Last week I wrote an article about my involvement with the new feature film, The Big Bachi, and why I thought it was important and worthwhile project.
I thought it’d be great opportunity to speak to some of the principals behind the production. So I asked Derek Shimoda (the director), Mark Tasaka (the writer), Oliver Ike (the Producer), and Naomi Hirahara (the original writer of the book) four questions.
- Tell me what drew you to Mas Arai?
(Derek) I was immediately drawn to Mas even before reading the book because I was familiar with him. My mother read the Mas Arai series and relayed that the character shared the same experiences as my father in real life – atomic bomb survivor and gardener. I think this connection will be more invaluable than any research I could do.
(Mark) As an Asian American who is a fan of film noir, literary detectives, and the mystery genre, I was immediately drawn to Naomi’s first Mas Arai book, “The Summer of the Big Bachi” because of the elevator pitch of the character: he was a Hiroshima-bomb-survivor turned gardener turned amateur detective. That description alone made me aware that Mas Arai would be a very different kind of detective. Besides, the only Asian detective character I was aware of was Charlie Chan, and it’s hard to stomach the “yellowfacing” of those old movies. Naomi’s books and her creation of Mas gave me a character who was a welcomed change of what I was accustomed to.
(Oliver) He reminded me a lot about my own father who is also a Japanese gardener.
(Naomi) Not applicable. I created him. 🙂 Inspired by my dad, but I encountered a lot of men like him during my childhood and also during my tenure at The Rafu Shimpo. These men have been invisible and underestimated. In the movie Chinatown, the Asian gardener didn’t have a name. I’ve given him one here.
- What are the biggest challenges you see with this project and why?
(Derek) Financing is the biggest obstacle, for obvious reasons. The most important challenge is maintaining the essence of Naomi Hirahara’s book so as to not disappoint fans of the story too terribly. With Naomi’s approval and input, we have takes some liberties on the story but we are being careful how we proceed.
(Mark) The biggest challenge of bringing “The Big Bachi” to the screen is the funding. Trying to find “mainstream” funding for a film that is set in the 1960s featuring a predominantly Asian cast that is critical of both the actions of America and Japan during the WWII is a tough sell. But that’s what so great about “The Big Bachi.” It addresses these serious issues and wraps an entertaining mystery film exterior around them. Audiences – not just Japanese-American audiences – will learn something while hopefully being entertained at the same time. It’s a highly digestible history lesson disguised as a film noir or perhaps, vice versa, depending our what part of the film you respond to the most.
(Oliver) On the surface, I think some people might see it simply as an “Asian” film and people not of that ethnicity will automatically tune out. The problem is that since Asians in cinema are so rare, whenever a film features a majority Asian cast, it will automatically be labeled an Asian film. This film can be a huge step in the direction of normalizing Asians on screen.
(Naomi) There’s really not much of precedent for something like this. A film adaptation of a mystery series written by an Asian American? And the development team is comprised of mostly Japanese Americans. How do we get people — even our own community members — to invest in this? Documentaries are more known commodities among the older generation. Younger folks seem to supporting more relationship-driven feature films. Some of my mystery writing colleagues are getting substantial film and TV deals. But an independent effort like this featuring a mostly all-Asian cast? It’s a challenge.
- Why is The Big Bachi important to you? To the Asian American community?
(Derek) “The Big Bachi” is extremely important to me because it represents more than a group of Asian Americans telling their own story; it represents a community who accepts that mainstream Hollywood just isn’t interested their voices. I’m hoping that “The Big Bach” is an example of Asian Americans not willing to let that detour us.
(Mark) I can say that the “The Big Bachi” is important to me because I believe that it’s a step in the right direction of correcting the wrong of having Asians in largely stereotypical roles on the big screen. Or I can say that it’s important because there’s been a lot of white-washing of Asian stories for many decades in American film and it’ll mean a great deal to a lot of Asian Americans to have a film that doesn’t take the easy way out in terms of casting or its POV. I can say that it’s very rare to have an all-Asian American film production (the director, producers, the writer, and the author of the book all being Asian American). I can say all these things and they’ll be 100% true. But probably the easiest thing to say is that “The Big Bachi” has a chance to be a hard-hitting and engrossing film noir starring an atomic bomb-surviving gardener who is trying to solve a huge mystery while keeping everyone’s lawn immaculate. That alone should get people in seats.
(Oliver) The film is important to me because it is a unique story about people we don’t often see on screen. The time period depicted in the film is a soon forgotten time in Southern California history that has yet to be told in this way. Also, from the author being Asian American to the entire filmmaking crew being Asian Americans, I think this is a film that the community can really rally behind and be proud of.
(Naomi) There’s such a paucity of full-length feature films starring Japanese Americans and their stories. Remove all the camp and identity related ones, and there hasn’t been a lot since the pioneering “Hito Hata: Raise the Banner” in 1980. This is not okay. I love “Crimson Dragon” but that still had a slight outsider’s look into the exotic Little Tokyo. “The Big Bachi” has an interesting neo-noir plot that moves the story. The neo-noir genre allows for flawed and imperfect characters, not model minorities or one-dimensional heroes and victims. I feel that we need the reclaim the missing years since the end of World War II. It’s not like we miraculously reappeared in the 21st century. Stuff happened in between, namely many of our elders worked outside on people’s lawns or inside cleaning people’s homes. In spite of being engaged in this kind of labor, they weren’t simple or simplistic. Life is complicated and the past has a way of leaving its mark.
- What is something interesting you’ve discovered while working on this project?
(Derek) During our first team meeting with Naomi, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that three of our fathers were or still are gardeners, the trade of Mas Arai. As such, one of our Kickstarter campaign rewards is gardening by a team of genuine Japanese gardeners – an almost extinct breed.
(Mark) I learned that this is very, very, very difficult. Adapting the book into a script was incredibly challenging. And right now, trying to raise funds for the film is extremely tough. And I’m sure pre-production, production, and post-production will be shaving years off the lives of everyone involved due to the stress and pressure. All of it is hard. But I guess it’s supposed to be hard because then it wouldn’t feel so damn rewarding.
(Oliver) I’ve received the unique privilege of learning more about my own community and history as a Japanese American. I have met many people like my own father and heard more about their unique pasts and challenges.
(Naomi) It’s been fun to watch the evolution of one of my stories in script form. There’s been some substantial changes — the time period, for one. But I really have enjoyed seeing how things need to be altered for a more visual medium. I didn’t expect this, as I’ve heard stories from other novelists with horror stories about their adaptation experiences. It’s been great to give input to the screenwriter, Mark Tasaka, as well as the director, Derek Shimoda. They both have been really open and I think that we have the same goal — to tell the most compelling story about an American-born atomic bomb survivor who is haunted by his Hiroshima past.
DIRECTOR DEREK SHIMODA produced the feature film, In My Life, as well as the acclaimed documentary, Secret Asian Man, an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival. He wrote, produced and directed the film, Autonomous Soul, winner of a Visionary Award at the Pan African Film Festival. Over the past several years, Derek has worked on non-fiction series for several cable networks including, The History Channel, The Travel Channel and A&E. His debut feature-length documentary, The Killing of the Chinese Cookie, was a Best Documentary winner at the Asian Film Festival of Dallas. His most recent project, June Bride: Redemption of a Yakuza, is a feature documentary about Tatsuya Shindo, a high-ranking Japanese ex-mobster-turned-preacher.
SCREENWRITER MARK TASAKA graduated from the USC School of Cinematic Arts with a Critical Studies degree. During his time at the school, Mark met his frequent collaborator Derek Shimoda and they’ve been working together ever since. Mark has worked on a variety of documentaries, films, and television shows since graduating. A veteran of the television industry for over a decade, Mark is currently working as a supervising producer on a hit reality show.
PRODUCER OLIVER IKE is an experienced film industry veteran with over seven years of experience in distribution, sales, programming and production. Ike served as Associate Producer on the feature film, EMOTICON and has released numerous award-winning films as a distributor including: In the Family, Seoul Searching, Man From Reno, Patang and many more. Ike currently runs the independent film distribution company, First Pond Entertainment.
AUTHOR NAOMI HIRAHARA is a novelist and social historian based in Los Angeles. A former editor of The Rafu Shimpo newspaper, Naomi has written nonfiction books, including a biography on businessman and philanthropist George Aratani, the history of Japanese American gardeners, and the lost Japanese American community on Terminal Island. In addition to her successful Mas Arai book series, she has written, 1001 Cranes (2008), Murder on Bamboo Lane (2014) and Grave on Grand Avenue (2015). She received her bachelor’s degree in international relations from Stanford University and spent a year at the Inter-University Center for Advanced Japanese Studies in Tokyo.
Follow me at @ksakai1.