Music documentary

“Omoiyari” combines music, documentary-style interviews and historical footage to explore former Japanese American incarceration sites

Omoiyari: A Song Film by Kishi Bashi (reviewed in IE here, scroll down) is a unique documentary that blends live musical performances, interviews, history and archival footage, centering on the legacy of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during the Second World War.

Co-directed by Kaoru Ishibashi (known professionally as composer and songwriter Kishi Bashi) and Justin Taylor Smith, the film is as much about the present as the past. In 2017, Ishibashi was commissioned to compose a multimedia piece about Executive Order 9066, inspiring a road trip in which he would improvise at the historic sites of former camps while filming Smith. An unexpected part of the journey was Ishibashi, the son of two post-war immigrants, coming to terms with his Japanese-American identity in new ways.

Just before the world premiere of Omoiyari At this year’s SXSW, the directors discussed the inspiration, the creative process, and what they hope audiences take away from the film.

Misa Shikuma: What were some of the challenges of shooting a film in which live performance is a key element? I am thinking in particular of this memorable scene where you play the violin in the middle of a field with mountains behind you.

Kaoru Ishibashi: We decided early on that we wanted this live component to blend into the score, so we had that in mind when I was playing. As this could be a song that plays when we talk about this matter. As a co-director but also a composer, I had carte blanche, as he didn’t comment on my compositions at the end, so it was great. I could just do whatever I wanted to blend the score with the live performance.

Justin Taylor-Smith: The idea for the film originated with K wanting to make improvisational music while being on incarceration-related sites. Like trying to channel what you could feel in a camp at the time, or just channeling the feelings of that space. Because there are very few camps left. So it just started him improvising music on the spot, and that became the basis for these different scenes.

MRS: I’m half-Japanese and grew up quite well in this part of the story, but I had never seen some of the archival footage from the film. How did these elements come into play?

KI: One of the families donated 16mm reels, so these are [being shown] for the first time. They are beautiful. Justin came down and met the family.

STC: His daughters got in touch with us through Densho. The story goes that he basically asked the manager of Heart Mountain – they had Sears catalogs to order things from – and was able to acquire an 8mm camera and film stock, and build a darkroom at Heart Mountain. And during 1942 – 1945 [he] made various small films. Some of them had been digitized before we got the reels, but several of them had never been seen before. So I flew to Fresno, took the reels back to Burbank to get them cleaned, and see them again for the first time in 4K because the original releases were really low, standard definition quality…

KI: In the pictures, everyone is smiling and it’s beautiful, and they have flowers and garden beds. Initially we were like, ‘How are we going to use this?’ Because we want to tell the horrible side of incarceration but, honestly, to see that kind of beauty and happiness exist in those camps…you realize that those people are trying to bring out the best in themselves at this time- there, and I think that’s really what our movie is about. We encourage people to see humanity, always, and be inspired by their courage.

STC: You can see the resilience of this community through these films. That, to me, was one of the most powerful parts of the movie.

MRS: It’s remarkable that he was able to film this, because I thought the cameras were contraband. But maybe he just had a good relationship with the headmaster.

KI: I think at that time they realized that [the Japanese] were not threats.

STC: And there are shots in these reels where there are white people sledding. There are clearly people from Cody, Wyoming who are also part of this community. It’s very revealing. Without words or audio, you can just see the progress.

KI:The other thing is that I’m sure they would have been censored if they were filming “bad” stuff or stuff that would project negatively onto [the camp].

MRS: Members of my family were in the camps, but growing up, I hardly ever heard of any of them talking about this experience. What was it like interviewing the people who were there?

KI: I think the people we interviewed were people who, from the start, spoke very loudly about it. And what we realized was that there was a generation of people who really didn’t want to talk about it. Especially people who have been incarcerated as adults. Your generation – third, fourth – and beyond have been taken out of the trauma and have been able to look back and start unpacking this stuff. Do you know where your family was incarcerated?

MRS: They were in Tule Lake, Amache and Poston.

KI: If they were adults during their incarceration, it was quite humiliating, I think. If you were a kid then and are now around 80, most of them actually have fond memories because they were just a bunch of kids running around.

STC: And then you have [people] like Erin Aoyama, in the movie, whose grandmother was at Heart Mountain. But during her grandmother’s lifetime, she never heard a story. They just called it “camp”. She didn’t even really question her own Japanese-American identity until she was in college. What we found was a huge generational gap between people who don’t talk about it and a very assimilated Japanese-American community who don’t talk about it. Well, they talk about it a bit, but not really.

MRS: You mentioned that one of the difficult parts of the film was focusing on a central narrative. What are some of the other subjects you’ve shot that didn’t make the final cut?

KI: My mother is from Okinawa, so part of my story is that we went to Okinawa to shoot. My grandmother remembers the Battle of Okinawa where a quarter of the civilian population perished, and she lost her sister. And I thought that was important because it showed the other side. We are the victors, so we have our perspective on what happened in WWII, but the Japanese were decimated. They were humiliated and they had to kind of internalize the defeat. And then, of course, Okinawans are persecuted by mainland Japanese, so I always thought that had its place. It was a 15 minute segment that was cut, but it made the movie tighter.

STC: We did an entire segment in the South, trying to connect it to what happened to African Americans in history as well. We started getting into all these different parallel stories and once you get into all of that, it’s like, ‘Well, why not get into what happened to the Indigenous peoples in North America?’ And then, ‘Oh my god, it’s a five-part series, a four-hour movie.’ It was really difficult. I spent a lot of time cutting [the Okinawa segment]. I really liked that scene, and I think it’s something that nobody really knows about at all.

MRS: Maybe this could be the sequel or the follow-up?

STC: It’s cut! It is totally edited and finished.

MRS: One of my favorite quotes from your dad in the movie is about how fun being a musician seems to be. When you were still trying to establish yourself as a musician, did they support you? Standard Asian parents are usually more like, “You should get an engineering degree.”

KI: It was never in my mind that I could be a professional musician, but I’ve always been into music. So I went to Cornell for two years as an engineering major and then dropped out. I was on school probation because I spent a lot of time playing with my band, so I transferred to a jazz school. I remember telling this guy, Andy – he was Asian American and played music too – that I was transferring to Berkley to play music and he was crying, ‘This is what I want to do but my parents won’t let me.” And I think he stayed at Cornell and was done. I’m really lucky to have parents who supported me.

MS: I get a weird sense of nostalgia now when I watch things that were shot before the pandemic, like the concert footage in the movie where you and your band are playing right in the center of the crowd. How did that affect you and the production?

STC: We literally shot our last scene for the movie in March 2020 in Wyoming and then came home, and I got COVID two weeks later. I guess that forced us to cut the movie.

KI: Honestly, we are really lucky. Because if we had finished the movie then, we would have had virtual premieres, which wouldn’t have been as exciting.

STC: There was always the feeling that we had to release the movie while Trump was still president because the media was so excited about immigration, detention, etc. We were trying to release it before but I think releasing it now was the right time.

MRS: Did you always have the concept of omoiyari (putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and acting accordingly) in mind while you were making the film, or did that come out as a theme in all the interviews, research, etc.

KI: When I was writing the orchestral piece [about EO 9066] I was trying to get to the bottom of all our problems in the world, and I think it’s that lack of empathy can cause unnecessary aggression and fear. So I was looking for a Japanese word, and it was quite early.

STC: We bought into the idea that without action you can have empathy, but empathy doesn’t really do anything unless you get involved and start talking about it and getting involved. Otherwise, you just like something on Instagram.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

For more arts click here