A few years ago, my aunt mentioned she once regularly attended church, but had lately fallen out of the habit. The church was on the other side of San Diego, about twenty minutes away. But her friends, her Nisei Christian community, had been slowly fading away with ill health and death. I offered to take her to the local church and yet when the day came, she wasn’t ready mentally to both enter a new community and let go of the one she once knew. In time, we all are haunted by the places we once knew and the people as we once knew them. In writer-director Christopher Makota Yogi’s second feature film, “I Was a Simple Man,” a Japanese American man is nearing the end of his life and he revisits his past. This is a thoughtful, but ultimately unsuccessful cinematic contemplation on death and how memories of the past can sometimes obscure the reality of today.
In the pre-screening introduction, Yogi said the film was “born out of my love for Hawaii.” Set on the island of Oahu, the film begins in the present as an elderly Japanese American man, Masao (Steve Iwamoto), and his friend look out at the clean white hotels, offices and other harshly impersonal buildings dominate what once had been green flora. The paradise of Honolulu has been gentrified. A friend loans him money because it’s the only reason Masao ever calls him. Masao learns that he has terminal cancer and, despite admonitions, refuses to give up smoking.
Masao exists in the same world as the titular character of Yogi’s first film, “August at Akiko’s.” Akiko, a spiritual Buddhist woman, senses that Masao is unwell and near death and attempts to counsel him on facing death (Akiko is a character from Yogi’s 2018 “August at Akiko’s”).
Masao remembers what the Hawaii of his youth was like and the Chinese American woman, Grace (Constance Wu), that he defied his family to marry. His parents and siblings returned to Japan before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and they all died during World War II, buried in Kamakura.
Grace died young, leaving the widower Masao with three kids: Henry, Mark and Kati. Masao left his kids with relatives and continued on by himself. Masao now mistakes people in his current life with people from his past. He sees Grace as she was before she died and remembers how they were then. Grace serves as a guide, reminding him of what was and what will come. When he revisits their days of courtship, she reminds him that to marry her, “You’ll run away from home never speak to them again” and “the community outcasts you.” After the war, she remembers how he was angrier than before and he often left her alone to raise the kids while he was out drinking and gambling.
While Yogi does give us the context of World War II and Hawaii’s statehood, we are told and not shown that Masao is marginalized. We don’t know why there was a problem between the Chinese and Japanese populations, and for those who might think that all East Asians look alike and not be able to differentiate between the countries or cultures beyond, perhaps, the cuisine, this might seem mysterious. The historical context isn’t acknowledged nor are the aspects of his ostracization shown.
I’ve visited Oahu where my uncle lives, but my husband was born and raised there. His father is Japanese and his mother is Chinese. When they married, my husband tells me, it caused ripples of discord between the two families and two communities. Yet the decades have eased the prejudices and the barriers are less evident. We’ve both had relatives who have died or sometimes seem to be revisiting the past while turning their backs on the present, increasingly lost in a maze of memories. My aunt was forgetful, but she was determined to live out her life in her home where she died in 2017. She did attend a memorial service before she passed away, but she did not want a memorial or service. Most of her friends has pre-deceased her (and the funeral home botched things). Did she wonder who would be left attend?
Neither of my husband nor I felt that “I Was a Simple Man” managed to capture the spirit of Oahu or reach out and touch our hearts with the warmth and melancholy of loss in the absence of those with shared feelings and experiences. In the shadow of COVID-19, we all live with constant reminders of our mortality. “I Was a Simple Man” provides a hopeful message of family caring for family as death approaches and reuniting with those who have gone before, but the film has a stillness that does not lead us to deep waters even though that seems to be the intent.
“I Was a Simple Man” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on 29 January 2021.