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Peter Shinkoda, Tad Nakamura and Mayumi Yoshida show their amusement during the “JA Contributions to the Asian American Cinema Movement” panel. (Photo: Gil Asakawa)

JACL Convention panel puts Nikkei contributions to Asian American cinema into focus

By George Toshio Johnston, P.C. Senior Editor, Digital & Social Media



That was the range given in the answers of two of the three panelists to a question from moderator Rob Buscher about how their Nikkei identities informed their respective experiences in working in film.

The panel, titled “JA Contributions to the Asian American Cinema Movement,” took place July 19 during the 2018 JACL National Convention in Philadelphia and featured Tad Nakamura, Peter Shinkoda and Mayumi Yoshida.

While all three panelists were of Japanese heritage, their individual backgrounds put on display the diversity of the Nikkei diaspora, as well as the sweep of their experiences.

A fourth-generation L.A.-based Japanese American and second-generation filmmaker, Nakamura is a documentarian focused on Japanese American subject matter and concerns. His filmography includes “Yellow Brotherhood,” “Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings,” “Mele Murals,” “A Song for Ourselves” and “Pilgrimage.”

Shinkoda, a Japanese Canadian from Montreal, has spent the past 25 years making a living pursuing acting gigs in Hollywood, with his most-recent prominent role being Nobu, a recurring part in the Netflix series “Marvel’s Daredevil,” as well as a role in the TNT TV series “Falling Skies.”

A multihyphenate Vancouver-based Japanese citizen with an international upbringing, Yoshida produces, directs and acts, with such roles as Crown Princess in the Amazon Video series “The Man in the High Castle” and appearances in ABC’s “The Good Doctor” among her most recent credits.

Expanding on his answer to the question put forth by Buscher — a Philadelphia JACL chapter board member and the festival director of the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival — Nakamura said, “For me, almost all my films are about the JA community; therefore, I think I’m able to bring my full identity through the films. I think, for me, it was a given because I was going to join this lineage of Japanese American documentary filmmakers.” [Editor’s Note: Tad Nakamura is the son of pioneering documentary filmmakers Robert Nakamura and Karen Ishizuka.]

Nakamura said he also has brought his Yonsei perspective, as well as other parts of his identity, such as hip-hop culture and an L.A./California viewpoint, to his works. This ability to freely draw from his identity may be why Nakamura, when asked after the panel whether he might consider pursuing narrative or nondocumentary filmmaking, said his answer was no.

For Shinkoda, his initial answer to the question of how much of his personal identity as a person of Japanese ancestry he brought to roles was blunt: “One-word answer: zero.”

Expanding on that narrative, he said, “I bring nothing of myself because I am manipulated by the parameters of which the white writers create my character. And that’s being generous when I say they created a character because usually it’s just a two-dimensional, useless kind of a prop.

“I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but I feel I’m always dying, I’m always a villain. If I’m a hero, I’ll be the first to die in service of the white characters. I’ve died 35 times in my 50-something professional gigs,” Shinkoda continued. “I die so much and so well that my last character in ‘Daredevil,’ his specialty is dying and coming back and fighting the hero who ultimately gets the Asian girl.”

[quote]I am manipulated by the parameters of which the white writers create my character. And that’s being generous when I say they created a character because usually it’s just a two-dimensional, useless kind of a prop.[/quote]

For her part, Yoshida said she initially felt that a short she made (“Akashi”) based on a true story between her Japanese grandmother and herself was so personal that it didn’t matter whether it was well-received because it was important to her and her family. But she realized, as she screened it at different film festivals, how important it was to share these very personal stories.

“It was surprising when I took it to the Urbanworld Film Festival in New York because the majority of the audience was African-American. I was like, ‘What am I doing here?’” she said. “But after it ended, so many people came up to me — they all related to that story.”

The film showed Yoshida that a personal story, in this case with a Japanese cultural setting, can still be a universal story that crosses borders. “By being Nikkei, I realized that it’s a strength to own up to my culture.”

Eliciting more heartfelt responses was Buscher’s question about how they saw their roles as artists “in this age of political turmoil and rising social conservatism.”

Nakamura brought up his involvement with the Nikkei Democracy Project, which is described on its website as a “ … a multimedia collective that uses video, art and social media to capture the power of the Japanese American imprisonment story and expose current threats to the constitutional rights of targeted Americans.”

“I’d like to challenge ourselves as Japanese Americans. I think our story is now so relevant, but I’d like to challenge all of us to push more,” said Nakamura. “We know our history so well, but how well do we know other people’s histories? How can we use our position and privilege as Japanese Americans, as filmmakers, to do more?”

Referring to the creation of the Nikkei Democracy Project, he said that after President Donald Trump’s election, “A handful of Japanese American media makers — myself, Renee Tajima-Peña, Sean Miura, Tani Ikeda, Joan Shigekawa — we basically were like, ‘How can we use our position and privilege as Japanese Americans, as filmmakers to do more?’”

For himself, he said one of the biggest ways to leverage the community’s position is to “utilize our own experience and try to connect our community with other communities, as well as explain to other communities the parallels, that we can help support and protect other communities that are currently under attack,” referring to Muslim Americans, those seen as Muslim Americans and undocumented immigrants.

For Yoshida, as a Japanese woman and filmmaker, she wanted to push back on the perception that she and other Asian females are “timid.”

“Someone told me that ‘Japanese or Asian girls are so timid. It’s so cute.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, you’ve mistaken my tolerance and grace as timid,” which got elicited applause from the audience. “When you’re not aggressive — that’s the default — you’re timid. No, we’re not. We’re patient, and we’re disciplined, and we find the right time to be absolutely brilliant.”

Shinkoda, meantime, said he finally came to the “ultimate realization” that complaining about problems like whitewashing was no longer enough.

“We need people behind the camera because there’s so much power to dictate what eventually ends up onscreen,” he said. “I’ve taken the initiative the last two years to develop my own projects.”

He proceeded to delight the crowd with news that he had helped to develop a new series to be shot in Mexico’s Baja Studios in September.

In “Kenzo,” Shinkoda’s samurai character is a refugee who escapes political repression in Japan and becomes a bounty hunter.

In her closing remarks, Yoshida, who said she had shot three short films in the past few months, noted how it is important for audiences to support a studio movie like “Crazy Rich Asians,” set for release Aug. 15.

“That’s not particularly my narrative,” she said. “But still, for us to support that film, it lets studios like Warner Bros. know there’s a big audience that wants these people on the screen.”