Interview: Kishi Bashi and Justin Smith on Omoiyari’s concert tour of the soul
It’s no exaggeration to say that music and film have always been connected. Their unity has always been integral to each other’s success and an audience’s understanding of characters, places, and stories, real or otherwise. Omoiyari uses the power of music and film to connect us to the significant, painful, and ongoing reckoning of Japanese American concentration.
In Omoiyari: A Song Film by Kishi Bashi, violinist and vocalist Kaoru Ishibashi embarks on a journey a lifetime in the making. He explores his identity as a Japanese American in the context of his upbringing, a political climate that trends toward xenophobic authoritarianism, and his musical maturity. Visits to sites of strife and joy are tethered by Kaoru’s willingness to learn, play, and move forward on his own terms.
From the Intercom spent a frigid morning with co-directors Kaoru Ishibashi and Ishibashi discussing the impetus of their collaboration, the place memory of performing in the former camps, and the recent tenth year anniversary of Kishi Bashi’s 151a.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
From the Intercom: How did your collaboration come about?
Justin Smith: It started back in 2016. So I primarily was making snowboard films for the last decade and really loved K’s music and kind of cold called K. Our producer called and was like, “Hey, would you want to compose this snowboard film? And K just happened to be like a big snowboard fan as well.
Kaoru: There was a movie called The Fourth Phase. It was a Red Bull snowboarding film. So he was the editor on it, and he was putting my music in it and kind of, like, brought me into that project as a composer.
Justin: At the tail-end of that, we just kind of formed a creative bond. He came out to Dolby for the sound mix and we stayed in Venice together. We chatted loosely about how we’d love to do something together, maybe not in snowboarding, and a year later we flew out to Jackson and he was like, “I have a golden idea. Like, I really want to write a symphony. I want to talk about Japanese American internment camps.”
Kaoru: I was commissioned to write the symphony, which is at the end of the film. This piece involved improvisations in the field — at internment camps. And so that’s when I was like, “Will you come film these with me?” Max, our director of photography, came in and joined us for two weeks where we went around and filmed. That kind of became what we thought would be a short film. Then it would go on to become a feature.
Justin: Originally it was pitched to me as a short film with improvisational performances at these various locations.
So I live in Bozeman, Montana, and I was like, “Oh, there’s Cody, Wyoming.” That’s where Heart Mountain Relocation Center was. They still have one of the barracks there. So I drove out there and spent a couple of days shooting with K on some of those scenes and it was really supposed to be like a 25 minute thing. It was a couple months then it just kept going year after year, getting into deeper parts of the story.
Kaoru: We didn’t know what it would be, but we just kept shooting. It was really exploratory.
Justin: We spent a month in Japan to shoot a scene where K is reconnecting with his family heritage and the name Ishibashi. There’s a lot of different parts that we’re trying to explore and inevitably, we needed to boil it down into a 96 minute film.
FTI: The film was a years-long process. What were some of the things you wanted to include but weren’t able to?
Kaoru: It was originally a two hour movie. It included my mom’s perspective as an Okinawan. There were some civil rights elements. We went to the South and Chicago because it was about marginalization and discrimination. Okinawans have a different culture and they were kind of oppressed by the mainland Japanese, and then kind of suffered a lot during the battle of Okinawa and the U.S. invasion. There were a lot of things we wanted to cover, and they’re all tangential.
But then we had to at some point, cut it because the average person gets tired after watching a film that long. So yeah, we cut that and then it actually made a lot more sense as the film you see now.
Justin: Cutting was probably the hardest thing to do because for me — being a white dude — I had never even thought about that identity and pride until this project.
FTI: Could you talk a little bit about your musical journey?
Kaoru: I grew up as a classical violinist and then I later went into Jazz Improvisation at Berklee College of Music. When I started Kishi Bashi, it was always very violin heavy. I started with string quartets and string orchestra and I kind of moved up into eventually playing with symphonies. And finally I’m doing symphonies, but it took me ten years.
FTI: Can you talk about what it was like to partner with each other for this song film? What are the things you’re considering when visualizing the sound and feeling of this journey?
Justin: I had spent a decade doing most of the action sports, outdoor films. A lot of aerial work went into those. Helicopters with stabilized gimbal systems and just a specific way of shooting it. I thought that you could apply a really interesting visual style with vast wide aerials of these different sites and have a really intimate approach to how we shot with K. It was very cinema verité, very fly on the wall, kind of watching him go through these different places and we essentially just followed him around for most of it. But that’s kind of what I wanted to bring to the table.
Kaoru: If you’ve seen snowboard films, they’re cut to music. So I knew that Justin had to be the editor. He’s really great and aligned in how drama can be moved by music. Very early on we called it a song film. A lot of editors might not have understood that. They wouldn’t be super passionate about cutting to music.
Justin: The other big challenge for me was that I never worked on an American history doc ever. It was a struggle for me to learn. I think that’s one of the reasons it took so long. We had different editors that would come in and help and that was super helpful to learn from other, more experienced doc editors. But in the end, like, I kind of had to be the one to wrangle it all in as the editor and director. So it was very stressful. It was completely a fish out of water kind of experience for me.
I learned a ton about myself as well through working with K and watching him become more confident in his own identity as an Asian American, as Japanese American. I’ve been blown away by K’s ability to just create songs out of nothing. He would just stand in a field while trying to channel maybe what it was like to have been there. And visually, there’s Heart Mountain.
FTI: How did the history of the locations affect your performances in them?
Kaoru: Sometimes you go to these sites and it’s a very pleasant time and it’s actually quite nice. It’s really difficult to understand that as a modern person in a space that has so much history. I think it really helped me to connect with the people and their stories first. There were 10,000 people incarcerated here. This family donated their 16 millimeter film to us. In them, they are smiling and having a good time.
We want to try and show the injustice, but then you also realize that these are regular people trying to make the best of their situation. When you have a camera or you have film, you want to document the best times, you know? It wasn’t all miserable all the time. To be able to empathize, to put yourself in that kind of thing, that’s what a human being does, right? They want to find happiness.
FTI: When you’re standing in those fields, are you able to feel the air you are in? Does that influence the notes that come out?
Kaoru: Sometimes. I was in a very cold place in that room, in that smokestack. It was like negative ten degrees. And I can’t play at that temperature. It was almost impossible, so I made the melody up in the car.
As an improviser, I like to have time to just get bored. If you devoid your mind of stimulation, it actually starts to entertain itself and come up with ideas. If I need to work on something, I’ll drive around, turn the radio off and start conceptualizing. I’ll record it on my phone.
Justin: There’s a scene in the morning where he wakes up and he’d start to play a song called “Red, White and Blue.” I think you were trying to figure out the melody. And there’s a scene where he wakes up in it and he just, like, immediately hits it on his voice memo and starts to hum and write that.
Kaoru: Mornings are a good time. You’re not quite out of your subconscious. That’s why Einstein would take naps.
Justin: History is often just read about. You’re reading an oral history and sometimes you’re lucky enough to get to meet somebody that tells that story to you directly. That is one amazing way to really start to learn. Like, what was it like? History is always written from one perspective. I think that’s why there’s so many people that don’t know a lot about how Japanese Americans were in camps.
I think one of the powerful tools that Omoiyari possesses is the ability to kind of connect emotionally with the visuals, the music and the archival footage. It puts our viewers in their shoes for a minute.
FTI: In the film, you spoke about how before Omoiyari, writing music was choosing to be either Japanese or American. That stood out to me. What brought you to this realization?
Kaoru: As a minority in this country, you’re always torn between who you are. You have this cultural identity of your parents and then you have this American identity and you’re always trying to figure out where you lie on this spectrum. For me, it was always split — like a Horcrux.
You got this Japanese American soul. You got your red blooded, American blue eyed soul here. Until I finished the film, I didn’t realize that the American identity is really changing to encompass diverse people like us. The American experience is not monolithic. I think it’s finally becoming okay to embrace this thing where basically non-minorities are tolerating this kind of expression of identity. It’s a great place to be. That’s why I think I felt comfortable enough to start being unapologetic.
Justin: It was something I didn’t relate with before the film. I wouldn’t have thought about why someone would feel insecure about being Asian American or being or Indigenous, you know, the Horcruxes. It was cool to see him go through that.
FTI: The film feels like a concert tour of the soul. How does touring the film feel different than touring the music?
Kaoru: It’s definitely more relaxing. We are so relieved that this movie’s done because it’s just been hanging over us, like when are we going to finish this? So to be able to not worry about working on the movie and just promoting it is just a joy.
It’s a great thing to be able to talk to you about it. Basically, Omoiyari, the companion album to this doesn’t take five years to make. For the past three years, I would do interviews and they’re like, “Oh, so what’s going on with your movie?” For three years I’ve been like, “Well, it’s coming. We’re working on it.” It’s a huge relief. I’m glad and really proud of it.
Justin: I hope the movie is an educational tool to support a college course or something. For so long, the film was just this thing among our families,our partners, and friends. They would always ask when it was going to get done and if it was going to get done.
Kaoru: My dad said “Tell Justin he needs to get the movie done!”
Justin: I was stressed out and I just wanted to get it right because we had so many people that came forward to help us and were interviewed willingly to talk about it. I wanted to make sure K’s very personal story was absolutely authentic. It just took us a long time to get right. So we’re both thrilled to be here premiering it at SXSW.
Kaoru: I’m going on tour next Sunday, so I’ll be telling everybody the movie’s out and coming soon.
FTI: This last question relates with the ten year anniversary of 151a that just happened. It was a lot of our staff’s first experience with Kishi Bashi. So it’s really precious to us. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your personal journey from that in retrospect going to Omoiyari?
Kaoru: In the beginning, you know, I made music just for fun, and it was very whimsical, emotional, and wild. And I think I’ve matured basically from the start of creating this film. Four or five years ago, I was not able to articulate the kind of things about identity and dispossession. Just talking about working on this movie really matured me into the middle aged musician that I am now. But I do look back on that first album. It’s still pretty wild. There’s a lot of crazy sounds on there. And so we’re going to play it on tour.
Justin: 151a was my intro to Kishi Bashi as well. I just remember hearing and thinking, this is dream editor music. It’s super exciting to cut to.
This interview was conducted by Justin Ricafort and Johan Qin, in-person at SXSW 2022 in Austin, Texas on March 13th, 2022.
Omoiyari: A Song Film by Kishi Bashi is currently on the film festival circuit.