Tetsuro Shigematsu : renaissance samurai

Tetsuro Shigematsu has the face of a Japanese woodblock print samurai and the résumé of a modern day renaissance man. A radio broadcaster, comedian, pop culture critic, filmmaker, playwright and actor, he came to national attention as the successor to Bill Richardson as host of CBC Radio One’s popular afternoon show, The Roundup.

Born in London, England in 1971, his family emigrated to Canada in 1974. He grew up in Vancouver,  and received a BFA from Montreal’s Concordia University.

At the age of 19, Shigematsu became the youngest playwright ever to compete in the Quebec Drama Festival. Two years later, he was performing his one-man show, Rising Son, in Montreal, Boston, Los Angeles, and Tokyo. In the mid-nineties, he studied poetry with beat icon Allen Ginsberg for a year before heading to Japan, where he spent two years studying dance with butoh founding master Kazu Ohno in Yokohama.

On returning to North America, he starred in the television movie Rinko The Best Bad Thing, based on the novel by Yoshiko Uchida. His co-star was George Takei of Star Trek fame. That same year, Shigematsu began hosting the Montreal Asian Heritage Festival.

In 1997, he created and produced three episodes of La La Pan-Asia, a half-hour TV show showcasing Asian youth culture. In 1998 he was awarded a Canada Council grant to write a new play, The Moons of Tokyo, and a year later was invited to be artist-in-residence at Technoboro, an artist-run media lab.

In the 2000s, Shigematsu began a long working relationship with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, working in both radio and television. He was involved in a number of shows including Madly Off in All Directions, Pass The Mic, CBC Radio One’s The Afternoon Show, and This Hour Has 22 Minutes.
Shigematsu’s video work has been seen in the Montreal World Film Festival, the Biosphere, and won the Prix du Public at the Evénement Interuniversitaire d’Art.

In 2007, he completed his feature film debut, Yellow Fellas, which he wrote & directed. The film has garnered a number of awards, national press, positive reviews and interest from distributors. It also broke attendance records at the FantAsia – the world’s most important genre festival.

Interview : Tetsuro Shigematsu

I understand you speak English, French, Japanese, and Persian. As a unilingual person, I wonder how people manage to master two languages, let alone four. Were you brought up speaking Japanese?
No just the opposite in fact. Like many Japanese of my parents’ generation, my mom and dad were bent on having us kids assimilate. So they didn’t really speak Japanese to us – mostly just to each other. And certainly never made any attempt to inculcate us with any sort of Japanese pride.

And yet each one of my siblings – I’m the youngest of five – we each made our way back to Japan over the years and managed to pick up Japanese on our own volition. I guess our linguistic homing devices remained strong despite or maybe because of my parent’s laissez-faire attitude.

I remember when I was teaching English in Japan, one of my Japanese colleagues, Mikyuki, christened me “bakayaro.” And I remember getting really excited, sharing with her: “Hey that was my father’s nickname for me growing up! He called me that everyday!! What does it mean again?”

When she managed to stop giggling, she felt bad and started hemming and hawing, saying; “It means someone who isn’t so much intellectually minded, but more . . . ato neh . . .” Then her friend interjected; “baka means you f@*kin’ STUPID!”

Tell me something about your upbringing—you were born in London, were your parents Japanese immigrants, or . . . ?
My mom is from Osaka, and my Dad is from Kagoshima, and together they left Japan during the 60s. When I think about my young parents, packing their lives into their little Samsonite suitcases it’s almost unimaginable to me that two people could be so willing to embrace uncertainty that they would be willing to leave everything behind and embark on such a vast journey.

My Dad ended up working for the BBC in London, with my Mom raising us five kids before they decided to pick up again and head to Canada. The world is so much smaller today, so there really is no equivalent leap of the imagination. Unless maybe you’re an Australian aboriginal thinking about starting over in Reykjavik – which come to think of it, isn’t a terrible movie premise.

For someone not yet forty, you have a lot of experience under your belt. You either have an insatiable curiosity or a very short attention span. Which is it?
Yeah, there’s a really fine line between having an intellectual wanderlust and just being plain unfocused. I honestly don’t know where I fall, but what I do know is that the final verdict will depend on how I end up. If I get nominated for the Booker Prize, people will say, well of course – look at how much life experience he accrued along the way, but if I end up pushing a shopping cart, swatting invisible flies – people will say, yeah that guy was such a dabbler, the only thing he could commit to was a mental hospital.

My life is definitely a roller coaster. Sometimes when I’m on top I think, oh this would be a good time to die, because then I’ll be frozen in this heroic posture, rather than my usual stoop of abject failure. How vain is that?
But then there will be moments when I’m holding my two beautiful children, and we’ll be laughing about nothing – and I’ll just stop and think; “you guys have no clue about the landslide of shit that’s coming your way.” Ah… those are the moments.

I’m intrigued by Rising Son, your one-person show, which your bio says was autobiographical. Tell me about that show.
During that period of my life, whenever people asked my Dad about me, he would say; “My son makes fun of my accent for a living.” It was my mom who told me.

So I asked her; “Is that Dad’s self-deprecating way of saying he’s been immortalized in a play, and he secretly enjoys the notoriety? Or is that his way of saying ‘My son makes fun of my accent for a living’ (and it totally sucks).”

My mom, who knows my Dad better than anyone said; “I’m not sure, so maybe you should stop just to be safe.” This is a word I don’t like using, but Japanese families can be totally inscrutable.

But in the end, I think I made up for it by inadvertently following in my father’s footsteps by going into radio, even if it was for just a couple of seasons (he used to work for Radio Canada International). We walked the same hallways and even worked with some of the same technicians. And I was always fascinated to hear stories about my Dad because he has always tended to be rather taciturn. Again, typical Kagoshima man.

You studied with both Allen Ginsberg and Kazuo Ohno. Much of what you have done, while varied, seems to have followed a somewhat logical trajectory, yet both of these experiences seem to be taking you in a different direction. What was the motivation behind them?
I think that was during a period of my life when I was kind of a boyish pilgrim, traveling the world, seeking greatness. Not for myself necessarily, but to be near it, and I suppose hoping some of it might rub off on me. I got over that pretty quickly when Mr. Ginsberg suggested we do exactly that.

But it’s interesting that you cited those two in particular. I really do believe poetry represents the apex of culture in that language is the highest expression of what it is to be human, and poetry is the highest expression of language; but it is only through dance that you can access the pre-linguistic vocabulary to capture and express the ineffable. That being said, I’m not a particularly good poet or dancer, unless you count disco. Under the mirror ball, I can really sing the body electric.

How did you first get involved with the CBC?
I was living in Montreal volunteering and working with Janet Lumb and the Asian Heritage Festival, when Jim Wong-Chu saw me perform and invited me to do a comedy concert for Asian Heritage Month in Vancouver. CBC Vancouver covered that event really well, and Über radio producer Yvonne Gall had me to perform one of my stories on her show. Which was heard all the way in Halifax by This Hour has 22 Minutes, which was where I ended up working until I was headhunted by CBC Radio in Vancouver, first as a reporter, then when the great Bill Richardson decided to move on to his new show Bunny Watson, show runner Heather Kennedy handed me the reigns, giving me my first big break.

So by performing at an Asian community event, I got profiled by CBC radio, which landed me a TV gig, which gave me the leverage for a plum network radio hosting gig. The moral of the story? Volunteer and perform for your community. It’s not paying your dues, it’s just good Karma.

As a CBC reporter, you studied the Sawatsky Method, which I understand teaches one to conduct revealing interviews. Did it have a big impact on your interviewing style?
Not really. My follow up questions tended to be along the lines of… “really?” as in, “you wanna try that again?” Eventually, I would often blurt out; “Oh COME ON!!” As in, you are being such a liar, I know it, you know it, so let’s cut the crap.” As simple as it sounds, apparently very few reporters have the temerity to call bullshit when they hear it. So I think that set me apart.

I think it also threw my subjects for a loop because they never had a CBC reporter roll their eyes, shake their head, and sigh with unmitigated contempt. When I finished an interview, my subjects would be glad it was over, but my audience loved it.

Also, I think I had an uncanny feel for exploiting the semiotics of the CBC brand, what it stood for – you know, something vaguely earnest, bland, but with integrity, beyond reproach, so by using the good name of the seeb as a cover, I managed to gain access and wreak all sorts of havoc. I think some suits higher up were worried I might be undermining the brand, but my champions argued I was renewing it. If it was creative destruction I don’t know, but I sure had fun doing it.

Yellow Fellas is your first feature film. You wrote, directed, produced and acted in it. Was this something that was incubating in you for a long time, or did you just decide to make a film one day?
Yeah I was thinking about it, but I hadn’t quite pulled the trigger on it. You see, I had applied for funding, and I was speculating on all the great things I would do with the money – once it came in. The catch was I was thinking out loud in front of journalists, which gave rise to all this media attention, which THEN unleashed this tsunami of volunteer energy directed not at me, but for this project called Yellow Fellas.

People from all over got in touch, saying they wanted to join the cause. A Maori comedian from New Zealand emailed me saying he wanted to fly in just to audition. Asian guys from other cities were stepping onto Greyhound buses uninvited. People were offering locations, businesses were offering resources, I didn’t even have to recruit a crew, they all came to me.

Then the funding fell through. Which is normally a death sentence for a project, but now I had this standing army awaiting my orders. So with a half-finished script in my hands, I yelled charge! That being said I couldn’t have made the movie without my wife Bahareh’s producing skills, or finished it without my brother-in-law Bamboos’ technical genius.

Is film making something you are going to explore further, or have to set off in another direction? What are you up to these days?
I definitely want to pursue filmmaking, I feel like I have another couple of movies left in me. I’m living in LA right now, working on a screenplay, I know – how original right? Could I be any more of cliché? Probably not.

Finally, I have to ask you this: were you invited to George Takei’s wedding?
(laughing) Yeah that’s right. I had the privilege of working with Sulu in a movie long before he came out of the closet. At the time, a friend of mine speculated; “I think George might be gay because I just read his autobiography (To the Stars) and there isn’t a single mention of a romantic relationship.”

And get this, so boundless was my vanity, I actually remember being surprised – thinking; “well that’s funny ‘cause he never hit on ME! So could he really be gay?” Like I was the ultimately litmus test for being gay, as in “Boys, if your heart doesn’t go pitter patter for Tetsuro, then you need to think about handing in your rainbow suspenders.”

But since then, I’ve managed to salvage my self-esteem by learning that Asian gay men are a lot like Asian women. Many of them prefer white guys. In fact, one of the projects I have in development is called Rice Kings, it’s a zomedy about a coven of Asian female zombies vamps who kill the white guys who are “dying” to sleep with them, but maybe I should cast George as the lead, have him get chased down by a mob of gay white marauding Trekkies, and call it Rice Queen of the Damned.