‘Visionary’ artist and activist Miyamoto’s life of ‘groundbreaking cultural work’ screens in SF, LA

GROUNDBREAKING ­— ‘NOBUKO MIYAMOTO: A SONG IN MOVEMENT’ is a sweeping documentary that follows the life of visionary artist-activist Nobuko Miyamoto and her work that changed Asian America forever. photo by Mike Murase

At the beginning of the documentary film about her life, Nobuko Miyamoto, looking a bit shy and self-conscious, smiles at the camera and says, “I’m Nobuko Miyamoto. What else do you want to know?”

In “Nobuko Miyamoto: A Song in Movement,” a sweeping documentary about her life as a visionary artist and activist, we immediately see that Miyamoto is neither shy nor self-conscious, but has lived a life full of passion, art, dance and groundbreaking cultural work that has united communities, and set the bar for Asian American storytelling.

Co-directed by Quyen Nguyen-Le and Tadashi Nakamura, this loving tribute features rare archival footage covering her childhood to present day as she reflects on a life that has bridged coasts (New York and LA), industries, families and history — and in the process, changed Asian America forever.

The hour-long film opens with the legendary John Lennon introducing Miyamoto (then known as “JoAnn”) and musician/singer Chris Iijima on the “Mike Douglas Show” in the late 1960s. “They’re beautiful singers and they have a story to tell,” says Lennon.

Before singing, Miyamoto says not many people know about the story of Asians in America, and this is a song that tells “the plight of our people.” She and Iijima then sing, “We are the Children,” which would become an anthem for the Asian American Movement, and turned out to be Miyamoto and Iijima’s signature song.

“We are the children of the migrant worker,” they sing. “We are the offspring of the concentration camps. Sons and daughters of the railroad builder, who leave their stamp on America.”

Prior to this moment, though, we learn that Miyamoto was taken at age two along with her family to Santa Anita and then Manzanar in 1942, where they would spend three years during World War II. After camp, she remembers listening to her father’s records on the family’s record player, and she would dance to the music.

Seeing this, her mother enrolled her in a dance class in East LA, and her life as a dancer had begun. She would go on to pursue dance at a Hollywood professional school which led her to audition and get parts in Hollywood films such as “The King and I” (1956), “Les Girls” (1957) and “West Side Story” (1961).

At the time, she was dancing and working with the “best of the best” dancers and choreographers in the world. But it was during a stage production of the musical, “Flower Drum Song” when Miyamoto began to feel uncomfortable being on stage with a group of Asian American women singing the song, “Chop Suey.”

“I looked out at the audience, and we were this ‘chop suey,’ this Chinese food for White people,” she said. And so she dropped out of the show, walked away from show business and ended up as a nightclub singer in Seattle.

With protests against the Vietnam War raging around her, she became connected with the Black Panther Party, which opened her up to a new world. Soon, she would question what she was doing in Seattle, and ended up moving to New York, where she met Nisei activist Yuri Kochiyama and was introduced to Asian Americans for Action. It was there she met Iijima, and her life in the Asian American Movement began.

At the time, Asian Americans didn’t have their own music or songs, and that’s when Miyamoto, along with Iijima, found their purpose: To write songs for Asian Americans by Asian Americans.

And with Miyamoto and Iijima, Asian Americans suddenly had a voice, and a way to express themselves through songs in ways they couldn’t do in words. Miyamoto would go on to start Great Leap, her performing arts nonprofit in Los Angeles, and for more than 30 years she would teach, create and give others a space to be who they are, and be proud. Miyamoto did all this as a strong Japanese American woman, an artist, a wife and mother, a sister and auntie, and now, a community elder.

At the end of the film, Nguyen-Le and Nakamura bring her life full circle as we once again see her singing “We are the Children,” except now, it’s 54 years later at a special concert held last year in San Francisco. Although no longer young, she is still vibrant and full of life, and in her voice you can hear the joy, the ups and downs and the love that only a life-well lived can bring.

“Sing your song, sing it,” she sings. “We’ve got a song to sing.”

VC Film Fest will screen “120,000 Lumens” (13 minutes) by Scott Oshima and “Nobuko Miyamoto: A Life In Movements,” directed by Quyên Nguyen-Le and Tadashi Nakamura May 4 at the Aratani Theatre at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center at 244 S San Pedro St. in L.A.’s Little Tokyo at 6 p.m. For more information or tickets, $22.05 (includes online fee), visit https://festival.vcmedia.org/2024/movies/nobuko-miyamoto-a-song-in-movement/.

CAAMFest will screen the film May 11 at 5:05 p.m. at the SFMOMA Phyllis Wattis Theater. For more information or tickets, general $15, or senior/student/person with disability- $13, visit https://caamfest.com/2024/movies/nobuko-miyamoto-a-song-in-movement/.

 

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Correction

In the April 25, 2024 issue of the Nichi Bei News, the article entitled “‘Visionary’ artist and activist Miyamoto’s life of ‘groundbreaking cultural work’ screens in SF, LA” erroneously referred to the film on Nobuko Miyamoto as “Nobuko Miyamoto: A Life in Movements.” It is “Nobuko Miyamoto: A Song in Movement.”

The Nichi Bei News regrets any inconvenience it may have caused. To contact the Nichi Bei News about an error, please e-mail news@nichibeiweekly.org, write to P.O. Box 15693, San Francisco, CA 94115 or call (415) 673-1009

One response to “‘Visionary’ artist and activist Miyamoto’s life of ‘groundbreaking cultural work’ screens in SF, LA”

  1. Susie Yamamoto-Barton Avatar
    Susie Yamamoto-Barton

    I really want to see this. Will it be shown online?

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