‘Léonie’ lost in Migration to the U.S.

“Léonie” is a mild-mannered autobiography of the mother of Isamu Noguchi and apparently something was lost during its migration from Japan, where it first screened in 2010.

The website says that this is “the true life story of Léonie Gilmour” and director Hisako Matsui was inspired by Masayo Duus’ “The Life of Isamu Noguchi.” Matsui read the book seven years before the movie came out and that was 14 drafts later (co-written with David Wiener). The movie was shot on location in the J.S. and Japan, but not specifically on the locations that might have since changed. The Pasadena scenes were filmed in the Santa Ynex Valley in 2009.

Emily Mortimer plays the title character.  Léonie is old and she is telling her story to her son, Isamu Noguchi. Noguchi is already a sculptor of renown. Léonie remembers when she was a student at Bryn Mawr and we see her disputing what a male professor has to tell the all-female class in 1892. This scene is meant to introduce the woman who will become her best friend, Catherine (Christina Hendricks) and establish that Léonie is strong-willed and doesn’t want to be disappointed by boring people. What isn’t explained is why she was self-destructive.  At Bryn Mawr, she also meets Umeko Tsuda (Mieko Harada), a woman determined to change the status of women in Japan.

From the Pennsylvania-based Bryn Mawr, Léonie ends up in New York where she applies for a job and meets the charming and forward Yone Noguchi (Shido Nakamura). She is hired to help him write and eventually together they publish a novel “The American Diary of a Japanese Girl” and become lovers. The chemistry between Mortimer and Shido Nakamura isn’t particularly convincing. Oddly, he and the other Japanese men are always well-coiffed–not a hair out of place, but Mortimer’s Léonie seems to have an eternal bad-hair day.Their affair is carried out in a well-furnished clean apartment. No rats. No cockroaches. If I could find an apartment like that in New York now, I’d be happy.

Yone has supposedly in his heart married Léonie. Now, you’ve probably raised your eyebrow at this thought. A simple scribble on a piece of paper isn’t enough to make it legal. It’s enough for our Léonie. Soon Léonie finds herself pregnant and alone. To avoid being much too interesting, she flees to her mother (Mary Kay Place) who lives alone in a tent Pasadena. This is 1904. The whole of Pasadena seems to be just dirt, wood wagons and tents. That might be the image of the wild west, but looking online, Pasadena seems to have been a little bit more civilized than that.

According to the book, “The Life of Isamu Noguchi,” Noguchi was actually born in a charity hospital for the poor (Los Angeles County Hospital) on 17 November 1904. Because Leonie registered herself as “Mrs. Yone Noguchi” the Los Angeles Herald ran a story on the child with the title “Yone Noguchi’s Babe Pride of Hospital: White Wife of Author Presents Husband with Son.”

By 1905 the 1872 California state law forbidding marriages between “negroes” and “mulattoes” with whites added “Mongolians.” Léonie and her mother moved to Pasadena after Leonie left the hospital. Pasadena had ten thousand residents.

Léonie is offended by the racism that her son faces and in 1907 goes to Japan where she again meets her “husband” but finds he has already taken a Japanese wife. Isamu who has been nameless because Léonie wanted Yone to name the child, gets the name Isamu, meaning courage.

Léonie gets on by teaching English to students her husband has found for her. She will leave the house Yone has found her and move on to and in 1912, she’ll have her own house built in Chigasaki (Kanagawa prefecture). She allows her son to plan the house. He’s ten. From the workers, he learns how to Japanese carpentry which is good because his mother doesn’t require that her wild boy to attend school. Mothers everywhere are cringing here.

As if Léonie hasn’t learned her lesson yet, she is again pregnant to a father whom she won’t name (but we do get a suggestion here) . This time she has a daughter, Ailes Gilmour.

Here is where the problem lies. According to Wikipedia, the original movie was concerned with both Isamu and Ailes. Isamu became a famous artist and in his adopted home of New York City, there’s a museum dedicated to him. Ailes Gilmour became a major figure in the American Modern Dance movement. Léonie somehow raised her two children to become special people, but the focus in this movie as it has been substantially re-edited according to Wikipedia is Isamu Noguchi.

There’s much, much more to this story. The movie takes us to Noguchi’s move back to the United States for education in 1981 and see his decision to leave pre-med studies for art in 1920 when his mother and half-sister had joined him in New York. Where the movie doesn’t go is into the psychological realm and examine Léonie’s emotional canvas or the way events sculpted Noguchi’s creativity and chipped away at his place in either culture.

The book notes that Noguchi was disappointed that his New York friends “spoke up against the relocation of the Japanese-Americans.” Noguchi knew of eight Japanese artist in New York City and urged them to work in relocation camps, but only Noguchi was willing to do so. entered a Japanese American internment camp, notably Poston where many San Diego and Southern California Japanese American’s were interned. Yet he didn’t feel these were his people and the experience “knocked out my sense of social responsibility” he wrote to a friend. He left and never returned and this left some bitterness on the side of the internees.

By 1942, when the internment began, Léonie has died. She died in New York of a pneumonia in 1933.

What’s disappointing is this movie doesn’t tell us more about Léonie and almost completely ignores Ailes. For a movie about a woman who forged a sometimes foolhardy independent life as a single mother, this re-edit focuses on the woman behind the man who would become Isamu Noguchi and not the woman who encouraged both her daughter and son into creative fields where they both made noteworthy contributions. Yet even with Isamu, the movie doesn’t venture to chip away at the stone to develop a personal interpretation of one of America’s great artists. “Léonie” is currently playing at Laemmle’s Playhouse 7.

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