When Kaoru Ishibashi (Kishi Bashi, or “K”) released his last LP, Omoiyari, in 2019, it was the first half of a special commission from the Nu Deco Ensemble. The second part of this project is his first film, directed in collaboration with filmmaker Justin Taylor Smith.
The Omoiyari documentary focuses on the legacy of Executive Order 9066: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s order to evacuate “all persons deemed a threat to national security” from their homes and into internment camps. The Omoiyari movie is promoted as a “song film”, heavily leaning into Kishi Bashi’s musical work to sew tinges of hope amidst a stark reminder of America’s darker history and how it relates to contemporary issues.
Throughout the film, Ishibashi and company visit internment camps and speak with past internees and their relatives to garner a stirring firsthand history of events. Omoiyari is also Kishi Bashi’s personal story: we meet his family and collaborators and connect the dots from Virginia to Japan while he is on a mission to further explore his heritage as a Japanese American. Transitions are often made in performance; some of its most memorable spots see Kishi Bashi playing where these camps once stood, connecting past to present. “Omoiyari” is a Japanese term that focuses on following through on empathy and compassion, which the film team took to heart as a guiding light when developing it.
Omoiyari premiered at SXSW this year, uplifting a crowd with its bittersweet, beautiful movements. Amidst the hustle and bustle of the massive festival conglomerate, Kishi Bashi and Justin Taylor Smith discuss with PopMatters the development of their enlivening documentary.
Being your first “song film”, would you say that your creative approach for the film was a much different experience for you? What was its development like?
Kishi Bashi: I’ve never made a documentary movie, so this is a completely new thing.
Justin Taylor Smith: I mostly made snowboard and skateboard films before this. So it’s completely different, yeah. The last four and a half years have been like a different foray into a new genre for me.
KB: We actually met making a snowboard film. I was the composer. That’s how we met, and now this is our first time making a music doc.
JTS: And an American history doc. It’s a completely new experience.
Justin, I understand that you wanted to pursue this film with Kishi Bashi because you weren’t so well versed in the history of Executive Order 9066. Would you please speak to the potency of this filmmaking experience for you?
JTS: I had heard about the internment camps when I was in high school, and we passed our way up to the Mammoth Lakes when I was a kid. But, my education about this period was very minimal. When K [Kishi Bashi] brought the idea of this film to me, I was like, “Oh, I’ve heard about this.” But, I hadn’t ever really thought about racism and my own place in art and society — my privilege.
I was completely uneducated when we started, and the only thing guiding me was this big curiosity for history. When I started filming this initial idea, I was pretty green to 9066. I think this is why this ended up being a feature-length documentary. When I started to really question what narratives were out there and dig into the nuances of this history, I set up more shoots everywhere, like in the South and at the camps.
There are branching paths that you had explored that didn’t make it into the film, like the United States’ history with Jim Crow laws. Then, the film loops back around and contrasts our past with our present — like with what’s happening at the US-Mexico Border.
KB: It’s really important to point out that there are so many parallels to what happens in history to how we act as savage human beings at our worst. I think a lot of the film is very positive, you know — omoiyari is all about empathy. I like to think the movie ends in a positive light and with a lot of hope. The best part of being a human being is to have empathy and compassion. To heal, you need to rebuild your community and do these kinds of things.
On the other hand, there’s this other side of the story that says there’s a lot of potential for human beings to do wrong, and we have to protect ourselves when shit hits the fan.
JTS: The film also shows how even though this executive order was passed 80 years ago, many people still don’t know what happened or don’t know that it can generationally affect people. Like with K’s parents or children of immigrants.
KB: There’s this very large connection to feeling Asian American and feeling insecure.
JTS: As a cis white guy, I never thought about how Asian Americans were portrayed in media or the rhetoric surrounding it for decades. Or that something that happened 80 years ago would affect people today. I mean, the trauma is real. It actually changes your DNA to be a generational trauma that’s absolutely real.
KB: It takes a lot of patience and healing. You have got to remember what happened.
Now that you mention it, in Omoiyari, we explore Asian and Asian American stereotypes that have traditionally been construed as “positive”, too — like the barrage of 20th-century martial arts movies. It feels like we’re only just now beginning to explore the proper representation of minorities in film.
KB: I think it’s like we’re allowed to explore more, you know. Society, the hegemony, is finally allowing minorities to raise their voices and participate in the upper echelons of their culture.
Right. And this speaks to Justin’s experience that he’s expressing with the film carrying a positive movement for cis white people, too, to get a history lesson and become excited for people of other heritages to begin taking more of a spotlight.
JTS: It’s exciting. It’s not a scary thing. It’s not this Fox News thing; they know how to make everything sound scary, including diversity. I was thinking of peers of mine or my parents and trying to educate them about this. My parents are great people, but they’ve probably never thought about these topics like I hadn’t.
You aren’t aggressive with this education, either. Omoiyari acknowledges society’s complexities, like with FDR being as celebrated a president as he is for introducing contemporary social democracy to the United States but also being the same person to sign Executive Order 9066.
JTS: That’s the thing, yeah. Most people aren’t inherently racist or bad people; they just aren’t educated and are ignorant. What attracted me to the name Omoiyari? It’s this word meaning to have empathy and compassion, but to act upon this empathy and actually invest time in caring.
We’re not just clicking a little digital box and saying “I like this” but not really being a part of the conversation. Being an activist and sharing a story takes work, rather than just lightly engaging and thinking you’re a part of some movement. Like liking a BLM post and then never acting like you did — just moving on.
K, one of your focuses in the film is your daughter and bringing her up with pride for her background. If she watches Omoiyari, what do you want her to grasp from it?
KB: She’s 16. She’s of the generation where she’s way more awake than our generation. They have a lot more tolerance and acceptance of diversity and inequity and climate change, you know. It’s like their generation is the key. I’m not too worried about her.
Has your perception of Omoiyari changed at all throughout the film’s development?
KB: We released a trailer from four years ago with this voiceover talking about what it should be about before we even finished it. And it still rings true. We’ve been so focused on this kind of message of learning history, but also being a modern human being and implementing and integrating these lessons into today’s world and being the best version of ourselves.
What’s next for you guys?
JTS: Sleep? He goes on tour next Sunday (20 March 2022).
KB: Yeah, I’ve been so busy. It’s the ten-year anniversary of my debut album (151a), and I’m seeing now that I forgot to post about it on social media today. [laughs]
JTS: We always talked about how long the movie would take to finish. It’s the 80th anniversary of the executive order and the 10th anniversary of 151a. When we started the movie, it was the 75th anniversary of the order and the fifth anniversary of 151a. So it basically took longer than World War II to update our press.
I think I’m going to think very long and hard for like a year before I make another film.
And the debut of Omoiyari is coming up soon!
KB: Yeah, Monday (14 March 2022).
JTS: I would love to thank Erin Aoyama and Max Ritter, our DP, and JJ Gerber, our producer. It was really us four sitting behind this film, plus Erin, who was like a spirit guide and such a lovely friend.
KB: It’s a really tight-knit crew that made the film. Tell them about the unseen archival footage!
JTS: Oh, yeah. We’re premiering some colored film footage of incarceration camps. We got a tip-off from Densho, one of our partners for the film and a nonprofit from Seattle. A family came forward with 8mm reels. Some had been scanned, but some of them had never been scanned and just left with small notes, like handwritten notes from the sixties. I took them down to Burbank and got them cleaned and scanned at 4k.
For me, as a filmmaker and a total film nerd, seeing something like this from 80 years ago that had probably never been seen at that resolution … yeah, I cried. I was going in an Uber to meet Natasha Varner in Kohler City and remember watching it on my computer for the first time on high-rise DPX scans. It was just like, what the fuck?
KB: It’s from their perspective. Every other piece of material we had from that time was more like propaganda.
JTS: That was a really good find. We’re excited.
Wrapping it up: with calling Omoiyari a “song film”, K — I hear you were essentially given carte blanche to work on this film’s soundtrack yourself.
KB: Yeah! I had no notes from my co-director, which was just great.
JTS: He got full reign. He gave me tons of notes on the edit, which was super great. [laughs]