Composer Kishi Bashi performs a scene from “A Song Film by Kishi Bashi: Omoiyari” • Courtesy of MTV Documentary Films

Early in the Omoiyari there is a haunting image of Kaoru Ishibashi, a composer and performer known as “Kishi Bashi,” playing the violin in a field. Heart Mountain, a Wyoming landmark, looms in the distance. Heart Mountain is also the name of the nearby camp in which over 14,000 people of Japanese descent were incarcerated during World War II. Kishi Bashi has come here to better understand their experiences and his own, as a Japanese American. 

The choice of “Omoiyari” as the title for both an album of songs and a song film implies the intent: to have empathy and compassion for another. And omoiyari in this case extends to other communities who have suffered injustice, family separations, hate speech, and racist violence. Kishi Bashi’s film and his music help us connect to this story. 

Born in Seattle to Japanese immigrant parents with roots in Mie Prefecture and in Okinawa, Kaoru Ishibashi (better known as Kishi Bashi) grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, where he was mostly isolated from other Japanese Americans. He began playing violin when he was seven, studied music at Berklee College and is now a performer and composer, often collaborating with other musicians. 

Omoiyari, which is both a film and an album of original songs, can be understood both as Kishi Bashi’s personal journey and as an account of what it means to inhabit that space between Japanese and Japanese American identity.

This story includes the United States government’s World War II incarceration of over 120,000 Japanese Americans, over two thirds of whom were American citizens. It’s impossible to fully tell the story of the incarceration in a little over an hour, and Kishi Bashi doesn’t try to. Instead, he explores this history through interviews, archival footage, and photography, all of which appear in conversation with his music, which is lush and complex.

His film includes a visit to speak with Japanese American camp survivors on Bainbridge Island at the Bainbridge Island Exclusion Memorial. And, as Japanese American history and culture is not limited to the war and Incarceration, he travels to Japan to explore some of his own family history in Iga Ueno, Mie. 

Composer Kishi Bashi performs a scene from “A Song Film by Kishi Bashi: Omoiyari” • Courtesy of MTV Documentary Films

This is a particularly rich time for new stories about Japanese American history and culture. In earlier years, many camp survivors were reluctant to speak of what they had endured, and now a significant number, incarcerated as children and teenagers, not only speak out, but have organized protests at places like Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma, where family separations and child incarcerations are carried out by the U.S. government to this day.

Footage of the Fort Sill protests organized by Tsuru for Solidarity is also part of this film, and the filmmakers allow the images and speakers to illustrate the connections they are making between injustices past and present.

Also included are contemporary scenes from some of the camps, including a visit to one of the annual Heart Mountain Pilgrimages. Here, survivors of the camp, descendants, and community members gather to deepen our community’s understanding of what happened at the site and its connection to the present day. Art and archival color film footage taken during World War II are also featured throughout, as is music, such as that created on site by Kishi Bashi, who refers to the incarceree Dixieland bands as inspirations.  

Kishi Bashi is also the father of a young daughter.

“I wanted her to be proud of where we had come from and I think I wanted that for myself, too,” he said in the film.

His music emotionally threads the images and words in the film together, linking the past and present, Japan and America, individual and collective experience. Omoiyari is a joyful, troubling and beautiful film, and well worth seeing. 

SIFF Docfest, October 8th at 7 p.m. Producers JJ Gerber and Jenny Mills scheduled to attend. Pre-show event: Traveling Goat from 5:00-7:00 pm for a happy hour sponsored by Seattle Documentary Association.

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