“Omoiyari: A Songfilm by Kishi Bashi” is a musical investigation, a. contemplation about what it means to be a US citizen, particularly one that isn’t easily recognized as belonging to this country. I supposed because the film is about Kishi Bashi and his inspiration for musical composition that the first hurdle an audience must clear is totally subjective: Do you like Kishi Bashi’s music? You’ll have to make that decision from the beginning.
A man plucks the strings of his violin in a cold shorn golden field with ice capped mountains in the distance. This sounds more like a koto than a fiddle or a classical violin. Although he begins to play with his bow, we leave the field behind. The scene changes to a different time. It’s 1988 and then-President Ronald Reagan is addressingCongress.
This was 10 August 1988 for the signing ceremony for the Japanese American Internment Compensation Bill (HR442):
We gather here today to right a grave wrong. More than 40 years ago, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a hundred and twenty thousand persons of Japanese ancestry living in the United States were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in makeshift internment camps. This action was taken without trial without jury. This action was based solely on race.
Flashing back to the field, using a VoiceOver, the audience is asked: “What does it mean to be American? How do we know that we belong? Can we look a little different?” The fields were barley and the mountains are Heart Mountain.
Although the scene switches to the present-day, with musicians setting up electrical equipment, the soundtrack conversely takes us back to the 1940s with a Cole Porter song, “Don’t Fence Me in.”
Interspersed with the preparations, we see and hear news clips. While speaking to Megyn Kelly for her Fox News show in November 2016, Carl Higbie, author of “Enemies, Foreign and Domestic” suggests the possibility of internment camps, saying, “I’m just saying precedent for it.” Later, in another clip, we hear Donald Trump say, “What I’m doing is no different than FDR.”
In time, we get to the man with the violin on stage. His hair is bleach on the uplifted tips in a modified mohawk. His music isn’t classical, and, clad in a tan jacket with a dapper bowtie, he plays a electric violin accompanied by other instruments. Off-stage, in Athens, Georgia, he sleeps, he plays piano. Songs sometimes come to him out of nowhere. He’s at a good place in his career and he tells us, he’s always been a proud American. In 2016, he began to hear hate speech. As a non-confrontational person, he had never delved deeply into the racism that plunged thousands of Japanese Americans into uncertainty, erasing their names and making them numbers and, without a trial, putting them behind barbed wire.
In December of 2017, musician Kishi Bashi started a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to help fund a film that this year made its world premiere at South by Southwest. Born Kaoru Ishibashi, Ishibashi was born in Seattle, Washington and raised Virginia). His mother is from Okinawa; His father from Mie prefecture on Honshu. Ishibashi is Japanese American without any familial links to the internment camps that a previous generation endured. With the internment camp issue being raised,
For the newer generations of Japanese Americans, ones who first reached the US after World War II, the narrative of the internment camp may seem distant and be a source of disconnection from the main dialogue of Japanese American history. Ishibashi comes from two very different Japanese cultural backgrounds. Mie prefecture is in the Kansai area, where the old capital, Nara, and the newer capital, Kyoto are. But the oldest and holiest site for the native Japanese religion Shinto, is in Mie. The Ise Grand Shrine (伊勢神宮) is a beautiful and peaceful site, sometimes called “the soul of Japan.”
Okinawa, however, was part of the Ryukyu Kingdom. The country actively traded with Japan, China, the Philippines and Thailand. In 1606, it came until the control of the Tokugawa shogunate. With the end of the shogunate, the Ryukyu Kingdom became officially Okinawa prefecture in 1879. Kishi Bashi’s parents were both professors at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.
While the Okinawa and Kansai cultures are different, his parents kept some common traditions alive at home. At school, in his classes, Kishi Bashi recalls that he associated primarily with the White people. He felt detached from the Japanese American community which is easy to understand. The current demographics for Norfolk are 46.97 percent White, 41.15 percent Black or African American and 3.69 percent Asian. Unlike many Sansei, Yonsei and Gosei, Kishi Bashi understands Japanese and has been to Japan. He feels both Japanese and American. His situation was more like the Nisei who came of age in the 1940s. What ties both the Okinawa, Kansai and Japanese American cultures–both new and old–together are some resonating values such as the concept of omoiyari.
What is omoiyari? Kishi Bashi defines it was “the idea of creating compassion toward other people by thinking about them.” That feeling is behind the group consciousness or collective identity found in some East Asian cultures where games make focus on group cooperation to win rather than competition between individuals or teams.
Kishi Bashi studied film scoring at the Berkeley College of Music. He’s known mostly as a violinist, recording and touring internationally and before this film, had been invited to play as part of SXSW.
This song film touches on so many things, some that you might miss and while that means you can intuitively react to what you see and hear, let me add some bits of information to enrich your experience although I am sure I missed some things as well.
Using archival photos and personal interviews–some recent interviews done by Kishi Bashi and some old interviews from people who passed away before the filming began (e.g. Frank S. Emi, 1916-2010), Kishi Bashi tells the story of the internment. You might notice the segment that shows a US map and lists 10 internment camps, there are other buildings representing other types of centers. These are likely Justice Department Internment Camps, but I’m not complety sure of that. Heart Mountain was the northern most internment camp, set in Wyoming and this is the area featured in the beginning shots.
Kishi Bashi attempts to show what led up to the internment, from the opening of Japan with “gunboat diplomacy” in 1853 to the immigration patterns and the racism of people like Seth Millington. He begins in the Pacific Northwest.
- World War II and Japanese Internment in the Seattle Star
Kishi Bashi doesn’t name drop so you won’t see George Takei. Takei were sent from California to Arkansas. Even though Kishi Bashi was raised on the East Coast, you also won’t hear mention of the East Coast Japanese and Japanese Americans who were detained on Ellis Island.
- Ellis Island’s Dark Past as a Detention Center for Japanese in WWII
The internment camps might not be preserved and that’s a current issue, but not one specifically touched on in this film.
As Japanese Americans were being interned, Kishi Bashi notes that there was the Mexican immigrate worker program: bracero program. That might go by so fast, you miss it, but it’s an important point. The Bracero Program was not only in California, but also in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas and other areas of the West.
There are other things you have to keep your eyes open for. Los Angeles-born Frank Emi who is only briefly seen in this documentary was part of the Fair Play Committee at Heart Mountain, an important resistance leader in the US Civil Rights Movement for Asian Americans. Emi worked with the Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress. The redress bill was supported by representatives Norman Mineta of California (1931-2022), Robert Matsui of California (1941-2005) and Senators Daniel Inouye of Hawaii (1924-2012) and Spark Matsunaga (1916-1990), both of Hawaii. In the segment of Reagan signing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, you can see both Mineta and Matsui.
- Norman Mineta, 1st Asian American Cabinet secretary in U.S., dies at 90
“Omoiyari” is the first feature-length documentary for its co-directors, Kishi Bashi and Justin Taylor Smith. Both have previously directed shorts. Kishi Bashi had previously directed a music video: “Kishi Bashi: I Am the Antichrist to You.” The documentary is a good reminder that the Japanese American community isn’t just defined by the World War II internment, yet the pandemic has reminded Japanese Americans and all Americans who can be mistaken for people of Chinese descent, that prejudice towards East Asians still exists and needs to be addressed. How else can we do that except by asking and giving understanding?
Kishi Bashi noted, “The spirit of these histories, these stories live on.” And through this musical meditation, the audience can get a glimpse of histories of different cultures that need more recognition–the Latinos and Muslims and Asian Americans, because these people are also part of what diversity should mean in the US.
“Omoiyari: A Song Film by Kishi Bashi” had its world premiere at SXSW in March 2022. The film won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 38th Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.