I rarely cry when watching films or reading books; not even at the cute-kid-dies-of-cancer-tear-jerker. Yet Yasukichi Murakami: Through a Distant Lens brought a tear to my eye. This documentary theatre, which concluded its first phase of Australian performances earlier this year, could hardly be called sad though. It’s more educational in content than emotional and is in fact a celebration of the life of 19th and early 20th century photographer, inventor and pioneering Japanese-Australian Yasukichi Murakami.

Yet getting to know the remarkable Murakami moved me because for the first time, I  felt a sense of connection to other Australians of Japanese heritage. I felt like I was discovering historical roots I never knew I had. I felt like Murakami and I shared the same ‘diasporic condition’ to borrow a term from the show’s creator Mayu Kanamori. It felt like flying home after a long aimless voyage.

Review of Yasukichi Murakami:Through a Distant Lens
A scene from Yasukichi Murakami: Through a Distant Lens; Photo by Mayu Kanamori

The idea of diaspora is quite fashionable these days. Diaspora is that in-betweeness of belonging and not belonging, hybridity, transnationalism, cosmopolitanism, dislocated identities. Diaspora points to what historian and anthropologist James Clifford has described as a ‘sense of being a ‘people’ with historical roots and destinies outside the time/space of the host nation’ (Clifford, 1997, p. 255).

I’ve lived in Australia for nearly 40 years and call myself ‘Japanese Australian.’But I’ve always felt that the term was a loose fit, as if the diasporic condition never referred to me. That’s partly because Japanese people here have rarely been protagonists in their own narratives.

In most Australian stories, Japanese people are ‘othered’, are side-kicks or are mere caricatures or devices to tell some other more ‘white’ story. Japanese-Australians have never had a sense of ourselves, of connection to each other.

By putting a real, historical person at the front and centre of her show, Mayu has begun to change this. Which begs the question, why has it taken so long for Australians of Japanese heritage to start thinking about their own identity, and perhaps more poignantly, why are Japanese-Australians so ignorant of their heritage?

World War II is partly to blame. To borrow another Mayuism, ‘it is as if the violence of World War II has wiped out the memory of the Japanese pioneers in Australia who contributed to our nation building.’

To explain, here’s a little history. There was a large wave of immigration in the late 19th century from mostly impoverished regions of Japan destined for the Americas; Canada, Hawaii, Peru, Brazil. A minority, including Murakami ended up in Australia. Unlike their American counterparts, those who came to Australia were all, without exception, interned at the outbreak of the War in the Pacific and either died in internment camps, as did Murakami, or were forcibly repatriated post war. Predictably, those who stayed in Australia hid their Japanese heritage. This left a gap in Japanese-Australian history, a break in lineage and a disconnect that has been palpable to me nearly all my life.

So compare the contemporary Australian situation to Hawaii. Most Japanese-Americans are aware of their own Nikkei (meaning Japanese diaspora) heritage, and proud. Ask most Japanese-Australians about their personal history and their story will begin the day they arrived in Australia. There is little sense of continuity, of history, awareness of the Japanese-Australian diasporic condition.

I’ve read Japanese-Australian history, important works by historians Yuriko Nagata or Neville Meaney. But Mayu’s Yasukichi was my first encounter with a real person who was one of the early Japanese settlers, albeit dead now, but his ghost appears in the show. It made history personally relevant.

That’s the power of narrative storytelling. And Mayu’s multimedia performance, with its soundscapes of whispering voices and whispering breezes, beautiful monochrome photos taken by Murakami projected onto subtlely shifting screens, is evocative of the memories we can no longer touch, but must own, must incorporate into our own personal narratives in order to be Japanese-Australian.

Mayu is a friend, and I’ve watched from a distance her evolution into a wonderful artist. I know how much she’s sacrificed to make her art (as most artists do), but I also know where she’s heading, because we share the same ‘diasporic condition’. I’m grateful for her work,  because she articulates what I can’t.

So if this review sounds too complimentary, then I apologise.

Yasukichi Murakami: Through a Distant Lens is not a big story and at first glance, may seem  relevant only to those with an interest in Japan or Australia-Japan relations. But as a multicultural nation, this story is Australia’s story, relevant to Japanese-Australians as it is to Russian-Australians, Chinese-Australians etc.

A much anticipated new phase of performances are in negotiation and there is a possibility that the show will go to Japan. I wonder how the ghost of Murakami will feel then, will he feel like he’s come home?

Yasukichi Murakami: Through a Distant Lens, A Performance 4a production premiered at the Darwin Festival and Oz Asia Festival, 2014 and concluded its first Sydney season at Griffin Theatre in February, 2015.  A new season beginning 16th March-19th March, 2016 will be at Riverside Theatres in Parramatta.

Creator: Mayu Kanamori; Executive Producer: Annette Shun-Wah; Director: Malcolm Blaylock; Music: Terumi Narushima
Performed by Arisa Yura & Kuni Hashimoto with Yumi Umiumare


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