Interview: Filmmakers Megumi Nishikura and Lara Perez Takagi – The Hafu Documentary
Megumi Nishikura and Lara Perez Takagi are two filmmakers living in Tokyo, Japan. Their next project, The Hafu Documentary, focuses on a lesser-known part of Japan’s demographic: biracial individuals. Hafu is the Japanese loan word for half-Japanese. The documentary features a Mexican-Japanese family (the Oi’s), a Ghanian-Japanese model named David, a Venezualan-Japanese community organizer named Ed, an Australian-Japanese expatriot named Sophia, and lastly, an unannounced Hafu of mixed Japanese and Asian descent. Both Nishikura and Takagi are half-Japanese themselves and I last interviewed them before the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake. Once again, they take time out from their busy schedules to discuss their documentary and its progress since then.
Giant Robot: How has production progressed so far?
Megumi Nishikura: “Sophia” is the fourth person. We put up a new image for her on the website. [When we first met her] it all came naturally. She wanted to show that she was part of this movie. She has her own blog and started writing about her participation in the film, and she tweets about us now and then. Her story is on the website and she grew up in Sydney, [Australia]. She spent a few summers in Japan here and there visiting her relatives, but doesn’t have too much experience in Japan. Last year, she decided that this was her last chance. If she didn’t take it now then she would never come and live here. She moved here and is tried to find a job, take Japanese lessons, and figure her way out while abroad.
Lara Perez Takagi: She came to find her Japanese side—her ‘roots’.
I think that’s really important for people’s identities. I guess people always live with this need of finding yourself especially when you’re an adult or going through some sort of moment in your life where you’re discovering yourself as a person. You just really want to get into your heritage: where you’re really from, where you feel that you’re really from, where you’re supposed to be, [and] what country feels like home. That’s Sophia’s story: finding her Japanese side and rediscovering [that] other side.
MN: We’re curious if her identity changes when she’s here, if she feels more Japanese as a result of her time here. If she feels even though that she grew up in Sidney, she feels that Japan is her home too. When we do our final interview with her next month, we’ll find out.
LPT: Because we got her fresh out of the airport at 6 in the morning. [Laughs] I was first person that she saw when she arrived in Japan and I had a camera…We’ve following up with her [since then]. We’re following up with her practically every month to see what she’s up to and if she’s met new people and how she blended in and followed her moves basically. Throughout whatever she told us.
GR: What impact has the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami had on the documentary?
MN: Lara and I evacuated to my parents house in Kyoto for just a few days. We stopped [production] for 2 months…It was impossible for anybody to do work [during] the first few weeks. We’re getting back on track now that it’s June. Lara and I are making the commitment to make this a full time thing over the next 6 months to finish it because it’s getting to the point where we’re almost there with the shooting. We may as well start editing while we’re [filming] the last scenes.
LPT: Otherwise it’s just going to take forever. We can’t wait for an entire year for every person [in the documentary] to just follow through with their stories.
MN: For example, we’re working on the [Oi] family story and we finished filming them at the beginning of the year. We’re going through their footage and trying to finish a rough assembly this month and as the other stories finish we’ll also be working with them and hopefully in the fall we can actually start editing the film together.
LPT: After we got back on track, everybody’s lives returned to normal. Nobody decided to leave the country or stop filming so luckily, we’ve been fortunate to return to our regular schedule. We don’t want the [documentary] to be about earthquakes otherwise it would have be a completely different movie.
GR: Have there been any other advancements with the Hafu in the documentary?
MN: It’s kind of one of those things where I don’t want to give away the story. Let’s just say that we’ve finished the stories for the Oi Family and David. We’ve followed them on a certain journey and we’ve come to a place where we feel like there’s a conclusion that’s strong enough for the film.
For Ed, we’re still filming him and hopefully we’ll complete filming him in the fall. So far nothing’s really changed in terms of the storylines with anybody. People’s lives don’t fit a schedule that we want them to fit. We have to follow their lives the way it unfolds.
GR: It’s interesting that David is exploring the non-Japanese half of his identity. Did you deliberately select people from a broader background?
LPT: Yes, we looked for people with different topics that were within being half Japanese. We wanted to create a clear balance. What’s your life like when you’re Japanese, but don’t look completely full. He wants to reconnect with the part of him that he didn’t have growing up. He actually didn’t [visit] Ghana until he was twenty.
MN: In some ways it’s similar to Sophia. When you grow up in Japan and identify as being Japanese, you still have this longing to connect to your other country. In Sophia’s case, she grew up in Australia and feels mostly Australian until she arrived here and desired to connect with her Japanese side. So I suppose it’s a similar story but from a different angle. Their goals are different and it just shows that we have a variety of experiences. Some people are looking outwards while others are looking inwards.
In Ed’s case, he’s part Venezualan, but he’s interested in creating a multicultural community within Japan. [For him], it’s not going outside and going to his other country so much as what can [he] do in Japan to diversify and open things up [in the country].
GR: Would you say that growing up Hafu Japan bears any similarities or differences than growing up Hapa in America?
LPT: That’s tricky. There are similarities in the sense that some people feel like, “How come when I’m in Japan I’m called a gaijin and when I’m in my home country I’m considered Asian. It also depends on what you like, right? I know people who aren’t full that blend into their home country.
MN: Again, there’s so much variety of experiences out there. There are people out there in the states who are half-Japanese, but who are also Japanese American for several generations. Is there a similarity? Yes there is, but it’s hard to pinpoint what exactly that is because I met some people who are several generations apart but still felt the beck and call to come to Japan. We feel like we’re discussing the same topic and share a common bond that we’re trying to address a similar issue through our art.
Some of the people who make small donations to the film e-mail us and somehow they feel that this is a Japanese story about being mixed. They still feel connected to it and are able to contribute a little bit towards production.
GR: Did you choose the locations depicted in the documentary for any specific reason?
MN: We were looking for this family that was on the cusp of a decision to send their children to the international school system or the Japanese school system when we picked the Oi family from Nagoya. We had our first interview on Skype to understand the situation better. It would cost us [50,000 yen] every time traveled to Nagoya. But was this the right story?…And we’re so glad that we [picked them]. I mean, they’re an amazing family. They’re so wonderful to us and open to sharing their experiences with the audience and I think that it will be powerful as a result.
As a result, we had to do more fundraising because of this, but those events turned out to be a great success as well.
Initially, when we started this project we didn’t know how big this would get. I literally thought that we could do it in just a year. [Instead], it’s become this beautiful thing and I wouldn’t change it for a second. But there are too many variables. It would have been nice to get somebody who grew up in the countryside because their experiences are really different, but we wanted to find stronger experiences that can fit into one 90 minute film rather than doing too many short vignettes and nobody gets connected to the people in the film. In the end, we’re glad that we got outside of Tokyo.
LPT: It’s not just a story about Tokyo. It’s a story about Japan.
GR: What inspired you to create this documentary?
LPT: I previously made a film directly related to my “halfness” for my Masters Degree. I tried to bring both of the cities I felt most connected together, [Madrid and Tokyo]. After concluding that film, I felt that the next step was creating a film not only about me, but other people like me. I remember getting interested in about being half Japanese. When I read all these articles and found the Hafu Project online, I thought that I had to do this.
There was a German documentary that I watched in Spain on a special about Japan around the year 2001. They showed a couple of documentaries and one was about socially maladapted people in Japan. It talks about the son of a Yakuza who becomes a boxer, kids who don’t fit in at school due to [bullying], and social parasites who live off of their girlfriends and don’t search for work. There’s also a salary man who has worked his entire life for a huge company and gets fired and has no other way to tell his family and takes loans from the bank, but spends his days at the park. That documentary created a huge impact in my desire to explore other things within in Japan that you can’t typically see.
GR: Do you have a problem with the depiction of Hafu in the Japanese media?
MN: From what I’ve seen, there’s more and more Hafus in the mass media and at the gym I read magazines with profiled Hafu models in them. I feel like it’s a wash over—a superficial look at their life and nothing deeper about what their experiences were. To me, nobody has interviewed them in a way that has expressed how they grew up and as a result there’s not this understanding that I would like. That’s one of the motivations for this film. I want the average Japanese person to at least have an understanding of what the hafu experience is, and at the end, feel compassion because we are Japanese and want to be treated as Japanese…especially if this is going to be a growing trend in the future.
LPT: I know a load of models in Japan who are half Japanese. I tell them about the film and they’re really interested. [However] they say, “Is this a topic that we should go really deep into?” It seems that it’s somehow taboo to talk about what it was like to grow up hafu in Japan.
MN: I don’t know if it’s taboo or not. Maybe there’s not interest from the general Japanese public. I don’t think it’s just with the hafu experience but also the Zainichi Korean experience. There are a lot of Zainichi celebrities out there and they don’t openly talk about it or other backgrounds that we don’t know about. It’s also not discussed in a way that celebrates it. It’s a great thing to embrace two or more cultures and Japan will be a stronger place as a result of it.
[Correction: The unidentified Hafu mentioned in the interview is of Japanese and Asian descent, not American. The travel expenses for Lara and Megumi was 50,000 yen and not 5,000].
The Hafu Film is slated for completion in late 2011. To donate and find out more about the documentary, visit: http://www.hafufilm.com.