Welcome back to Watermelon Sushi World where we share our multicultural stories. If you’ve got a tale you’d like to communicate, please contact us at email@example.com
This week’s Hip Hapa Homee is filmmaker Aaron Woolfolk, in the photo here directing actors Bennet Guillory and Danny Glover in his latest film The Harimaya Bridge. The photo at the end of the blog is a scene from the film. Check out the trailer below for a glimpse of this drama about an African American man who travels to Japan where his son has died.
Q: What’s a nice African American California guy like you doing making a film about cross-cultural issues in Japan?
A: Over the course of the production there were days when I would ask myself that very question. I guess it goes back to me going to Japan on the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program after I got out of college. Then, I returned to the U.S. and went to graduate film school. At that time, I started to think about how I could establish a career as a filmmaker and what could make me stand out. I had loved my experience in Japan. And, it was still very much a part of my life. I was often going back to visit. So, I thought that, film-wise, maybe I could do something concerning Japan.
I started thinking about and writing The Harimaya Bridge in film school. But I knew I had to show that me, one day, making a feature film in rural Japan wasn’t a crazy idea. So for my thesis project I wrote and directed two short films in Japan: the comedy Eki (The Station) and the drama Kuroi Hitsuji (Black Sheep). Those shorts were very successful in terms of exposure and awards, and that started me on my way.
Also, I was born and raised in Oakland, California. Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco were my stomping grounds growing up. That’s a very multicultural environment. In college at the University of California at Berkeley, one of my majors was Ethnic Studies. So this kind of stuff has always been a part of my life.
Q: You taught English in rural Japan—not a big city like Tokyo. Were people there accepting of you as a black American?
A: On the JET Program I was placed in Kochi Prefecture, which is a very rural place. I lived in a town of 30,000 people. I taught in schools in really remote towns and villages. This was back in the early 90’s, and for 99% of the people there I was the first black person they had ever seen in the flesh. It was quite an experience--being the focus of everyone all the time. The reaction you’d get simply by walking down the street; literally causing traffic accidents because a driver can’t believe what it is he’s seeing—you--so much so that, while he’s staring, he forgets his car is still in motion. Stuff like that.
Peoples’ reaction to me being black was interesting. I’d often get comments like, “You must be a fantastic dancer”, “You must be really good in basketball”, or “Show me your best slam dunk”. I’d walk into a club with friends and the place would literally stop--just completely stop--because everyone expected me to get on the dance floor and perform a miracle. Or, I’d have junior high school basketball coaches that had been coaching for years who assumed that I could teach their students more about the game than they could. A lot of things I just had to laugh at.
But here’s the thing: Most of the people saying and doing such things didn’t mean to insult me. They had no context for their words and actions doing so. They were simply going by images of blacks that had been imported to Japan by western media for decades. I always kept this in mind. And, I figured that my presence there was an opportunity to break down those kinds of stereotypes. And indeed, most people were very kind, helpful, and really happy to have me around. Sure, there were some knuckleheads, but there are people like that everywhere. Overall, it was a wonderful experience. I loved it. And I made so many friends. A lot of them remain among my closest friends to this day.
Q: How much did being fluent in Japanese help in making The Harimaya Bridge?
A: Thankfully hardly any because my Japanese is horrible! I can definitely get around, and I can have easy conversations with people in social settings. But when it comes to doing business, forget it. Too risky. And on the set, things were moving so fast, and the Japanese was being spoken so fast, it was difficult for me to keep up. I used some Japanese. But there were also translators to help bridge the communication gap, and it went fine.
I think what ultimately made The Harimaya Bridge happen was a combination of several things, among them: 1) my passion for the project and never giving up on it over the years, 2) people loving the script, 3) my short films, 4) Danny Glover being attached as an actor and executive producer, 5) a lot of the people on board, including producer Ko Mori and executive producer Naoshi Yoda, 6) my long relationship with Japan, and 7) my attitude towards Japan. That last point, I can’t stress enough how important that is. The head of the studio that provided most of the film’s financing told me he really liked the respect I had towards Japan, its people, history, culture, etc. And he liked how it showed in the script. Actually, I’d gone into writing the script wanting to avoid stuff you commonly find in western movies about non-western places--subtle, and many times not-so-subtle, messages about supremacy of western values, culture, religion, methods, etc. I’ve always hated that kind of imperial arrogance in movies, in foreign policy, and in the practices of some foreigners I’ve encountered in Japan and other places. So I wanted The Harimaya Bridge to avoid that. People in the movie industry there recognized that, and it definitely made a difference in them getting behind the film and me as the director. It’s not that I was pandering or anything. People who know me will tell you that is how I’ve always looked at the world. So, the folks in Japan appreciated my attitude and how it showed up in my work.
Q: Just from viewing the trailer, it appears your film has a strong Japanese sensibility.
A: From the very beginnings of this project I was inspired by the pastoral Japanese films I saw when I first got into international cinema as a youth. Movies like Kurosawa’s Ikiru (To Live) and Ozu’s Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story). I love those films. They changed me as a person. So, for me, The Harimaya Bridge has always been a kind of homage to them.
I also had in mind that I was making a film for a Japanese audience as well as an American one. I’d actually experimented with this--playing to dual audiences--when I made my short films Eki and Kuroi Hitsuji. I wanted to make a film in which American audiences would recognize elements of what they’re used to in American movies, and in which Japanese audiences would recognize elements that they’re used to in Japanese movies.
And, it’s funny. The Harimaya Bridge had a nationwide theatrical release in Japan during the summer and, prior to its opening, I spent five weeks traveling the country doing press, attending preview screenings, doing promotional events, etc. There was a lot of love for the film. Several people said they couldn’t believe it was written and directed by someone who isn’t Japanese. A lot of critics said, “Wow, you made a Japanese film!” Many people--both moviegoers and journalists--said to me some variation of, “You’re an American, but you must have a Japanese soul.” And, a lot of people thanked me for making a film that shows Japanese as real, normal, everyday people and not the usual stereotypes they see from Hollywood movies. I also got quite a few people saying how refreshing it was to see such a drama with African American characters. Such comments always brought a smile to my face. So I’m really glad I took the approach towards making the film that I did.
Q: You include scenes with statues of Sakamoto Ryoma, an important Japanese historical figure. How much do you know about Japanese culture and history?
A: Sakamoto Ryoma was a samurai who sought to overthrow Japan’s feudal system and was assassinated in Kyoto in 1867. I think Ryoma was really cool. All the things he did, and the lasting impact he had on a nation by his death at age 32! Hell, when I was 32...
But my knowledge of him is due to my connection to Kochi Prefecture. Ryoma was born and raised in Kochi, so he is a huge point of pride for the people there. Being in Kochi, you can’t help but learn about him and his historical role in Japan. His image is everywhere. Everyone wants to tell you his story. Everyone refers to him by his given name—Ryoma--as if they personally knew him. He’s just so ingrained in the soul and spirit of Kochi. And, there is the famous statue of him at Katsurahama Beach, which appears in the film. Actually, several images of him appear throughout The Harimaya Bridge beginning with the opening credits. It’s said that the men in Kochi aspire to be like Ryoma and the women in Kochi seek a man like Ryoma. Actually, he’s popular all over Japan...one of the country’s more beloved historical figures.
As for me being knowledgeable about Japan, I always tell people that I most certainly am not an expert on Japan or anything like that. For me to think I am would be delusional on my part and an insult to folks in Japan. Rather, I think I’ve spent enough time there that I have a perspective on Japan, one that I hoped folks there would be interested in seeing. Kind of like how many of my favorite movies about America and American life are by non-American filmmakers who have spent enough time here to have a legitimate perspective on the U.S.
Q: What was it like having both Japanese and African American cast members on the set? Were there any obvious clashes in acting methods due to cultural differences?
A: It was wonderful! There was so much sharing and give-and-take over the course of the production. Here you had two groups of actors who came from two different acting traditions, and two different approaches to the craft. There was a lot of curiosity and discussion. “How do actors do such-and-such in Japan?” “Why don’t actors do such-and-such in America?” It was really fascinating to see. There were some clashes in acting methods, but it wasn’t really disruptive. We just worked it out. And in the end, things came together beautifully.
There are some deep issues that are addressed in The Harimaya Bridge. It was interesting talking to the actors about them. I’d usually start the discussions, and then I’d go silent and let the actors talk to each other. There was a lot of honesty and sharing and frank talk. And then they’d use that and put it into their performances. There was also a lot of fun, a lot of laughter.
Lead actor Ben Guillory told me it was the best professional experience of his career. And he’s been doing this for nearly 40 years. So when he told me that, I was like, “Wow!”
Q: Does Danny Glover speak Japanese in the film?
A: He doesn’t because his character does not need to speak it, although we did bring him over to Japan to shoot scenes there. He really loved it, and the people loved him. The cast and crew taught him a few words and phrases in Japanese. People in Kochi were thrilled by that. Danny’s a really kind person who enjoys giving people a good memory. Now there are several folks in rural Japan with photos who say to anyone who will listen, “That’s me with Danny Glover. He said hello to me in Japanese.”
Q: Will you be making more films in Japan?
A: I definitely want to make American movies. In fact, the project I’m working on now is set in the U.S. in the deep south. At the same time, I’ve always had a deep love and reverence for international cinema. It was always a dream of mine to be a filmmaker who could make movies in America and overseas. As it turned out, I ended up living and working in Japan, and that led to me having an ongoing relationship with that country. And that led to me being able to make my first feature film. I’d love to make more films in Japan in the future. But I always remind myself that it’s one thing to make a single feature film, as difficult as that is. But it’s something else altogether to make a career out of this. So, at this point I’m not really thinking so much about, “How many films can I make in Japan as opposed to America?” Right now I’m just focused on trying to get a second film off the ground.
Arigato gozaimashita, Aaron. Okay, Hip Hapa Homeez, while The Harimaya Bridge recently ended its theatrical run in Japan, it will be released on DVD there on December 11. And, for those of you stateside, the film is currently on the film festival circuit and will be released theatrically in the United States next spring. If you’re on Oahu, check out the screening October 16 and19 at HIFF. And, if you’re in SoCal, go to the San Diego Asian Film Festival for screenings on October 24 and 26.
Speaking of Afros and Asians together, here’s a shout-out to Sky Obercam, co-founder of Visual Culture blog, and editor of Clutch Magazine, for sending this timely link about a blasian couple—Gabrielle Union and John Cho on a TV series. She calls it bumblebee lovin’:
Until next week, here are the usual messages from our sponsors:
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In multi-culti solidarity, I am,
Your Hip Hapa,