Yuki Kokubo: Reconciling Home in KASAMAYAKI – Momoko Allard
In 2012, I interviewed Yuki Kokubo about her photography and video work in sites of environmental change in various countries, and about a new documentary project about her parents and their life in a rural artistic community roughly 90 miles from Fukushima, the location of the nuclear disaster caused by the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in March 2011. Her film, KASAMAYAKI (Made in Kasama), premiered at DOC NYC last November, and was also shown this spring in Oregon at the Ashland Independent Film Festival and in Greece at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. KASAMAYAKI follows Yuki’s travels back to her childhood home and her process of reconnecting with her parents and re-exploring the history that led to her family’s split between the U.S. and Japan. Here, we catch up on her experience of bringing the film to completion and release.
Momoko Allard: First, a big congratulations on your film’s premiere at DOC NYC and its other festival screenings. I have to say that the sample reel that I saw back in 2012 was beautiful and touching, but watching the finished film now in its entirety really blew me away to a whole different level. The film maintains an incredible minimalism and lightness, while pulling together the very heavy and complex elements of the 2011 disaster and your family’s personal history.
After the long and laborious process of making the film, how does it feel to be attending festivals and presenting KASAMAYAKI to audiences?
Yuki Kokubo: The entire process of making KASAMAYAKI has been incredibly rewarding and healing.
From early on, I decided to utilize this time and film project as a vehicle for self-exploration. Not only did I want this film to help me learn about my roots, in terms of family and country; I wanted to find out what kind of filmmaker I am. The creative process was such a great time of self-reflection and learning what is inside of myself. The resulting film is a sketch of the emotional landscape I feel around “family” and “home.”
As a first-time filmmaker, at times I felt completely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work it takes to complete a film. Beyond the creative parts, there are so many things that I had to learn about like post-production, marketing, and film festivals. I was very fortunate to have institutional support, including grants from the Jerome Foundation and New York State Council on the Arts, and a yearlong fellowship from the IFP Independent Filmmaker Labs.
KASAMAYAKI premiered at DOC NYC in November of 2014. Leading up to the screening, I felt a mixture of elation for having finally finished the film and absolute terror for sharing such an intimate view of my family – including all of our dysfunctions for everyone to see. Despite my fears, the response has been deeply moving.
KASAMAYAKI has screened at three festivals so far, and has gotten some nice press. But the most rewarding responses for me have been when a viewer makes a personal, emotional connection to the film. I think that every family has their own brand of dysfunction, and for my family to put everything out there in the open makes people feel relieved that they are not alone in having difficult family relationships.
Most importantly, this film has brought me closer to my parents. I am deeply grateful for the second chance my family had to spend time together and get to know each other better.
MA: Have your parents been able to travel to any of the festival screenings?
YK: Unfortunately, my parents have not traveled to any of the screenings. My mother’s health declined shortly after I finished filming, so she has not been able to travel. They did watch the film at home and are incredibly proud of me. Given how brutally honest I was about our problems, I was a little shocked at their positive response. But that too, is another great thing that I have come to learn about my parents. They believe that I made a great work of art, so they don’t let their self-consciousness get in the way. I think that’s wonderful.
MA: I’m sorry to hear that your mother hasn’t been doing as well. I want to ask you more about how it was working with you parents, but first, to back up, tell me about the shooting time-frame. When we last spoke at the beginning of 2012, you had already done shooting during two trips, and were planning another trip for that spring. Were you able to complete shooting over those three trips? At first glance, the film seems to continually revolve around spring, with your arrival just as it’s starting to warm up, and other moments like the scene of cherry blossoms near the end. How were you thinking about the seasons as you were filming?
YK: I shot the film over the course of three separate trips. The first trip was in June of 2011, three months after the disasters. Scenes of my arrival, and visiting the disaster zone were from that trip. My second trip was over New Year’s. Winter landscapes with bare branches, and the interview of my father sitting at the potter’s wheel were shot during that trip. The longest trip was in spring, about a year after the disasters. I filmed the craft festival and concentrated on shooting signs of spring like the cherry blossoms. Spring signifies renewal and resiliency, which we needed in order to heal from the disasters and our family’s painful past.
MA: Your parents’ comfort and honesty in front of the camera is really amazing. How did you set up the camera and sound recording to capture so much? Did you ask your parents to wear mics? How did you handle the most emotional moments?
YK: My parents were incredibly accommodating and agreed to wear wireless microphones almost every day. Each morning, I set up the camera on a tripod with fresh batteries and memory cards. Some days, I didn’t shoot anything. Other days, I shot b-roll when I saw something I liked. When I had something that I wanted to talk to my parents about, I typically set up the camera next to me. There were many emotional moments, like when we talked about why they left me in the U.S. Sometimes it was difficult to hear their answers (especially my mother’s) but I kept the camera rolling. In retrospect, I was really glad that I did. Reviewing the footage later, I was not caught in the heat of the moment and this allowed me to see things more objectively. I think that experience gave me a deeper understanding and acceptance of my parents as people, and allowed me to let go of some of the anger I had been holding onto for so long.
MA: Through the film, it becomes noticeable that your voice is often heard but usually from outside of the camera frame, and we almost never see you. In a few scenes, we see your reflection in a glass or mirror. How did you come to this positioning of yourself?
YK: When I went back to Japan after the disasters, I really wanted to capture my parents on video. The sudden loss of so many lives made me realize that I could have lost them, too. It made me acutely aware that none of us live forever. Since they had not been in my life for so long, I wanted to create a record of their lives for myself to keep. But there was also a feeling that I no longer belonged there with them, in Japan. I felt somewhat like an outsider, which contributed to my decision not to include myself visually in a lot of the scenes. Most of the shots where you see my reflection in the mirror occurred accidentally but it works metaphorically, because I am there but not really – it represents the tension I feel of belonging and being an outsider.
MA: That’s really interesting to hear. For me, the way the camera represents your perspective – how it’s positioned next to you during conversations and in front of you in reflections – makes your presence in the film feel very intimate, though maybe that’s different from the question of belonging.
Did your sense of belonging, or of being an outsider, shift at all through the process of making this film?
YK: Making the film allowed me to get a glimpse into what my life could have been like, had I returned to Japan with my parents. Not having spent much time in Kasama since childhood, I had always been curious to really see how my parents live. My visits before the disasters were few and far between and very brief, so I didn’t understand their lifestyle. The few months I spent there while making the film let me see more clearly what it means to live in close proximity to nature, and to have a lifestyle that’s dependent on making things. As I gradually became reacquainted with my parents, the glaring feeling of being a total outsider began to fade. But at the end of the day, I took a close look at myself and realized that so much time had passed, I had chosen another country as a home, and Kasama was a place of my past.
MA: At the screenings in New York, Oregon and Greece, how have audiences taken in the ‘foreign’ aspects of the film?
YK: At each of the festivals where KASAMAYAKI screened, the audiences have made comments about the film’s Japanese aesthetic. My mother was actually one of the first to make a comment about the Japanese aesthetic of my work, when she saw my photography several years ago. It continues to surprise me since I have not been exposed to a lot of traditional Japanese art. According to my mom, it runs in my blood and it’s something that can’t be erased even if I live abroad.
MA: Can you describe some of the elements of your aesthetic that your mother and others have noticed as Japanese?
YK: As a photographer, I’ve always been drawn to landscapes and capturing the essence or emotion of the place. I also like to include as much of the space that I can, so I tend to shoot wide-angle. Often times the point of focus is not in the center, but along the edges of the frame. For example, one of my mother’s favorite photographs of mine is an image of a swamp in Louisiana. Rather then framing the trees in the center, the focus is the reflection of the trees in the water, which is in the lower half of the frame. My mother says the quietness of my images reminds her of hanga – traditional Japanese wood block prints.
In shooting KASAMAYAKI, I often set up wide shots and let the story unfold naturally over time. I also utilize a lot of symbols in nature as visual metaphors. For example, during a scene of a very tense argument, I intercut the conversation with images of fire. A sad moment in the story is reflected in raindrops falling from the eaves of an overhang, and cherry blossoms signify new beginnings. During the editing process, it came naturally to use images that made me feel certain ways. Some have commented that that style of storytelling is very Japanese.
MA: Have you had, or will you have, a chance to show KASAMAYAKI to Japanese audiences?
YK: There were many Japanese and Japanese-Americans at the DOC NYC screening. I think because the story touches on the duality of my Japanese-American experience, it resonates with Japanese people living abroad. I’m currently working with US-based Japan Societies to set up screenings later this year. In terms of showing in Japan, I’m currently waiting to hear back from festivals so please keep your fingers crossed!
MA: Absolutely, keep us updated!
How has the recovery from the disasters been in Kasama and surrounding regions since the period of time shown in the film? Has there been reconstruction in the seaside areas where you shot? Are Kasama residents still concerned about radiation?
YK: The immediate area surrounding Kasama have pretty much recovered. The seaside town near us has been completely repaired and rebuilt. Radiation level readings aren’t being performed as frequently as before, and I expect the contaminants have dissipated and become less detectable. But the families that moved away after the nuclear disasters have not returned, and wild boar hunting is still banned because boars eat wild vegetation and the meat is highly contaminated. People aren’t talking about it as much, but I think it’s probably always on their minds.
MA: Landscape and environmental damage have been ongoing threads in your work, going back to your photographs and videos documenting areas such as coastal Louisiana and the Gowanus Canal in New York. Do you plan to continue working on stories that carry these concerns? Have any new thematic directions emerged from working on KASAMAYAKI? As the work of getting this film out into the world starts to ease, what kind of new projects are you looking forward to?
YK: When I began studying Social Documentary Film at SVA in 2010, I went into the program with the sole intention of working on environmental video projects. KASAMAYAKI sort of “happened” to me, and it was a film I had to make, but I probably will not continue to make personal documentaries after this. I still work with the Environmental Defense Fund from time to time, and I’m always looking for new environmental projects to become involved in. In terms of my next film, I’m currently researching for a film on a group of people who have ancient traditions that tie them very closely to the earth. In our modern age, humans have forgotten that we are part of the natural system, and I’m fascinated by cultures that have preserved their relationship to nature. I believe environmental issues and people’s relationship to nature will continue to be themes in my future work.
MA: And a last question – what insight can you offer artists who might be working in other media but are considering the fairly big jump to filmmaking, especially feature length? Can you share any hard-earned wisdom?
YK: Making a film is an amazing experience. It is fun, creative, difficult, and very rewarding. Making your first film is always going to be a steep learning curve, and depending on your project, it’s going to require different lessons. I would stress getting support from the beginning – in terms of fellowships, grants, and collaborators who have experience. Set a loose timeline, but allow for flexibility. Making a film is hard, and sometimes things just take longer to edit or you may need to wait for a grant to come in. Join a community, where you can ask colleagues for advice and feedback. Although technically, not many people worked on my film, there are countless good people who gave me feedback and encouragement along the way. Lastly, be true to your vision, whatever that may be.
Yuki Kokubo is a documentary filmmaker and photographer based in New York City. With a background in fine art photography, Yuki studied Social Documentary Film at the School of Visual Arts in 2010-11. Since then, she has worked as a filmmaker, photographer and associate producer with organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation. KASAMAYAKI (Made in Kasama) is Yuki’s first feature-length film, and was made with support from the Jerome Foundation, New York Council on the Arts, and IFP’s Independent Filmmaker Labs.
Momoko Allard is an artist working in drawing, photography and other pictorial mediums. Her art and research interests all relate to understanding how visual representation is used in its many social and cultural contexts. She manages the Feminist Media Studio at Concordia University in Montreal.