Ken Ochiai’s American Film Institute (AFI) master’s thesis film is just 21 minutes in duration. Yet every second of those 21 minutes of celluloid is so engaging that it seems much longer.
Half Kenneth is the tale of two young hapa brothers who run away from the Manzanar War Relocation Camp in search of their white mother. After his Japanese father dies in camp, the oldest boy decides to find his mother rather than be banished to an orphanage. Although he attempts his secret mission alone, his younger brother insists on tagging along—tossing a monkey wrench into his well-laid plans.
Starring Oscar-winning actor Chris Tashima and long-time luminary Sab Shimono, and executive produced by Yoko Ono Lennon, Half Kenneth is being developed into a full-length feature film. Its grim depiction of camp life in 1945 is both authentic and dismal.
Check out the trailer then, read what Ken Ochiai has to say, following. That’s him in the pix below directing his young actor. A shot of the film poster is above, with another of the real life brothers as actors right here:
Q: What’s a nice Japanese guy like you doing making movies in America?
A: I was born and raised in Tokyo. As soon as I graduated from high school, I went to NYU for summer school then transferred to Santa Monica Community College. I wanted to transfer to USC or NYU, but NYU films have a little more of an artistic message and my taste is more like Hollywood movies. I transferred to USC as an undergrad where I learned a general sense of filmmaking and shot a lot of my friends’ movies.
I started making movies at 12, in Japan, with a junior high school classmate. Since then I’ve been making movies, but USC was the first time I learned how to make movies.
Q: How do your parents feel about your career choice?
A: My father is a businessman who didn’t really want me to become a film director. The Asian style is that you don’t want your kids to become artists because being a film director in Japan is not considered a job. He even told me that it’s like being a gambler.
My parents agreed that if I got a master's degree at one of the top schools, and if I didn’t make director, maybe I could teach. So I made a promise when I was 16 that after I graduated from USC, I would look for a specific directing program.
At AFI, I learned the craft of directing, like how to communicate your vision to each department, what to say to actors, composers, and the cinematographer. To have a clear a vision is most important. You also have to communicate with your crew members.
Q: You speak English very well!
A: I studied English in junior high school in Japan, but when I first came here I didn’t speak English at all and, it was hard for me to direct people.
My first couple of years here, I tried not to make friends with Japanese and tried to use Japanese as little as possible. I tried to watch movies in English, read books and write in English, and forced myself to dream in English. Then, I made a lot of friends and asked them to correct my English if I said something weird or funny--you know, FOBish English.
NYU had a gym, and I had played high school basketball so I was able to make friends even though I didn’t speak English. Playing sports can be one of the tools for communicating with people. Because I was able to communicate through basketball, I started realizing filmmaking is my way of expressing myself.
I speak very SoCal English. I started with thinking in English then, talking to myself in English, and I started dreaming in English. I did a lot of shadowing. While driving in traffic, I repeated what the radio said, in the car so no one would have to listen to me.
Q: How did you get Yoko Ono Lennon to executive produce Half Kenneth?
A: We don’t really talk about her too much because she kind of wanted us to not use her name, because then it becomes Yoko Ono’s Half Kenneth instead of our Half Kenneth. There’s a long story about her involvement. It’s kind of a myth or a secret. Basically, long-story-short, our producer, Maya Kanehara, knew Yoko’s manager so we were able to send letters and a proposal.
Q: Your two young actors are really hapa. Was it hard to cast their roles?
A: We had a casting director, Yumi Takata, who was a casting associate for Letters from Iwo Jima. She knew a lot of kids that were mixed race, but was not able to find anyone who was Japanese Caucasian mixed.
Maya had a casting team put up advertising in all the Japanese markets. One was very well known to hapa kids in L.A. basketball leagues. Two weeks before production, we got a phone call from a mother who saw that advertisement. She sent us an email with pictures of her boys. Avery and Hunter looked exactly as we imagined for their parts.
I told them to bring a suitcase to the audition, and asked them to pack as if they were going to Manzanar. They packed very memorable stuff, and that’s when I decided we should go with those boys. It was the first time they ever acted, and they gave us an amazing performance.
Q: Both Chris Tashima and Sab Shimono are recognizable names. How did you convince them to be a part of an independent short?
A: They were actually very, very generous. I knew Chris since his short film Day of Independence. I was a production assistant for one day. I didn’t really get to talk to him, but I had a contact. I wrote a very passionate letter.
Chris said he wanted to meet at a coffee shop. We talked and he said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’ Sab was actually in a camp when he was four, and he knows all the details. He added so many layers to the story. That’s why I cast him, and I also used his voice in the beginning to explain what happened in the camps.
Q: In the bonus scenes where you’re shown on set, you appear to be very meticulous. What’s your directing style?
A: Sometimes I feel like I micromanage things too much. But I don’t know how can I describe my directing style. Directors I admire and whom I grew up watching their films include Steven Spielberg, David Lynch, Alexander Payne, Akira Kurosawa and Ozu.
It all comes down to a story that has the theme of a bond between people. It could be family or it could be friendship. This bond that they didn’t have in the beginning of the film, but through their experience we see they create this bond. That’s the kind of movie I like to direct.
But it’s true. I’m a little too meticulous about certain things, and spend a lot of time with crew members to see what exactly is going to be on screen.
Q: Half Kenneth is your AFI master’s project. When will it be a full-length feature?
A: I’m currently developing the feature film with my friend from USC. We are hoping that we can finish the first draft some time early next year. We co-wrote it as a short.
There are 28 films and 26 directors at AFI. Two directors get to do two thesis films. I was fortunate to get a second thesis film (the first was Lucky Lotus). I pitched Half Kenneth to producer Maya Kanehara who also wanted to do a story about a Japanese American internment camp. I came up with three stories and this was one that she liked.
There are some studios that want to read the script. But there are so many unsold scripts in this town that we don’t know what’s going to happen. Because the short won awards and got a lot of attention, the feature may get made some time next year.
We did sell the worldwide distribution rights for five years, and distribute to lot of places right now. But we haven’t found a way to sell the DVD’s in the U.S.
Q: There’s a poignant scene in the film where mourners place paper cranes on the father’s grave. Can you explain it?
A: We researched a lot of Japanese American books and interviewed camp survivors. The Japanese phrase shikata ga nai means ‘nothing can be done about it’. Even though it has a somewhat negative connotation, I take it as a positive attitude.
Some things you can’t do anything about. War was created. Japan has a lot of natural disasters. A lot of people accept those things, and make the best out of them.
People in the camps were suffering, but they tried to make a garden. Because they didn’t have flowers, they tried to make things out of things. The boys don’t have a father and their mother is gone, but they have each other. They did something about it together.
Domo arigato gozaimasu, Ken-san! We’re all looking forward to seeing more of your brilliant work. It’s especially encouraging for us mixies to be able to see real multiracial actors playing us. That’s been a controversial element of moviemaking now that more writers and directors are exploring the subject.
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