Violinist’s journey connects WWII incarceration with the present

From the inside of a former barrack at the Heart Mountain, Wyo. concentration camp, to the frozen landscape of Jerome, Arkansas, the rich, haunting sound of Kaoru Ishibashi’s violin resonates as he improvises movements and moments for his explorative album and documentary, “Omoiyari: A Song Film By Kishi Bashi” (2023, 74 min.). As he plays, he attempts to ingrain the viewers with omoiyari, which means empathy in Japanese, for those who have suffered in the past.

The documentary is set to play at the Nichi Bei Foundation’s 13th annual Films of Remembrance. The movie, starring Ishibashi, whose stage name is Kishi Bashi, follows the journey of the renowned violinist as he seeks to make music inspired by the people imprisoned in World War II Japanese American concentration camps, learn about the history of people of Japanese descent in the U.S. and explore his own identity as both a person of Japanese ancestry and an American. Ishibashi had the opportunity to visit multiple incarceration sites as well as speak to former inmates and their descendants.

“What I thought of the Japanese American population was that they were very American. They were Boy Scouts and they played baseball and spoke English, but (many) were actually immigrants,” Ishibashi said, recalling some of the conversations he had with former wartime inmates. “Many of them did not speak English. That was a very pivotal moment for me to understand that this was the incarceration of a civilian immigrant population. And I think that’s the message, that we can do that ever so quickly again.” 

Using archival footage and images from Densho, Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation, Mohai and multiple individuals, the film paints an elaborate history of Japanese immigrants in the U.S., from their journey here in the 19th century, to their imprisonment in camps during World War II. Ishibashi, who is a child of first generation Japanese immigrants, studied this history as a way to inform his own understanding of who he is in this country as someone who would likely have been incarcerated if he’d been alive in the West Coast or Hawai‘i in the 1940s.

“I went from being a timid observer to becoming way more comfortable with my own bicultural identity,” Ishibashi said, reminiscing on his upbringing in a mostly white area of Virginia to culturally Japanese parents. “I think that transformation (you) can kind of see in the film. I wanted to help viewers who are in a similar situation to feel camaraderie with me and to know that they are in a country that is actually more and more inclusive of this new kind of bicultural identity.”

By digging into these newfound feelings and reflecting on the plight of people of Japanese ancestry who were detained, Ishibashi was able to write a 33-song album with a mix of both produced and improvised songs. From the gentle picking intro of “Improvisation at Heart Mountain,” to the intense orchestral march of “War,” to the sparkly hum of “My Name is Kishi Bashi,” the artist encapsulates a broad spectrum of moods and memories from his journey of remembrance and self-identity. There were a few songs that he felt were standouts in the album. 

“The song that affected me the most personally was ‘Theme for Jerome,’ because up until that point, I hadn’t really incorporated any Japanese-style melodies into my music,” Ishibashi said. “It kind of exhibits my new enthusiasm (for) owning my identity in a musical way. It’s very relevant to me and the movie.”

As for the listeners and viewers of “Omoiyari,” there was one song that Ishibashi believes is really beloved to them.

“The song that I particularly enjoy playing, and a lot of people enjoy is called ‘Summer of ‘42.’ (It) has a beautiful orchestral beginning,” Ishibashi said. “‘Summer of ‘42’ has this epic, lush, feeling of (the) joy and excitement of new love. I really felt I could connect with somebody who’s a modern person (and) somebody back then, falling in love.”

Throughout the documentary, Ishibashi reflects on how his music can have an impact on the world we live in now. He became vocal in pushing for immigrant rights in the U.S., and seeks to affect the minds and hearts of the people who listen to him.

“I want people to cultivate empathy, especially if you’re not a minority person,” Ishibashi said. “And if you are a person in need and you do feel marginalized in this country, then I want you to feel empowered to know that this country is changing and that we are continuing to build more and more empathy.”

WHAT: “Omoiyari: A Song Film By Kishi Bashi” (2023, 74 min.) by Kaoru Ishibashi/Justin Taylor Smith
TIME: 7:15 p.m. Songs of Remembrance program

  • Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024 at AMC Kabuki 8 theater in San Francisco’s Japantown
  • Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024 San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin in San Jose’s Japantown
    SPECIAL PERFORMANCE: Kishi Bashi will be performing at both in-person events.
    VIRTUAL OPTION: There will also be a virtual option to watch the film From Feb. 24 through March 10. Kishi Bashi will not perform during the virtual showings.

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