Susanne Tabata: a Canadian Nikkei in Tokyo
The last time we checked in with filmmaker Susanne Tabata she was finishing up Ohanashi: Stories of Our Elders, a ten-part series for the Japanese Canadian National Museum that she designed, wrote, produced and directed. She recently announced that she was heading to Japan and The Bulletin caught up with her in Tokyo, shortly after she landed.
So what are you doing in Tokyo Susanne?
Sweating. It’s 35 degrees outside.
Our film Bloodied But Unbowed has been freshly translated into Japanese and is playing in a theatre in Shibuya for the entire month of September. So I’m here to kick that off along with a big showcase of bands in Gifu sponsored by Satoshi Ono and Skull Skates Japan. There is underground support for Vancouver punk history in Japan. Our Tokyo promoter is Base Records’ Toshio Iijima who has been supportive of previous tours of the Pointed Sticks, the Modernettes and D.O.A – all marquee bands of the first punk era.
You’ve been involved in two very different projects lately – Japanese subtitles for the Bloodied But Unbowed project and the UBC Welcome Home Video for the honorary degree ceremony. What was your involvement in the UBC project?
I produced the Welcome Home video which was presented at the ceremony to honour UBC Japanese Canadian students of 1942. That was a collaboration with the UBC Public Affairs office. We felt it was necessary to present the advocacy of Mary Kitagawa who championed that cause. It was also necessary to define the university – today and yesterday – and rhetorically question what its role is in examining social injustice.
Do you have a personal connection the UBC story?
My father was the first student to attend UBC out of the internment camps. He, along with a handful of others, was given a special permit to attend UBC in 1947 by the RCMP as Japanese Canadians were not permitted to return to the coast without permission until 1949.
What was it like being involved in such an emotional project?
It was an honour to be able to represent both the Japanese Canadian community and the university.
And now you’re in Japan with your film. What kind of reaction have you received from the Japanese?
The indie theatre programmers seem to like the anecdotal storytelling, the archival footage and of course the great music.
Why do you think they connect so much to the punk ethos?
Perhaps because the film attempts to create relevance from insignificance. The Do-It-Yourself message in the film. That seems to strike a chord with musicians and creative people worldwide. There’s Art Bergmann’s now-mythologized last line of the film: “History is not written by the losers. No one talks to the musicians. If you don’t make it you don’t count.”
You’ve spent time in Japan, both as a child as an adult? Do you notice many changes?
I lived here in the 1960s and went to yoochien while my father studied at Tokyo University, and I visited in the 1970s. So this is my third time here. Some things have changed. But the culture is still stoic and introspective. Japan is NOT a culture of complaint.
It’s been more than a year since the tsunami/earthquake/nuclear crisis triple-whammy. What is your sense of how the country is coping with the recovery?
The crisis is out of the news, but the devastation persists, particularly in the north. It’s under-reported. But the biggest questions is one of sustainability. There is the nuclear question, a discussion which is quite political because of the interdependence between Tokyo Power and the government. Politics aside, this is an island community with very limited resources. Pray for Japan is the sign posted in my room, along with an urgent request that any hotel guest try to limit power usage as there are energy shortages in the country. Of course that discussion quickly dissolves when you step out and get swept up in the hustle and the lights of Shinjuku or Shibuya. The situation in Japan is a 21st century paradox. And it is OUR problem too.
Susanne Tabata is a documentarian, digital media producer, instructional designer and researcher. She grew up in a bicultural family and was educated in Tokyo, Nanaimo and Victoria before moving to Vancouver in 1978 to study History & International Relations at UBC. She recently designed, wrote, produced and directed the 10 part ethnography series for the Japanese Canadian National Museum called Ohanashi: Stories of Our Elders – a detailed examination of the experiences of Japanese Canadians who were interned during World War II – a story familiar to her father whose experiences are shared in the series.
Most recently Tabata created Bloodied But Unbowed and thepunkmovie.com – the documentary film and on-line site which chronicle the Vancouver punk scene of the late 1970s (Knowledge Network, TVOntario, Superchannel and SCN broadcasters). Under the company moniker of Tabata Productions, this project is the third in a series of films which explore worlds on the edge of mainstream culture. Skategirl is a film about the parallel journeys of professional women’s skateboarders ( FOXFuel LosAngeles) and 49Degrees is the west coast surfing subculture film (CBC/FOXFuel LosAngeles).