This family photo that appears in the background in “No No Girl” was, according to director Paul Goodman, a “proud little Easter egg” for his family, in that it was a composite photo that “Photoshopped” into a group picture of the movie’s cast with his actual grandmother, Kinuko Ujihara (center), who died in 2017.
‘No No Girl’ marks the filmmaker’s return to making movies.
By George Toshio Johnston, Senior Editor
For anyone meeting Paul Daisuke Goodman for the first time, some general first impressions might be: tall, young-looking and boyishly handsome, engaged with the world, good-natured, healthy — all fine attributes.
That was the version of the 30-year-old filmmaker the audience got to see on Aug. 20, when he was present with members of his cast and crew at the Japanese American National Museum’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum in Little Tokyo for the premiere of his second feature film, “No No Girl.”
“It feels like a real honor to be showing this movie at JANM, and I couldn’t be more proud of everyone that worked on this film,” Goodman told the audience. “We started shooting in November. … Now we’re here today, being able to show it to all of you.”
For the audience and Goodman, it was a special moment. Most of those present already knew that despite his now-healthy state, it was not long ago that he was fighting for his life yet again, due to the return of the cancer he was first diagnosed with in 2016.
In that first encounter with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Goodman’s doctors used chemotherapy to successfully push it back into remission.
Then, it returned.
All in the Family
This time, however, his medical team recommended a different tack: Find someone who could serve as a donor for a bone marrow transplant. Because of Goodman’s lineage — ethnic Japanese on his mother’s side, Eastern European/Jewish on his father’s side — finding a match who could be a donor became a rallying point for the Japanese American community (see Pacific Citizen’s Feb. 19, 2021, issue).
“Our community really came out and ran all these drives,” said Laurie Goodman, who also served as a “No No Girl” producer, referring to how the Japanese American community mobilized to find someone who might help her brother. “It was just incredible to see all the support.”
As it would turn out, the adage “blood is thicker than water” in this case meant that after all the searching to find a match, it would be Laurie who would provide the genetic materials that would save her older brother.
Advancing the Match
Laurie was, however, only a 50%match for Paul. Nevertheless, the procedure proved to be a success, thanks to what she described as the “medical advancements have been made just in the past, like 10 to 20 years for Paul’s type of leukemia.”
Elaborating, she said, “What I gave Paul actually wasn’t bone marrow, it was my stem cells. They basically gave me like a week’s worth of injections of this stuff called Neupogen, which just boosts your white cell count so that I was able to produce more stem cells for Paul.
“And then on the day of the donation, I went in, I sat in a bed, they put one IV thing in one arm, which took out my blood, put it through a machine that gathered all the stem cells, like when you donate platelets.”
Once that was process was completed, Laurie’s blood was returned, minus those vital stem cells, which were then readied for Paul. A bit of an oversimplification, to be sure — but it worked. With his leukemia in remission, he went on a mission — to complete one of the projects he had worked on while his life was on hold: “No No Girl,” beginning in November 2021.
Making Moves — and Movies
Regarding his remarkable good fortune as a two-time leukemia survivor, one could say Goodman was, well, sanguine. “At this point, you know, I can’t treat it like it’s the definition of my life,” he told the Pacific Citizen.
With “No No Girl,” it may be that the leukemia that has indeed defined Goodman’s life in recent years will now fade into the background, as his talents as a filmmaker come into focus in the foreground. His output since 2020 — knocking out two feature-length movies while contending with the Big C — is impressive and prolific.
If he could point to something that he’d rather have define his life, filmmaking is it. Goodman completed his first feature-length movie, “Evergreen,” in 2020. It starred Hannah Leigh and Scott Keiji Takeda.
It was a debut that impressed Chris Tashima, who plays Uncle Bob in “No No Girl.” Himself a multihyphenate — actor, director, producer, writer — Tashima, who won an Oscar in 1998 for “Visas and Virtue,” saw promise in Goodman’s work.
“‘Evergreen’ was his first feature. It was basically a road movie, two people in a car,” Tashima told the Pacific Citizen. “The fact that he could keep those two people interesting for an hour and a half … I thought, ‘OK, he’s a good filmmaker. Let’s see how he does with a bigger cast.’”
That bigger cast would include Goodman’s two leads in “Evergreen,” Leigh and Takeda, with the latter playing Kento, the son of Sansei parents Gail and Eric Hasegawa (Jyl Kaneshiro and Ken Narasaki) and, making her big-screen debut, Mika Dyo as daughter Sue Hasegawa. Add to that the brother of Gayle and Uncle Bob, Uncle Kenny (Gary Murakami), whose son, Alan (Kurt Kanazawa), is Sue and Kento’s cousin — and is Kento’s best bud.
Write at Home
“Write what you know.” That’s one of those old saws wannabe writers get told by writing teachers — but that’s because it works.
In the case of “No No Girl,” Goodman has incorporated into the fictional narrative the quotidian details, perspective and observations of growing up as a fourth-generation Japanese American in Southern California into a story that nevertheless is tied to the experiences and lore of his ancestors: camp. The 442. Unspoken family secrets. Upper-middle class suburban living. Extended family. Hanging with friends. Celebrating oshogatsu. Performing oshoko. Japanese food.
Even the movie’s title is a play on the words used to describe those who were incarcerated during World War II and chose to answer “no and no” to a loyalty questionnaire that lives in infamy.
Serious stuff? Yes. But “No No Girl” is in parts also unexpectedly funny, a testament to Goodman’s script and the talents of his cast.
Landing the Laughs
Although she was a newcomer to acting in a film, Dyo said she had complete confidence in the script’s comedic elements.
“I really had no doubts, and then after meeting Kurt and Scott and seeing their dynamic, I was like, ‘These two are idiots, and it’s hilarious.’ And this trio — those jokes are going to land, and that dynamic is going to work. … They have depth to them, they’re not just always sad, and they’re not just always silly,” said Dyo.
For Kanazawa, landing a role in Goodman’s second feature was like a wish that came true. A trained opera singer, he met Takeda when they worked together in a musical. Then, when he saw “Evergreen,” he became a “fanboy” of that movie. His friendship with Takeda would lead him to the role of Alan — and Kanazawa’s warmth and humanity came through.
“I’m ashamed to say I did not have the foresight to understand just how good Kurt was going to be in this role,” Goodman said. “He took this character and made it something so much better than what was ever written.”
Despite the fact that, with the possible exception of Takeda, the “No No Girl” cast that comprised the Hasegawa family and in-laws had never before worked with Goodman, something clicked, and their comfort and ease with one another made the familial interplay and dynamics ring true.
For Kaneshiro, the chemistry was real. Maybe it was the “No No Girl” script. Maybe it was unspoken but shared experiences. Whatever it was, it worked for her.
“I got the audition notice from East West Players, and I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard of a story like this being told.’ So, of course, I submitted immediately,” said Kaneshiro, whose 20-plus-year acting career had been mostly in theater.
Noting how “you don’t get the Japanese family being the main central focus of anything,” Kaneshiro added, “At first, I was just like, ‘I want to do this story.’ And then I found out about Paul and everyone. And I was just like, ‘I want to do this. I don’t care what it takes. I want to be in this.’
“And now that I have been and now that I am part of this family, you have no idea what it means and what it did for me and, and I just hope to continue to stay in touch and be a part of this forever.”
Music and Motivation
Adding to the ease with which the ensemble cast came together along with Goodman’s writing and directing skills was the movie’s music, composed by Brandon Lew.
“My mom met him at a Christmas party and then told me, “Oh, hey, Daisuke, you should really look at this. This musical artist that I found — he’s so talented,’” Goodman recalled.
Months later, on a whim, Goodman reached out to Lew. “We’ve been working together ever since. He’s just incredible,” said Goodman.
It would, furthermore, be a safe bet to say that Goodman’s trials have motivated him to use every moment that he now has to pursue the film projects he envisioned when he was limited to thinking about and writing scripts.
“No No Girl,” in other words, is a gift to the community that supported Goodman as he struggled, the first culmination of the many projects he thought about when the only filmmaking he could do was direct the movies he saw in his mind.
A Yonsei Perspective
To Tashima, Goodman has, with “No No Girl,” achieved something that speaks to where the Japanese American community is now, many decades after the shock of Executive Order 9066.
“No No Girl” is not immigrant story or a 1.5 generation story or an interracial love story. It’s a rare creature in that it’s a Yonsei story.
“Paul is just telling his own little story about something inspired by his memories about his grandfather and his grandmother,” Tashima said. “He’s just telling his own story because he’s the producer and the editor and the director and the writer. He’s in total control.”
For Laurie Goodman, telling the story from a Yonsei perspective shows “how going forward, we can continue to tell the story, but how it is affecting us, and how we hope to bring awareness to” the intergenerational trauma passed down from the Issei and Nisei, even though those generations are both peripheral, yet connected to the characters in “No No Girl.”
After all the struggles he has faced and obstacles he had to overcome to get back to being a filmmaker, Goodman said, “I feel really proud of this movie. And I feel really emotional when I think about how many people came together to make this happen for us.”
‘No No Girl’: An Appreciation
“No No Girl” can be synopsized thusly: A millennial’s discovery of love letters written by her just-deceased grandmother launches a search into self-discovery while threatening to topple her family’s identity and stability as long-buried family secrets are unearthed.
Is there such thing as a normal family? Does there exist a family that is without some sort of dysfunction? Should a family’s secrets stay secret? Can a family’s secrets stay secret?
Those are some questions that come to mind after viewing Paul Daisuke Goodman’s assuredly directed second feature, “No No Girl.” While its synopsis could apply to a situation encountered by anyone from any family anywhere, what sets this movie apart is that the family in question is Japanese American — and the millennial protagonist is a Yonsei woman named Sue Hasegawa.
Yes, the Hasegawa family and in-laws do fall under the umbrella term Asian American. But as Japanese Americans, they are different from other Asian American families, at least as depicted recently in such pop culture offerings as “Dr. Ken,” “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Kim’s Convenience” or “Crazy Rich Asians.”
For one: All the families depicted in those stories were tethered via still-living family members to whatever “old country” from which they hailed.
Not so for Gail and Eric Hasegawa, who are third-generation American, and their kids, Kento and Sue, who are fourth-gen. (That this family is ethnically Japanese on both parents’ sides is in itself almost a political statement in this age of near-ubiquitous mixed marriages if one of the spouses is Japanese American.)
As such, there is no inscrutable halmoni spouting fortune-cookie aphorisms and bon mots, no immigrant parents scolding their children or grandchildren for falling in love with a gweilo, no Tiger Mom crushing her child with guilt and rapped knuckles for getting an A-plus instead of an A-plus-plus. Even the recently deceased mother/grandmother, a Nisei, was American-born and very possibly never visited Japan.
By comparison, the suburban-dwelling Hasegawas seem (loaded term alert!) “normal,” even though they’re not (gasp!) White folks! Although their young adult kids are well-behaved and well-educated, Sue’s pink hair is not so much a sign of rebellion but, rather, a fashion statement, an act of nonconformity that many of her peers, naturally, would also do.
And yet — they still carry on some traditions that their Issei forebears might recognize: gathering on New Year’s Day to feast on osechi ryori, attending a service at a Buddhist temple, giving their kids Japanese first names that might serve as ethnically ambiguous to non-Nikkei.
As third- and fourth-generation Japanese Americans living and working in Southern California, though, there is something that sets the Hasegawas apart from both their white or other-Asian neighbors: the generational aftereffects of Executive Order 9066, which sent Baa-chan, when she was roughly Sue’s age, to an American concentration camp during World War II and compelled Jii-chan to prove his loyalty to America by joining the 442nd.
As for long-buried family secrets, “long-buried” in Goodman’s script is figurative and literal: Like hundreds, if not thousands, of ethnic Japanese families who worked, farmed or fished along what would become known as the Western Exclusion Zone after the U.S. declared war on Imperial Japan, the Issei and Nisei Hasegawa family could either by their own hand incinerate anything “Japanese-y” that might be construed as a sign of disloyalty to America — or dig a hole and bury a “treasure chest” of family heirlooms to spare them from confiscation or destruction.
But there is an added layer of complexity when Sue finds her late grandmother’s love letters to someone who wasn’t her grandfather — which her mother and uncles already knew of and kept hidden away — and her family and she now need to choose whether to continue to ignore the family’s secrets or unearth and embrace them, leading Sue to make, as a young woman, a connection to her heritage she didn’t know existed.
In “No No Girl,” Goodman tells that story with aplomb, weaving together many characters and elements, some quite heavy (property theft at the end of a gun barrel, for example), yet lightened by the goofy, Laurel-and-Hardy-like interplay of cousins Kento and Alan. Their speculations about Baa-chan (She was a Yakuza! She was a spy!) become even sillier when the poignant truths and heirlooms are finally revealed.
Also significant: The Issei generation gets zero mention, and the Nisei characters are seen only in flashback when they are young, with no contemporary versions of them as elderly seniors. The Sansei, meantime, are in or past middle age, rapidly approaching the appearance of what their own parents looked like.
Believe it or not, that’s fine because “No No Girl” opens a new chapter of what a Japanese American family can be in the early stages of the third decade of the 21st century that is nevertheless still connected in surprising ways to their ancestors of yesteryear.
If there is any justice in the universe, someone at a streaming service or broadcast network (Are those still a thing?) might see “No No Girl” and decide that the Hasegawa family deserves a series of its own.
— G. T. J.