by John Endo Greenaway
“In the Shadow of the Pines,” a new animated short documentary by Anne Koizumi, explores the difficult relationship between the filmmaker and her father. Koizumi, a second-generation Japanese Canadian, draws on childhood memories to explore the idea of shame and how it can shape and define us, while also concealing who we can truly become. Using stop-action animation, family photos, and archival footage, the eight-minute film offers a poignant window into the often confusing and conflicting emotions that come into play while navigating our childhood years.
Three years in the making, In the Shadow of the Pines is an official selection of Hot Docs 2020, and is now available for viewing free online. I talked to Anne Koizumi several days after her film was released to the public.
“unearthing the memories that shape us”
Before we get into the film itself, tell me a bit about your background, and your experience as a filmmaker. What kinds of films have you made in the past?
I grew up in the suburbs of Calgary, Alberta and I never had any exposure to filmmaking. I loved watching films, but I had no idea how they were made. And I think what really drew me to film was the storytelling, so I pursued a degree in film production at UBC and graduated in 2004. At the time, the program was very live-action focused but I was always interested in stop-motion animation so I taught myself using the Aardman studio animation book and made a short animation for my graduation film. I continued making animations; my first professional film was made at the NFB (National FIlm Board) in Montreal called “A Prairie Story,” and then I started making a film based on the short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” while working at Quickdraw Animation Society in Calgary. This one took a while to finish because I decided to do a master’s degree in the midst of post-production. I wanted to do an MFA because I really wanted to study live-action filmmaking but ultimately, went back to stop-motion and started “In the Shadow of the Pines.” I’ve worked on other experimental and live-action film projects in between.
In the film, you explore your relationship with your father, or maybe more accurately, how you felt about your relationship. It delves into feelings that are often uncomfortable. Was it difficult to tackle this subject?
Yeah, I have considered making my personal narratives the subject of my work, but I was really afraid to pursue and uncover the stories that for many years I tried to hide. There were many difficult aspects to making the film. First and foremost, I was dealing with my grief and loss, and second, I had to confront my own shame and guilt. I cried so much making this film… I would be making a set or a prop and I would just start crying. It became embarrassing when I was invited to the Hot Docs Diverse Voices Talent Lab and I would pitch my project to my cohort and tears would be streaming down my face. It was so hard. But my cohort was incredibly kind and supportive. Forcing yourself to face difficult emotions and memories is never easy and it takes time. In my case, it took over three years. I can talk about the film without crying now but every now and then when I’m in a space where I’m allowed to be vulnerable, I’ll cry.
In the film, you allude to your father’s life growing up in Japan after the war. Can you share some of that story with us?
Hmm… where do I begin? My father never spoke to me about his life or childhood, so in the film where he’s telling me about his life during and after the war, is obviously a dream because he would have never been so forward with this information. I found out a lot from my uncle, my father’s oldest brother, when I was living in Japan in 2002 – 2003 and from interviews I conducted in early 2016. Most of this is not in the film because I had no intention of making a feature film.
Both of my father’s parents were disowned by their families from samurai lineage when they converted to Christianity prior to the war. His father (my grandfather) became a Lutheran pastor and a pacifist. He died during the war of tuberculosis, when my father was only a year old, and his mother was now a widow with nothing and five young children. She was turned away at the door of her own family because she had rejected the family institution and chose to marry a man she loved (who was a Christian) over her noble family lineage. A Lutheran orphanage in Kumamoto took her and all five children in, where she worked as a caregiver and the children lived with the other orphans.
The archival footage you see in the film was shot at the orphanage where my father was raised; it’s called the Gia-en. The orphanage was started by American Lutheran missionaries before the war and they made an educational film in 1950 about the work that the American missionaries were doing in Japan. The orphanage is still there today but is now run by the Japanese government. I had the opportunity to visit the orphanage during my research. My cousin who was living in Kumamoto at the time had connections to the orphanage and gave me a copy of the film where the archival footage comes from. I had to trace down the rights to use the footage which belong to the Lutheran Church of America. When combing through the archival footage, there were two moments where I would freeze on a frame of a young boy in the background who I thought could be my father. He would have been seven at the time that film was shot and was living at the orphanage.
You’ve clearly thought about this subject for many years. Did making the film allow you to see things in a new way? Did it uncover anything that helped you to deal with the feelings you had about your father during your childhood?
For me, as a child, it was really difficult to process my feelings of shame. I wanted to belong, I didn’t want people to think that I was different, and I really didn’t want my friends to know the janitor was my dad! But as an adult you understand the complexity of your parents’ experiences and how choices are not based on whether your child is going to feel shame but out of necessity. Also, as an adult, you come to learn that there are social structures and systems like classism, racism, and sexism that play a role in how people perceive themselves and others. I didn’t really dig deep into these feelings of shame until my father passed away in 2012. I was longing to make connections with him that I was never able to do when he was alive. How do I tell him I’m sorry or that I can now see everything he did for us? If I see anything differently now because of this film, it’s that I am able to connect with him even after his death.
The film focusses on your feelings about your father, but doesn’t really address his feelings towards you. Was he aware of what you were going through? Were you ever able to open up to him, either as a child or later in life, about those feelings?
I’m not a parent myself, but I’m going to assume that most parents are hyper-sensitive to their children’s feelings, especially the feelings that they have towards them. I want to say yes with my dad, I think he knew that I was embarrassed that he was the janitor but I don’t think that mattered to him. He was really proud of the work he did and he was good at it. He really had one objective in his life and that was to take care of his family. I don’t think he cared about much else, except maybe baseball and sumo wrestling. But this is speculation because I never told my dad how I felt about him as I was growing up, and we never talked about our feelings.
It’s interesting, when I first heard about the film, I assumed your feelings of shame were directed towards your father’s identity as a Japanese immigrant, but instead it was towards his social status. You would have been happy if he was a sensei, or a salaryman even. In fact, your happy memories centre around matsutake picking, which is a very Japanese pastime. Did any part of your father’s Japaneseness play into your feelings towards him, do you think?
You know, I wanted my father to be a specific type of “Japanese” man and I didn’t like my father’s particular Japanese-ness. I think it really stems from the Japanese stereotypes that I was exposed to as young person growing up in Canada. I wanted my father to be like Mr. Miyagi from “The Karate Kid” or like the businessman who owns the tower in “Die Hard” and so many of the images of men that were coming out of Japan in the ’80s and ’90s were of salarymen. My dad was so far from either of these stereotypes. He was the opposite of these stereotypes; he was a free spirit and didn’t care what people thought of him, which confused me as a kid. I think this is where my instincts kicked in and I distanced myself from him because I didn’t understand him. So, I’d say the shame came from both his Japanese-ness and his social status.
Your new film is very personal, yet very relatable to anyone who felt self-conscious, for whatever reason, about their family growing up. What kind of response have you received to the film?
I’m really touched by the positive responses I’ve received since launching the film just three days ago. I’m especially moved by the reaction from the Japanese Canadian community. It means so much to me to be able to give something back to the community that supported my parents when they first arrived in Canada over 40 years ago. I’ve also had friends and strangers reach out to me and say how much the story resonated with them and their own experiences. Shame, grief, and regret are all universal experiences that don’t discriminate, which is why I feel that people from all walks of life have connected to the film.
How has your family responded to the film?
The film has also helped our family’s grief. We are not very good about talking about our feelings to each other, even though we talk to one another often. My oldest sister hasn’t been able to cry much about our dad’s death, and when she saw the film it was like a floodgate opened up. I think being able to talk about my dad’s death and loss so openly now has also helped our family acknowledge the loss even in times of celebration. My siblings tell me that working on this film has really been a gift to them. And my mom is really proud.
Note. This article, first published in The Bulletin (Apr. 29, 2020), was reprinted in Discover Nikkei (www.discovernikkei.org), which is managed by the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles.