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DOC NYC Women Directors: Meet Yuki Kokubo – ‘Kasamayaki’

DOC NYC Women Directors: Meet Yuki Kokubo - 'Kasamayaki'

Yuki Kokubo is a documentary filmmaker and photographer based in New
York City. Raised in an artists’ community in rural Japan, Kokubo and her family
relocated to New York City in 1986. She began photographing as a teenager and
attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to study fine art
photography.

After the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters of
2011, Kokubo began working on her first feature-length documentary, Kasamayaki (Made in Kasama). In 2013, Kasamayaki
received funding from the Jerome Foundation and was selected as one of ten
documentary films for IFP’s Independent Filmmaker Labs. In 2014, Kokubo received
an Individual Artist Grant from the New York State Council on the Arts for her
work on Kasamayaki. (Ocarina Media)

Kasamayaki will play at DOC NYC on November 16.

W&H: Please give us your description
of the film playing.

YK: Kasamayaki is a personal film about my
family and the disasters in Japan. In the wake of the 2011 tsunami, earthquake, and nuclear disasters, I returned to Japan to reconnect with my estranged
parents, who had abandoned me in New York City at the age of sixteen. It takes place
in the city of Kasama, specifically in a rural artists’ community a few hours north of Tokyo,
where I was born and where my parents now live.

The
filmmaking process began as a personal exploration of my roots, and this is
reflected in the questions I ask my parents about the disasters, and what it
means to be Japanese. However, as I continued on, I realized that I was more
interested in finding out why our family fell apart. The result is a story of
two tragedies: one about a broken family, and the other, about a nation
grappling with catastrophic disasters, interwoven in a metaphoric way.

Shot in an
observational style, Kasamayaki uses
many static frames that allow action to slowly [unfurl] on screen. In contrast
to the quietness of the visuals, the emotional narrative remains strong
throughout, carried by the unfolding conversations between my parents and
myself. In a nutshell, Kasamayaki is
a meditation on family, life, and the healing power of creativity.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

YK: When the
Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters occurred, I felt devastated. I had an almost uncontrollable urge to go back to Japan to be there with my
country and my family. I was in film school at the time and, as a filmmaker, I
wanted to record the experience of being in post-disaster Japan.

When the film
changed course to focus more on my family, I became intrigued by what kind of
people my parents are and the interesting qualities they have as characters.
It was kind of fascinating to take that kind of perspective on family members.
By modern standards, my parents live an impoverished lifestyle. But as I looked
closer, I was able to see how their lives are richly entwined with nature. They
make a living using materials dug from the ground, much of their food comes from their garden, and they are always surrounded by the sights, smells,
and sounds of nature. Having been born in the country and really missing that
in my life in New York, I was really drawn to observing their lifestyle.

W&H: What was the biggest
challenge in making the film?

YK: The
biggest challenge in making this film was the emotional exhaustion I
experienced from difficult conversations I had with my parents about our
dysfunctional history. Although it brought us closer in the end, it was hard to
ask these questions and sometimes to hear the answers.

Another
challenge was the external pressure I felt to make the film as objective as
possible. As documentary filmmakers, I think we are programmed to make films
that tell all sides of the story. I tried many approaches, like at first
incorporating every feedback I got, and even trying out an assistant editor. In
the end, I decided it was my story told from my perspective, and it took a while
to convince myself that was okay.

W&H: What do you want people to
think about when they are leaving the theater?

YK: I think
most people have difficulties in their family relationships, and sometimes we
feel at a loss of what to do. When there are major chasms between
ourselves and the people we are supposed to be closest to, it makes us feel
helpless. When they are leaving the theater, I want people to feel like there
is always a way to connect, to reach out. And even if it doesn’t turn out the way
you’d always dreamt it would, life goes on and things will be okay.

W&H: What advice do you have for
other female directors?

YK: Be true
to your vision. Don’t feel like you have to be polite and accept everyone’s
suggestion. Especially because I was partially raised in Japan, I’ve always
struggled with the [expectation] that I should always be polite and do as others say.
Even with this project, it was a long process for me to accept that I had my
own vision and that it was okay for me to stick to it. In the end, I decided, what
is the purpose of making artwork if you’re not following your own vision?

W&H: What’s the biggest
misconception about you and your work?

YK: That it’s
a film about the Japanese disasters. Partially, it’s my own fault, as that’s
how the film began. There have been so many films made about the disasters.
Obviously, it was a tragic event of great magnitude, and it had such an impact
on the emotional psyche of so many, not just in Japan but also around the
world. But Kasamayki is a film born
as a result of the disasters. The heartbreak I felt as a Japanese person
compelled me to reconnect with my estranged family, and the film is a result of
that process.

W&H: How did you get your film
funded?

YK: Funding
for Kasamayaki came from various sources,
including grants, crowd-funding, and personal financing. My first trip to Japan — as
well as basic equipment (camera, tripod) — came out of pocket. After I cut a
sample reel, I was able to raise about $16,000 on Kickstarter, which funded two
subsequent trips and allowed me to purchase some additional equipment.

After I
began editing, I was selected for the IFP Filmmaker Labs, which provides
amazing education for first-time filmmakers. Further into post, I received
grants from the Jerome Foundation and an Individual Artist Grant from the New
York Council on the Arts. Those grants allowed me to pay for a composer, a
consulting editor, post-production, and festival applications.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed
film and why.

YK: One of my
favorite films directed by a woman is Bombay
Beach
by Alma Har’el. The film is an exploration of a forgotten town told
through the viewpoints of three residents. What I love about the film is its
dream scenarios, which were made in collaboration with the characters. I think
much of life is about dreams — of what we strive for, what we fantasize about,
and how we individually perceive reality. Bombay
Beach
puts less emphasis on what documentaries normally call “reality” to
focus on what is in the hearts of the characters. In some ways, I think
that’s more telling than a bunch of facts.

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