THE PAST MEETS THE PRESENT
For me, the things that happened ‘behind the scenes’ during the more than five years making this film (Obaachan’s Garden) are hard to believe and changed my life forever. It also changed the film that I first imagined.
The central character of this film was my own grandmother (obaachan is grandmother in Japanese, obasan is auntie) and someone I knew very well. As her 100th birthday approached, I wanted to work with a story that explored what one life experienced and witnessed during a whole century of Canadian and Japanese history and politics.
From the night of her 100th birthday everything changed. My grandmother revealed secrets and and my role(s) became more complicated.
The stories, the words and the images were tangled up in a world of the real and unreal, the known and the unknown and the believed and the unbelievable. The more I listened to her dreams, memories and desires, the more I understood and didn’t understand.
Working on Obaachan’s Garden, I also incorporated a lot from my memories growing up on a remote prairie farm with my grandmother living nearby.
During those early years, I learned to understand (but unfortunately not speak) Japanese from her and went to the Buddhist temple and listened to her chanting and smelled the incense burning with her. I ate the riceballs and the food she cooked and bathed neck deep in the hot steaming Japanese style wooden bath (ofuro) with her. I listened to the odd foreign melodies of her singing and violin playing and watched the colors of fine woven cloth flow gracefully as she danced odori (Japanese traditional dancing). And for years, I played in her overgrown jungle of flowers that she magically nurtured in the middle of the dry prairie.
All of these early experiences are details woven into Obaachan’s Garden.
This childhood connection to obaachan is also shared by my cousin, Natusko (Ohama) who became a professional actor in American theatre and film, and joined this project to perform the role of our grandmother in the recreated dramatic scenes.
Without knowing it, we were being groomed and prepped for this film, long before I thought of making it.
During our interviews, her story often went in never heard before mysterious directions that included a man she loved, the family she was separated from and the town in Japan she had to leave when she was sent to Canada as a picture bride.
Most members of our family (mother, aunts and uncles’ generation) suspected she was getting things mixed up in her mind, becoming senile, or suffering from Alzheimer’s.
I was a filmmaker, artist and a granddaughter. Maybe this is what allowed my imagination to believe my grandmother’s 100 year-old memory and move through the process of storytelling.
All through the project, it was just sheer magic or luck, destiny or fate…call it what you will...that kept bringing me to the right decisions, the right people and the right places at the right times.
In 1998, leading up to the scene of gathering the whole family from across the continent to replant a flower garden obaachan left behind in 1942 during the evacuation of Japanese Canadians from the West Coast…I happened to notice a clump of river clay in the garden while filming the bulldozing scene.
This clay was turned into one hundred raku-fired sake cups, which after filming the family replanting garden scene, I gave a sake cup to each person there as we celebrated obaachan, her garden and her 100 years (off camera).
So in the end, from the luck of finding a clump of clay…everyone went home with a piece of her garden.
Another example of being in the right place at the right time started in an empty parking lot in Japan.
Research and filming for Obaachan's Garden took me to Japan and obaachan’s place of birth: Onomichi, a quaint little seaside town near Hiroshima for the very first time in my life.
Since Onomichi rises from the sea, up a steep mountainside, streets are very narrow or non-existant and finding a rare parking space is difficult.
Searching for parking for our camera crew van would eventually connect me unknowingly to the famous Japanese film director, Nobuhiko Obayashi (born in Onomichi).
First I was told that we were not allowed to park there because it was for their restaurant customers only. The lot was fairly big and mostly empty.
My reaction to this unwelcoming gesture was simple: I asked our driver to go have coffee in the restaurant instead of helping us carry the heavy equipment.
After a few hours, we got our filming done, then drove away.
Once I was back in Canada to put the story elements together, I created a 'wish list'(things needed for the film) and sent it to all the email addresses I had collected in Japan. It read: “looking for archival footage from Onomichi close to the period my obaachan lived there."
Some researchers replied that this was like looking for a needle in the haystack, almost impossible in such a small town from so long ago.
Someone I emailed contacted Tokyo based film director, Nobuhiko Obayashi (who had been born in Onomichi) to explain my story.
Soon after, I received a surprise email from Osamu Otani, the owner of that restaurant with the inhospitable parking lot in Onomichi.
He explained that he was in the film business and worked with director Obayashi.
He asked that I forgive the rudeness of his staff for refusing parking, and said that Mr. Obayashi had ordered him to help me find the old film archives from Onomichi…at no charge.
This is how all the wonderful black and white archival footage that was shot in Onomichi is in Obaachan's Garden. All over a parking space.
Since that first visit, Onomichi has become an important and essential part of my life and work as it always inspires me to new writing, images and feelings.
As her story changed several times over the months and years of interviews, the shooting, the schedule, and the storyline became more complicated and took more money.
My grandmother was getting older as the years ticked by…100, 101, 102…and it was important to me that I complete this project while she was still alive to see the finished film.
After producing much of this project independently…the challenges of time ticking away and the money being used up, forced me to put a call out to other producers for help. This is when the National Film Board of Canada made me an offer that included they get full ownership of the film for helping bring ‘Obaachan’s Garden’ to completion.
In the end, my grandmother lived to see the film on the big screen before she passed away just several weeks short of her 105th birthday and I had the wonderful pleasure of being alongside her at several screenings (see photo), the biggest reward in the end.