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- Composer Kishi Bashi performs from the scene from the film A SONG FILM BY KISHI BASHI: “OMOIYARI” Courtesy of MTV Documentary Films

Japanese-American musician empathetically explores his cultural and ethnic identity through his and his community’s history

By Nora Lee Mandel

”Omoiyari”: A Song Film by Kishi Bashi
Directed by Justin Taylor Smith and Kaoru Ishibashi
Produced by J.J. Gerber
Japan, USA. 93 mins. Not Rated
Music by Kishi Bashi
Released by MTV Documentary Films on October 6 in Los Angeles at Laemmle Glendale and in New York City at IFC Center, with more theaters to follow.

When Kaoru Ishibashi, violinist/electronica/indie rocker who performs as Kishi Bashi, was commissioned by Miami’s eclectic Nu Deco Ensemble to create a multimedia piece around World War 2’s notorious Executive Order 9066 that sent Japanese-Americans to internment camps, he had a lot of personal and historical searching to do. Omoiyari, meaning “empathy”, follows his exploration of his own identity as the assimilated Japanese-American son of 1960’s immigrant parents (and a father himself), and the musical improvisations that inspired to compose “the song film”. His tender music anchors a poignant and informative selection of his and survivors’ remembrances, home movies and photographs, archival images and footage.

The rising anti-Asian-American violence of the past few years, recalled in a montage of news clips blended with flashbacks to the 20th century, makes Kaoru Ishibashi now realize, in his 40s, how isolated he had been from that community growing up mostly in Norfolk, VA, even as his parents maintained many Japanese language and traditions at home, seen in a flurry of their photographs. Like many second-generation immigrants, he was always aware of his engineer father’s strong accent, and that his schoolmates couldn’t pronounce his name without mockery. But then the violin and music took over his life.

His deep dive into the impact of Executive Order 9066 is first, usefully, geographical. He visits the remote sites of the euphemistically called “relocation centers”, some now with vanished evidence yet breathtakingly beautiful in drone footage of his solo music-making. Starting with Heart Mountain in Wyoming, an animated map provides the sobering background of the ten locations that housed some 112,000 men, women and children (more than half U.S. citizens) behind barbed wire and armed guards in concentration camp towers, because they were purported security threats after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The PSA clips selling the program to the American public features bromides by Milton Eisenhower, the youngest brother of Ike, who was the first head of the War Relocation Authority. (Not mentioned is that he resigned in 90 days due to disagreement with how strictly the program was implemented.)

Community historians helpfully contextualize that resentments and hate crimes against Japanese-American farmers and shops had been building up on the West Coast for decades before World War 2. (The racist cartoons of Theodore Geisel – yes, Dr. Seuss – are included.) But what makes the documentary emotionally powerful is Kaoru Ishibashi’s interaction with elderly survivors who tell him their personal stories of the sudden round-up (“They had lists of names”), forced into stables at racetracks, then to the cold wastelands. Ishibashi plays first “Removal”, then “Arrival” improvisations. (This may be the first documentary on the subject that doesn’t include actor George Takei’s childhood remembrances.) Wyoming’s former Senator Alan Simpson remembers growing up near a camp, and discovering that the teenagers there were no different than he and his friends.

The survivors and their families share their own photographs, home movies, and other memorabilia, some never seen before in public. A photograph of one father in his World War 1 uniform particularly struck me, as the Jews in Germany also thought their earlier service would prove their loyalty. They talk of passivity, but there were instances of resistance. Two brave camp residents brought cases to the Supreme Court (a man lost in the shameful Korematsu v. United States, that Chief Justice John Roberts only recently disavowed, and a woman won In re Mitsuye Endo). Also not mentioned are the active protests that included strikes and refusals to sign loyalty pledges. One woman brings the musician to her father’s Wyoming grave, to proudly tell how he served with the American forces in the segregated, much decorated 442nd unit under the slogan “Go For Broke” on a cap he saved all his life.

Kaoru Ishibashi’s questioning adds a facet not usually covered – what happened to the internees after their release in 1945? I hadn’t known that the U.S. government required that they be dispersed further east – and warned them to fit in. A survivor shrugs: “We didn’t have anything to go back to” on the West Coast, so immigrants had to rebuild their lives from nothing again. Not mentioned, that it wasn’t until 1988, after much pressure by survivors, that The Office of Redress Administration was established in the Department of Justice to acknowledge, apologize, and make restitution for the harms of Executive Order 9066. But many family photographs demonstrate their determination to look American.

Decades later, Kaoru Ishibashi’s life followed a similar All-American route, though he would frequently visit his parents’ hometowns in Japan. Meet-ups with his relatives are included. In tribute to those who lived through the war in Japan, he improvises a ”Firebombing of Tokyo”.

At one of the lesser known “Relocation Centers”, in Jerome, Arkansas, now indicated only by a stone marker, he plays “Theme for Jerome (Forgotten Words)”, and contemplates the decisions immigrant parents make about the retention of their culture vs. assimilation. He hopes to pass on enough of his cultural background to help his daughter have her sense of identity. His search also leads him to participate in protests that link the Japanese-American experience then, to that of migrants to the U.S. now. As Kishi Bashi, his musical interpretations were released in the OMOIYARI soundtrack, and a lovely EP of songs, titled ”Emigrant”.


Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

My reviews have appeared on: FF2 Media; Film-Forward; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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