For those familiar with “camp” films, much of the archival footage and photos in the documentary song film “Omoiyari” are not new, but what make this new work absolutely unique is how musician Kishi Bashi uses his violin to express his heartfelt emotions in an empty field at Heart Mountain — as he learns the camp story for the first time.
The artist’s Website defines omoiyari as “A Japanese word that means to have sympathy and compassion towards another person.”
Released by MTV Documentary Films and directed by Justin Taylor Smith and Kaoru Ishibashi, “A Song Film by Kishi Bashi: Omoiyari” had its theatrical release on Oct. 6 in Los Angeles and New York. It is Kishi Bashi’s quest to create music in locations relevant to the Japanese American incarceration. Along the way, he comes to terms with his identity and uncovers a myriad of social issues that relate to what’s happening today.
With violin in hand, Kishi Bashi journeys across the country to various incarceration sites, and narrates the camp history in his own voice. Throughout his journey, we see what he sees at places such as Heart Mountain, Wyo., Jerome in Arkansas and Bainbridge Island in Washington state, and we hear the stories from former inmates.
But instead of telling us how he feels, he lets his music do his talking.
Kaoru Ishibashi, 47, aka Kishi Bashi, was born in Seattle, but raised in Virginia, where his Japanese parents taught at Old Dominion University. As the only Asian kid in class, he was called “Cow-Doo” and quickly changed his name to “K.” As “K,” he grew up thinking he was white.
He started to play the violin at seven, and eventually studied film scoring at Berklee College of Music in Boston before becoming a renown violinist.
“Kishi Bashi is a well-known artist in the Indie music sphere,” wrote one reviewer.
“His blend of classical, folk and rock is unlike anything I’ve heard.”
In his mid-40s, Ishibashi began to fear for his safety as Asian American hate was rising, and got a little too close to home when eight Asian women were killed at a 2021 shooting in Atlanta, near his home in Athens.
On TV, media reports about anti-Asian hate would sometimes mention the Japanese American incarceration. He heard about camp in high school, but since he didn’t grow up in a Japanese American community, he knew little about it.
But current events provided a wake-up call: “Had I lived over 75 years ago, that would have been me locked up. For the first time in my life, I felt like I needed to speak up. But I wouldn’t call myself an activist. Then it hit me: I can write songs.”
That’s when Ishibashi hit the road. To write songs about the Japanese American incarceration, he needed to immerse himself in places where it happened. He needed to talk to survivors, to hear their stories and listen to their trauma with “omoiyari” — compassion and empathy.
During the journey, “serious identity issues” emerge within Ishibashi. “I can’t figure out if I’m American or Japanese or both,” he said. Somehow, he wanted to find that space in between.
His journey continues to Japan, where he visits his father’s ancestral home. In Japan, he thanks his parents for instilling pride in his Japanese heritage. But back home, he was forced to suppress this pride in the name of assimilation — like many Japanese Americans did before him.
“It was a big lie,” he says. When you lose your language and culture, he added, “You lose your soul.”
As the story progresses, the soul within Ishibashi arises as he stands in that field at Heart Mountain and plays from somewhere deep inside. The music is intense and heartfelt; there is pain and suffering and hope, and Japanese and American influences as well.
As his journey ends, he stands at Heart Mountain all alone and sings out loud, over and over again: “I’m in love with you.”
One can only guess, but it felt like he was singing to his family, his newly found JA community, and in the end, himself.
A community screening of “Omoiyari” will take place Nov. 8 at 7:30 p.m. at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., in San Francisco. A conversation and live set by Kishi Bashi performing the album in its entirety, accompanied with a string quartet, will follow. For tickets ($29.50-$149.50), go to https://www.bandsintown.com/e/104687962.
Nichi Bei News contributing writer Soji Kashiwagi writes from Pasadena, Calif. A native of San Francisco, Soji has been the executive director/playwright of the Los Angeles-based Grateful Crane Ensemble since 2001. His plays and other written works focus on the telling of the Japanese American story.