist that worked before and after the war, and ‘Citizen 13660,’ although she’s most well-known for it, her art … covers way more styles and influences than just the war period,” Murakami told the Nichi Bei Weekly over the phone. “In talking with Kristen (Hayashi), the curator, we both felt that the short film should also cover more of her life.”

Murakami, who helped produce the “Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese Experience” (2019) documentary, had previously worked on documentaries through her job, but said the Okubo film was one of the first projects she headed and completed. Although made during the COVID-19 pandemic, Murakami said she lucked out, having spent part of the time producing the documentary in New York, where Okubo had lived during the latter half of her life. While the pandemic barred her from interviewing some sources due to their age and health, she said she gathered plenty of material.

“I wanted it to be longer, because obviously she made so many works. We couldn’t get everything in,” she said. “So, of course, I hope for the piece to also spark some interest in people to research or look that up on their own time as well.”

“Sansei Granddaughters Journey.” courtesy of Ellen Bepp, Kathy Fujii-Oka, Na Omi Judy Shintani, Reiko Fujii and Shari Arai Deboer

While Okubo’s film examines the life of an artist, the other three short films examine the incarceration through an artist’s lens. “Sansei Granddaughters Journey” follows five Sansei artists attending the 2018 Manzanar Pilgrimage. Four artists, all members of the San Francisco-based Asian American Women Artists Association, answered Shintani’s call to go to the annual pilgrimage together.

“I had heard about another artist that was doing some art at the pilgrimage, and I thought it was such a great idea, I decided to ask a few other people if they were interested in doing something at Manzanar, and I had never been to Manzanar before, so I was really interested in seeing that camp,” Shintani told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

As the artists planned to conduct a paper lantern lighting, a land acknowledgment and a prayer to ancestors during their visit, Fujii offered to record the process using her work in video media. She eventually brought on a video editor to help record and edit the film.

“We wanted to do several things, we wanted to document our journey, and then we wanted to advertise the Manzanar Pilgrimage, that this happens every year,” Fujii said. “You can read all you want about somebody else and what happened, but when you start feeling what they felt, like I would sometimes put myself in my family situation of being out in the desert, … that’s when it hits you.”

As the artists met, Bepp, who is known both for her work as a visual artist and a performing artist, proposed conducting a ritual during the pilgrimage. Inspired by a Native American ceremony and a kendo kata that both honor the directions, Bepp developed a performance piece central to the film. Doing the ritual at dawn in the California desert made Fujii think about what her family might have felt at the time.

“I was thinking, ‘Wow, they were there living there, and I don’t know if they could have really appreciated the mountains, the beautiful mountains in the background or could they appreciate being outdoors, because they had to live there, and they had to live through the storms in the winter, the heat in the summer,” she said. “I just got to be there for one morning and so I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is so beautiful,’ but I think living there forcibly, it really changes the way you see things. I remember asking my aunt, … ‘Did you really appreciate how beautiful these mountains are?’ Because they had snow on them, and she said, ‘No, I didn’t really notice them.’”

“Hanami.” courtesy of Lisa Maeda

Two Yonsei also interpreted the historical injustices Japanese Americans faced during the war. Maeda’s “Hanami” portrays the story of Ema Yamamoto, a young girl in camp using art to escape the harsh realities of incarceration. Maeda, who is from Kansas with extended family in Michigan, based the character design of Ema on her grandmother, who was sent to camp as a child.

“What I really wanted to highlight in ‘Hanami’ was the idea of embracing your identity despite persecution,” Maeda said. “I’m a Yonsei, my dad is a Sansei and he’s had a really difficult time connecting with his culture because of what my grandparents experienced. So the general message of this film is, what we went through … what the community went through, is really devastating, but the most beautiful thing about what we can take from that experience, is continuing to hold on to our identity and continuing to persevere.”

Maeda said she took inspiration from Delphine Hirasuna’s book “The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps 1942-1946,” a collection of arts and crafts made by Japanese Americans during camp. She published her film as her senior film project at Savannah College of Art and Design Atlanta.

Despite the ostensibly Japanese American story, Maeda said a core group of 15 or so fellow classmates and artists of diverse backgrounds joined her to make the film.

“This is something that a lot of students were able to relate to, because their families might have gone through a similar thing or are going through a similar thing right now,” she said.

“An Uninterrupted View of the Sea.” courtesy of Mika Yatsuhashi

Finally, in “An Uninterrupted View of the Sea,” Yatsuhashi focuses on her family’s wartime experience through her great-grandfather, who lived on the East Coast during the war.

Yatsuhashi, originally from the Washington, D.C.-area and now based in Montreal, Canada, made the film during her final year at Concordia University in Montreal.

The film combines documents Yatsuhashi found from the FBI about her great-grandfather, the vice president of the Yamanaka Trading Company, as well as photos her family donated to the Freer and Sackler Archives at the Smithsonian Institute and Super 8mm film her father uncovered from their home.

“I knew I really wanted to challenge myself, and I also didn’t want to rely on any sort of talking head, traditional documentary tactics,” she said. The film is largely told through the contrast of sterile documents Yatsuhashi collected with the family vacation photos she found. “This was how it presented itself to me, through the text and the images. It just didn’t make sense. That’s what I wanted the film to be. I wanted the film to be how I uncovered all this information.”

Yatsuhashi said the research for her film “rocked (her) world” and changed her perception of what it means to be an American. She observed how her great-grandfather, a well-to-do businessman on the East Coast with children who attended Harvard, could be the target of racist suspicions during World War II.

“It just really changed the way I thought about what it means to be an American and … how it’s important to remember … how quickly that can be taken away, and how arbitrary it is,” she said. “I think it’s important to remember because the targeted group just changes every 10 years and it’s been happening for like the entirety of American history, and it has affected me and my family personally. … It was a pretty angry film, angry filmmaking process.”

The Artistic Interpretations Shorts Program will be accessible from Saturday, Feb. 26 at 11 a.m. PT through Sunday, March 13. An online discussion of the films will be held Feb. 26 at 12:15 p.m. Tickets are $15 or $50 for an all-access pass. For more information visit: www.filmsofremembrance.org.

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