Interviewsand Articles


The Glass Kimono: Some Reflections on the films of Reiko Fujii- Richard Whittaker

by Richard Whittaker, Jun 10, 2009



"I had a dream about making a glass ancestral kimono. The dream became a reality. The kimono led me on a journey to the lands of my ancestors. And then - the reality became a dream..." - Reiko Fujii

My introduction to Reiko Fujii came at the Berkeley Art Center thanks to my involvement in its International Small Film Festival. Although, as a result of budget issues and a change of the center's leardership, it had run of only four years, it was an astonishingly rich experience - especially for the three of us who had envisioned it and what it might become - Robbin Henderson, Dickson Schneider and myself - and who took on all the tasks for its taking place. 
     Although not a filmmaker myself, I'd become convinced that refreshing and vital films were being made, perhaps in great numbers, and hardly ever being seen. My feeling for the reality of this, and our cultural misfortune in missing the benefit of encountering such artistic treasures, had been crytalized by something I'd heard in an interview with the composer Terry Riley on NPR's "Fresh Air." In response to a compliment from Terry Gross, Riley had said "I'm sure there are many composers out there who are writing better music than anything I've done, and we'll never hear from them." The generosity of Riley's statement and its ring of truth touched me in a surprisingly deep way. How powerful to imagine this reality - that living treasures exist we will never hear, or see. In trurth, I already knew the truth of this - at least in principle - because of my own experience of repeatedly finding such hidden treasures in the course of my own publishing work.
      Such thoughts were running through my mind when one day, while driving across the Bay Bridge, I realized I was already in touch with everything necessary for putting together a film festival. It would all depend on Robbin, the long-time director of the Berkeley Art Center at the time. I could hardly wait to talk with her.
     It turned out she'd been planning to create a film festival and it had fallen through only a month earlier! Did I want to take it on? I did. Dickson Schneider's participation was the indispensible third piece. He liked the idea and quickly agreed. We launched our festival in 2005, co-sponsored by works & conversations and BAC. Films 20 minutes in length or shorter would be eligible for consideration. Simple.
     In the four years our film festival lasted, we saw a lot of small films. Even with our relatively low profile and minimal outreach, quite a number of films that came our way verified what I'd already seen - that, in keeping with what Terry Riley had said about composers - there were real gems out there. But should that be any surprise? 
    Receiving these works from the unknown beyond and then screening them before a live audience was a joy. It was something like the difference between dreaming and waking up. The thought takes me back to one of the films we saw - Reiko Fujii's The Glass Kimono. "I had a dream," the narrator says, "of making a glass, ancestral kimono." Reiko's film is less than five minutes long, but right away we're delivered from the ordinary into the realm of dreams and magic: a glass, ancestral kimono. The mysteriousness of the phrase is subliminal.
     Reiko sent a description of one moment during filming: "An eerie sound of wind chimes mixes musically with the gentle rolling surf. Two fishermen pause from attending their gear and stare out at the ghostly figure walking slowly on the distant concrete pier. The early morning sunrise colors the old men's weathered faces as they watch the light sparkle off the multitude of glass squares adorning this mysterious figure. Reiko, wearing her glass ancestral kimono, stops to gaze at the houses near the shore. For over four hundred years, her father's ancestors lived and died in this small fishing village of Esumi, Japan." For over four hundred years. 
     The first Reiko Fujii film I'd seen was The Farm. I'd had a powerful impression in watching it (and from many other short films), of the elasticity of time. In that film we learn of her grandparents' farm in Riverside, California, of their being taking away from it to an internment camp, how their farm was saved by loyal friends (unlike the farms of so many other Japanese who suffered the same fate) and of their family's yearly enactment of the Japanese mochitsuki ceremony (mochi-making). After watching it, I was shocked to discover that only seven minutes had elapsed. How could so much have been contained in those few minutes?
     My appreciation of The Farm took a while to come fully into focus. After it was over something was lingering. I couldn't put my finger on it. Finally I realized it was the films' utter freedom from personal embellishment. Here's an example from the narration: "Six generations enjoyed time at the farm. It remained the center of family activities for nearly a century. The farm is now gone, claimed by Riverside's urban sprawl. But the lessons of my youth on the farm, and love of family and tradition, will live on with me for the rest of my life." An entire history is compressed into a few objective sentences. Reiko's closing narration is spoken without a hint of emotion. So what was it that brought the tears to my eyes? 
     The Glass Kimono exhibits the same restraint, but it's a far different film. The entire narration is comprised of only seven sentences: I had a dream about making a glass ancestral kimono. The dream became a reality. The kimono led me on a journey to the lands of my ancestors. During WWII, my mother and my father spent four years of their lives living in internment camps. My father's mother's ancestors have been buried in this cemetery for over 700 years. For 400 years, my father's father's family lived and died in the small fishing village of Esumi, Japan. And then...the reality became a dream.
     Here's an account Reiko sent to me about her visit to the cemetery in Japan where her father's mother's ancestors lay. "After warm greetings at the Susami train station from Yoshi-tsugu, Yoshi-nori, and Mr. and Mrs. Ogura, we climbed into three cars, two of which went directly up the mountain to a cemetery in Samoto. My father's mother grew up in this mountain-farming village about a hundred years ago.  
    "In pouring rain, we climbed the slippery, uneven stone steps up the side of the mountain to the very top of the cemetery where my father's mother's ancestors have been buried for 700 years. ... I wanted to wear the kimono in the cemetery, but the rain, weight of the kimono and the number of stairs seemed like a barrier. I was glad Bob [Reiko's husband], Sambodh and Pat encouraged me to wear it in spite of my imagined obstacles. The weather collaborated with us and the rain stopped for 20 minutes." 
     Similarly, here's a description Reiko sent about her visit to Manzanar: "During an afternoon in June of 2002, the Manzanar desert was deceivingly beautiful. A huge yellow carpet of desert dandelion flowed over the barren areas where my ancestors' barracks once stood. In the distance the snow capped Sierra Nevada Mountains were graced by streaks of sunlight coming through the puffy rain clouds. My parents, a good friend and I came here to document the continuation of the journey of the Glass Ancestral Kimono. Wearing the kimono, walking through the cemetery and paying my respects to those who were interned there, was not comfortable. The wind was whipping up and made the glass pieces hit together so violently I thought they were going to break. My father reminisced that the wind would pick up in the afternoon, blowing the sand between the slats in the walls and floor and into his pomade-covered hair. This was my father's first time back since he left the Manzanar Internment Camp in 1943."
     Reiko's notes to me about the making of this film, themselves hardly embellished, begin to reveal the surprising scale of these two films of only a few minutes duration. Calling them "little" would certainly not be the best choice of words. Perhaps they are close to architect Louis Kahn's criterion for what made a building monumental. It wasn't the size, but whether or not the building evoked any sense of the eternal. 
     I haven't mentioned anything about the visual content or the sound. Both are handled with craft and poetry and would need to be written about were I trying to bring the film to life in words. But that's not it. These two films help me understand something about Robert Bresson's films, and why he went to such lengths to excise personal expressiveness from the performances by his actors. It's what Agnes Martin tries to get at when she says "personal emotions and sentimentality are anti-art." [Writings/Schriften, p.154] She also wrote that "a work of art is successful when there is a hint of perfection present. At the slightest hint, the work is alive." It's difficult to find that. 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.       


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