CAAMFest serves up sweet memories with ‘Benkyodo’

HOW SWEET IT IS ­— Ricky Okamura, eryn kimura, Bobby Okamura, Akira Boch, Tadashi Nakamura and Iliana Garcia. photo by William Lee

HOW SWEET IT IS ­— Ricky Okamura, eryn kimura, Bobby Okamura, Akira Boch, Tadashi Nakamura and Iliana Garcia.
photo by William Lee

Though the line did not extend around the block like the final days of the iconic Japanese confectionery, a crowd of guests lined up May 12 for Benkyodo, San Francisco’s now defunct manju shop in Japantown. However, instead of glutinous mochi, the crowd at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California was waiting to attend the world premiere of “Benkyodo: The Last Manju Shop in J-Town.”

The film, premiering at the 41st annual CAAMFest, captures the final six months of the 115-year-old business started in 1906. It was the last original business of San Francisco’s Japantown and run by its third-generation owners, the Okamura brothers. The film premiere invited the brothers, as well as their extended family and former staff, to watch the 15-minute documentary short in an event that took three times the run-time to celebrate them and the film makers. The event also included Consul General of Japan in San Francisco Yasushi Noguchi conferring a consul general’s award by his predecessor Hiroshi Kawamura to Ricky and Bobby Okamura.

“This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Center, and our theme is ‘celebrating generations.’ So it’s fitting that we’re here in Japantown to honor the three generation family-owned business for its dedication to our Japanese culture and community,” Lori Matoba, deputy director of the culture center and the Okamura brothers’ cousin, said.

“For many in the community, Benkyodo was the place where you came in with your grandparents to pick up manju or New Year’s mochi, where you read the paper, and had that long two-hour cup of coffee. If you worked in J-Town, it was the place to grab lunch, where the news of weddings, memorials, births were all shared. Benkyodo was a comfortable and welcoming place for all, and now, it’s a place of fond memories.”

The film is the brainchild of Japantown local, artist and “auntie” eryn kimura, who worked with Emmy Award-winning filmmakers and co-directors Akira Boch and Tadashi Nakamura. Ricky Okamura, the elder brother, said he allowed cameras to come into his shop because of kimura.

“Well, around two years ago, eryn’s dad, Lowell Kimura, who’s a good friend of mine, said to me, ‘Hey Rick, would you mind if eryn came by and filmed you making manju?’

And I said, ‘Well, give me a minute to think about it.’ And then I said, ‘Yeah, she could come by’ because she’s a very smart girl. Her personality is out of sight. And she knows my moods. That’s why I said, ‘Yeah, anytime for eryn,’” Ricky Okamura said.

“It’s true eryn, many times before, we get requests for people who want to come over, film and watch us make mochi in the back, and we always said, declining, ‘Sorry, this is kind of a family thing.’ But when eryn’s name came up, we said ‘absolutely.’ We can’t turn her down,” Bobby Okamura added.

That access gave the filmmakers a candid view of the cramped backroom where the brothers made countless confections over the years, allowing them to capture many intimate or funny moments, as well as poignant ones, which could not have been captured in a sit-down interview.

“Whenever she was around, just going into the shop with her, open the door and then they immediately trusted us too,” Boch told the Nichi Bei News. “There was a certain simpatico, and so I felt like they started to trust us pretty quickly. And then with the trust, they were starting to open up and reveal a little bit more over the course of time.”
Boch characterized the brothers’ banter to the Nichi Bei News as a “comedy routine,” as seen on stage during the premiere.

When San Francisco Chronicle podcast host Cecilia Lei, moderator for the evening’s discussion, asked them what they missed most about going to work every morning, Ricky Okamura said he missed his brother.

“I miss seeing Bob every morning, because we work across from each other, and I look at his face, and I say, ‘Damn you ugly.’”
Bobby Okamura said he missed the customers he had befriended over the years.

“Sorry we had to close, but we had to do it. Sorry, but we miss the customers,” Bobby Okamura said.

“That was the most Japanese American thing I’ve ever heard,” kimura butted in. “‘I’m so sorry for retiring, I wanted to look after my life.’ That was great. I just enjoyed it, I just wanted you to know that.”

kimura said she had never made a documentary film before, but it was important for her to capture the final moments of Benkyodo. While they were happy that “Uncle Bob and Uncle Rick” no longer have to wake up at 3 a.m. every day, kimura said they were also thinking about the closure of Uoki Sakai, the other century-long establishment of Japantown, which closed in 2011.

“I almost feel like a roaming and hungry ghost, wandering the San Francisco streets that no longer feel like me, no longer feel like home. All of these shuttered buildings, these closed doors, kicking myself because I was unable to remember what the name of that dim sum restaurant used to be,” kimura said. “Every day, it feels like we lose another place, everyday, it feels like we lose more people. And so with that goes our connection to our memories, our people’s place. So I would be damned if Benkyodo went down like that.”

Nakamura and Boch agreed with that sentiment, and so did many others, it seemed, as word spread about Benkyodo’s impending closure across the state.

“I think when a lot of media started publicizing that you announced you were gonna close — I mean, we’re down in L.A. and I think about five different people (were) texting me,” Nakamura said. “Process-wise, Akira and eryn, we had hired a lot of local filmmakers to help shoot, … It was really easy to produce, because all we had to do was ask once and multiple people jumped on board, which really shows how much love the community, both from L.A. and all around the country, really has for the shop.”

While the short documentary offers an homage to Benkyodo, the filmmakers’ work also entailed collecting hours of footage to be saved for posterity. Despite the Okamura brothers calling their mochi-making process a “family secret,” it is now preserved for future generations.

“The secret has been recorded. We have the process of every single manju that they’ve made recorded, so if the world ends, but there’s a few survivors, they’ll be able to watch this video and revive the tradition,” Boch joked.

“I’m at the age where I don’t take anything for granted. So even tonight, we’re having someone document this,” Nakamura added, pointing to a cameraman in the audience. “I think just the documentation of the raw footage is actually probably gonna be the most valuable.”

While the store that sold “confections that win affections” closed in March of last year, San Francisco’s affection for the shop and its owners seemed to not have waned and the filmmakers hope to share their film with audiences both inside and out of the community.

“I think this screening sold out in like four or five days,” Nakamura said. “So hopefully, we want to do another screening for all the people who weren’t able to make it tonight. Also wanted to, definitely want to do a screening in Oakland, East Bay, San Jose.”

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