You might not be able to tell that I’m half Japanese just by looking at me. It was more obvious when I was younger, when I would go to Saturday language school at a Buddhist church near my grandparents’ house. My family still makes some Japanese foods, like sushi, sukiyaki, and kuromame (sweet black beans). Sometimes, my family, my mom’s brother’s family, and my mom’s cousins’ families would all go to obon (a festival to honor the spirits of our ancestors) in August, stuff ourselves with teriyaki and dango (fried dough balls), and watch some attendees perform traditional dances on the blocked-off avenue.
But despite this, I’ve always felt out of touch with my heritage. Countless family history projects, years of ethnic feasts, and (re-)taking Japanese language courses weren’t enough for me to connect fully with my roots. There was something fundamentally missing: an underlying message, a philosophy, something to unify everything.
It was with a glimmer of this mindset that I first read about Randall Okita’s collection of shorts, which would be presented at CAAMFest 2016. Born in Calgary, Okita is a Japanese-Canadian filmmaker who has also lived in Japan, Vancouver, and Ontario. His filmmaking style has been described online as exploring themes of “sculpture, technology, [and] drama” through “rich cinematography.” Perhaps, I thought, something here will help me bring things together.
And, though it sounds corny, contrived, and/or exaggerated, I actually do feel like I’ve discovered something.
Five of Okita’s short films – “Machine with Wishbone,” “Fish in Barrel,” “No Contract,” “Portrait as a Random Act of Violence,” and “The Weatherman and the Shadowboxer” – were shown, followed by a Q&A with Okita himself. I’ll cover each event in order.
I was initially struck by “Machine with Wishbone” because of what isn’t shown. A plain, bright white background is used almost exclusively in the short, except for a few seconds in which some painted glass panes are layered, “cel”-style, to create a mountain scene. However, even this is dismantled in the next shot when the camera shows the panes from an angle, revealing and separating them. This white background emphasizes the props and mechanisms that are included in the frame, which ties back into the simple art style that I adored in Pamela Tom’s Tyrus. “Machine with Wishbone” strikes a beautiful balance between demoting movement to a technological function and breathing “life” into technology because of the movement it produces. Several close-ups ensure that the viewers see the turning gears, metal rods, pistons, and more that animate the namesake wishbone, a “body” in a bed, and more; however, the technology that is shown distracts from the technology that isn’t (namely, the camera and filming equipment that captures the wishbone’s journey). The simplicity of the visual setup and the symbiotic fusion of art and technology are spellbinding to me.
“Fish in Barrel” takes a drastic turn from the cheeriness of “Machine with Wishbone,” immediately obvious from the barely-there lighting and the eerie, garbled sound effects like speech and slow music. Fluid mechanics provide another balance between visual pleasure and physical truth, as the camera shows objects like fabric floating or drifting underwater. When a man sitting in a bathtub abruptly submerges himself, the camera slows the action to emphasize every sparkle of the droplets shattering on the tiles. The man’s frustration and submersion, juxtaposed with mesmerizing tranquil music, seems to me to shift among fits of mania and depression. But I’m likely reading too far into it, so I’ll just stop there.
“No Contract” is the only one of Okita’s presented films to show filmmaking equipment in the frame, thereby showcasing the process in the final product. People are shown into a dark auditorium, which is lit by a crew, and are seated on benches. The presence of a huge mat, firefighters, and a gurney quickly clues in the viewers (both onscreen and off) that a highly dangerous stunt, likely involving fire, will be demonstrated, and it isn’t long before the viewers are gratified. As a stuntman himself, Okita breaks down the composition of a stunt, showing not only the preparation, but also the act of lighting the stuntman (himself?) on fire and crawling on the floor. Two figures, both ablaze, crawl toward each other, and a cacophony of sounds crescendos, practically deafening us in the off-screen audience. This shot is done in slow motion, which draws out the anticipation of the figures’ meeting to agonizing lengths and plays on the viewers’ panic and fear responses. The slowing of the crawl also affects the flames jumping from each figure, and they swirl through the air like orange flower petals before gracefully fading away.
If “Machine with Wishbone” is my favorite of Okita’s shorts, then “Portrait as a Random Act of Violence” is probably second. Bursts of sound shock the viewers, and a man smashes several panes of glass. After considerable damage is done, the man lifts a brick onto a hook, which is attached to a pulley system, and lets gravity lower the brick to the floor. The brick is tied by thin black cords to hundreds of glass shards, formed from the man’s destruction of the panes. When the shards halt, they produce a stunning image: a three-dimensional glass figure of a human recoiling from a blow, partially shattering while made of shattered things. As soon as I saw the figure, I assumed that this was a reflection on the fragility of human ego and emotion, basically stating what kinds of harmful effects words, as well as actions, can have on other people. Imagine my satisfaction when, by answering a question another audience member posed in the Q&A afterward, Okita confirmed that I was partially right. If I remember correctly, Okita said that in “Portrait as a Random Act of Violence,” he wanted to explore the emotional connections involved in abuse, specifically between a perpetrator and a victim. (Check out more notes from the Q&A below!)
“The Weatherman and the Shadowboxer,” the fifth and final of Okita’s shown films, contains a more complete narrative than the other four and also makes use of stunning visual effects. In fact, of these five films, this is the only one to use animation and extra computer effects; everything else, like the mechanisms in “Machine with Wishbone” and the glass statue in “Portrait as a Random Act of Violence,” are real! A voiceover introduces the namesake characters as a short home video rolls on, showing two brothers at play. In one frightening moment, the boys turn around, and their eyes are scratched out with white. While the visual is unsettling in itself, what scares me more is the influx of noise. I quickly assumed that the brothers’ tale was not a happy one. Several surreal shots superimpose video or images onto human outlines, so the viewers are not shown anyone’s faces in their entirety, which gives the cynical impression that each person is no more than what they do. There is, indeed, a complete narrative present here, but I won’t spoil that for you.
I feel like I can summarize each of Okita’s five works, in order, with one word. Determination. Desperation. Desensitization. (Emotional) Destruction. Disillusionment. (I wanted to maintain the pattern. Don’t judge me.)
After the films, Okita answered several questions from the audience. I will do my best to include the questions here, and I will paraphrase Okita’s answers based off of the notes I took. (In other words, Okita’s “answers” below are not verbatim unless put into quotation marks.)
Q: How do you start your pieces?
A: The process is always slightly different for each piece, but usually, it starts with a spark. For example, Arthur Ganson’s work inspired the adventure in “Machine with Wishbone.” Sometimes, I also start with the last image that I want the film to have and work backwards from there.
Q: Do you identify first as a storyteller, artist, filmmaker, or something else?
A: I try not to think about it too much, but if I had to choose, I probably identify as a filmmaker first. But I want to try many different areas, and I’ll take any chance I can to work in other areas.
Q: How long did it take to make the glass statue in “Portrait as a Random Act of Violence”?
A: It took several months to plan, but we ended up creating something different from that plan. Overall, it probably took about 3 weeks to put the mechanism together.
Q: Has there been any differences between American and Canadian support for your work?
A: “It’s an interesting time.” It’s a time of open discussion and exploration on what works and what doesn’t, including an exploration of gender parody. I’m lucky to have so much support and freedom to make mistakes.
Q: Does it come naturally to think abstractly, or do you have to practice it?
A: I’m still new to that way of thinking, still figuring it out. I don’t want to limit myself, and I want to explore things that excite me. I try to chase a “spark” until it makes “a kind of sense,” like the “smack” of violence representing both actor and victim in “Portrait as a Random Act of Violence.” I don’t usually start with intellectual grounds, but with emotion.
Q: How will gender parody affect your industry?
A: I don’t want to misrepresent anything, but I think that gender parodywill help focus the conversation of what will be made and how. I’m excited to work with organizations using the gender parody model.
Q: Is there a relationship among the symbols in your films?
A: I’ve never really thought of my films as bodies of work. I always start with a physical item and a desire to turn visceral emotions into physical presentations. I’ll probably run out of metaphors one day, but we’ll see.
Q: Can you tell us about the genesis of your third film, No Contract?
A: I was thinking a lot about “spectacle” and the filmmaker’s relationship with the audience. The “making of the piece became part of the piece.” The final image that I wanted was very clear.
Q: Any new projects that we can look forward to?
A: I’m working on another film called “The Lock-picker,” which I hope will be at a future CAAMFest, and a few other shorts and art pieces are in the works, as well.
I started this article rambling on about my Japanese heritage, and I promise that there’s a point to my sharing it. Okita’s work, especially “Machine with Wishbone,” embodies a similar “beauty in simplicity” concept that I greatly enjoyed in Pamela Tom’s Tyrus, which leads me to believe that maybe such an idea is commonplace in an Eastern artistic mindset and is not just Chinese. A type of Japanese poetry, haiku, relies on a strict syllabic structure: 5 in the first line, 7 in the second, and 5 in the last. In my past attempts at haiku, I’ve found that it is much easier to write haiku in English than in Japanese. There is a wide variety of monosyllabic English words that can be strung together to form a logical statement, but individual Japanese words often contain multiple syllables. For example, inu means dog, but two syllables are used instead of one. This forces Japanese haiku to include words only if they are absolutely necessary, which makes each haiku so much more evocative and goes back to Tyrus’s Wong’s quote: “If you do a painting with five strokes instead of ten, you can make your painting sing.” Perhaps adopting this approach, using less to say more, is the next step in honoring my heritage.
I should probably start by shortening my articles.
CAAMFest 2016 concluded on March 20th, but be sure to follow CAAM for more updates, special events, and new projects! Curious to see what others have to say about CAAMFest, Okita’s works, and more? Check out CAAM’s page for CAAMFest 2016 and #CAAMFest2016 on Twitter. Thank you very much for reading!
(photo: TIFF 2013)