Wednesday, June 25, 2014

One Big Hapa Family (2010)

Kunal Sen's animation of Uncle Suey's childhood memories.
At the 2006 reunion of the Koga side of his family, Yonsei Canadian animator Jeff Chiba Stearns noticed for the first time that after his grandparents’ generation, not a single member of the Japanese side of his family had married another person of Japanese ethnicity. He did a bit of research and discovered that the Japanese in Canada are the most integrated of any other Asian community in the country. One Big Hapa Family documents his journey into his family’s history, and by extension the history of the Japanese in British Columbia, to find out why Japanese Canadians have such a high mixed marriage rate.

In so doing, Stearns has brought together two very Canadian cinematic traditions: documentary film and animation. He collected interviews with all members of his family, local historians, and other intermarried couples in order to get a broad perspective on the issue of ethnicity and marriage in Canadian culture. The material that he collected was then loosely structured like the layers of an onion: first the story of the elders (the Issei and Nisei generations in his family), followed by the story of his parents’ generation, his own generation, and even the newest members of the family, with his own personal journey being the core of the documentary.

Jeff Chiba Stearns with Grandpa Koga
The resulting film is a compelling mixture of archival photos and film footage, family photos and home movies, interviews and animation. The animated sequences are colourful, visually engaging, and demonstrate a variety of animation techniques. Stearns himself does some chalkboard, ink on paper, and stop motion sequences – not to mention the Yellow Sticky Note animation style for which he is known. Additional animation was done by Ben Meinhardt, Louise Johnson, Kunal Sen, Todd Ramsey, Jonathan Ng, and Sean Sherwin. Some sequences that really stood out for me were Louise Johnson’s beautiful paint-on-glass animation for Roy’s internment train story, Todd Ramsey’s imagining of the angry Kelowna mob, and Kunal Sen’s animation of Uncle Suey’s racism stories from his childhood. 

The way in which Sen animates Uncle Suey’s experiences at the Okanagan Mission School is brilliantly done. First, seeing the teacher’s fountain pen shortening the boy’s name “Suemori” to “Sue,” without regard for the fact that she is saddling the boy with a girl’s name is visually impactful.  Then, when Uncle Suey recites  the words from a racist children’s rhyme that he learned at the school, the words lift up off the page so that they circle the image of young Suey reading aloud (see top image). In this sequence Sen has captured the way in which these words have haunted Uncle Suey his whole life, circling round and round the image of him as a young boy, just as they must have done in his head all these years. A very moving scene that only animation could capture in this way.

In addition to the animation, Stearns has employed a number of other visual techniques that give the film a unique look. There is an objective documentary camera that shoots interviews and Stearns himself in a fairly standard fashion, but this is alternated with a subjective camera which Stearns shoots himself. This footage was captured using a Canon 40D Digital SLR camera for taking rapid fire photo sequences. The sequences that were shot in this fashion take on a jerky, ‘animated’ look that reminded me of Grant Munro and Norman McLaren’s pixilation technique (see Oscar-winning NFB film: Neighbours/Voisins, 1952). It also matches well with the rapid montages of family photographs.

Yellow Sticky Note animation sequence
The sequence in One Big Hapa Family which featured footage from Stearns’ 2005 trip contrasts the differences between Japanese and Canadian conceptions of national identity. In Japan, Stearns found his “Japaneseness” being rejected by most people that he encountered. His appearance and body language did not fit their mould of what it means to be “Japanese”.  In my experience, the Japanese rarely openly question their own sense of national identity because their school system hammers into them the myth of a monoethnic culture – a myth that has been wonderfully negated in books like John Lie’s Multiethnic Japan (Harvard UP, 2001), and David Suzuki and Keibo Oiwa’s The Japan We Never Knew: A Journey of Discovery (Stoddart, 1996). By contrast, in Canada we are taught that identity is a multifaceted entity that is individually rather collectively defined as almost all of us are either mixed ethnicities (or “hapa” - a Hawaiian loan word Stearns explores the use of in this film) or recent immigrants. 

The concept of Japanese-Canadian identity gets refracted into a multiplicity of meanings by Jeff Chiba Stearns’s family when he confronts the younger generation with his camera and asks them the uncomfortable question “What are you?”  For a first time documentarian, he demonstrates a real knack for editing – there are wonderful montages of past and present home movies and photographs that demonstrate both change and continuity within the family. The film also offers up wonderful moments where the memories of one generation differ from those of another generation. The couples of the Sansei generation assert that there were no problems within the family with intermarriage, but that is contradicted by Grandma Stearns who reveals that she and Grandma Chiba did have concerns, but did not tell the younger folks about it. The Yonsei generation also reveals that Japanese food was only eaten for New Year’s or when their father was away because their Caucasian Dad did not like sushi. These tantalizing gems suggest that there are many more stories simmering beneath the surface, but I think that Stearns has managed to balance the needs of his documentary with respect for the privacy of his family quite handily.

One Big Hapa Family is a unique film that captures both serious issues of racism and integration, while at the same time providing a lot of laughs through the wonderful family stories that are shared. It is fascinating to see that after two generations of a concerted effort to integrate, the younger generations are making an effort to retain/reclaim some of their Japanese culture and language. While the main focus may be on Japanese-Canadian identity, it is through the mirror of the Koga family that viewers will see the complexity of their own family and national histories in a new light.

One Big Hapa Family is available for international purchase on Region-Free DVD via the Official Website. It includes both the 85’ Director’s Cut and the 48’ Broadcast version. Bonus materials: One Big Hapa Family CD featuring the soundtrack by Genevieve Vincent.

Jeff Chiba Stearns Filmography
(click on links to watch the films/trailers)
2001 The Horror of Kindergarten
2010 Ode to a Post-It Note

To learn more about the film check out:
An Interview with Jeff Chiba Stearns

This review was originally published on my sister blog Nishikata Film Review on December 15, 2010.

Catherine Munroe Hotes 2014

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