By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
RAFU ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR
If Izumi Tanaka doesn’t seem too worked up over her nomination for this year’s Emmys, it’s not that she’s indifferent to the honor. She’s simply absorbing another development in projects that often take years to complete.
The Emmy nod was one of two award nominations received in as many days for the 49-year-old Santa Monica documentary producer and director. In July, Tanaka learned that the HBO feature “Nanking,” for which she worked as an associate producer, had been nominated in the craft of research category. Barely 24 hours later, she received a call informing her that her film “Pushin’ Forward,” which follows a now-paralyzed former Chicago gang member, was up for an Imagen Award as best documentary.
“With ‘Pushin’ Forward,’ it was a 9-year odyssey for me, from conception to completion,” Tanaka said. “It felt like I was never going to finish it, so getting the nomination for the Imagen Award felt like good closure for me.”
The film became a deeply personal endeavor for Tanaka, who followed an unlikely route to eventually connect with James Lilly, the man whose reckless life on the mean streets of Chicago left him in a wheelchair at the age of 15. Through no small amount of struggle and soul searching, Lilly transformed himself into a world-class athlete, a dream he’d held before it was derailed by the lure of gangs.
When Tanaka came to Los Angeles from her home of Yokohama, filmmaking was nowhere on her radar. She graduated from UCLA with a degree in East Asian Studies, and had her first media experiences working for local Japanese broadcaster JATV. She explored several avenues, working in advertising, music and film through the 1980s and 90s, but had the feeling that she had a more important calling.
“A lot of that was fun and creative–some of it was glamorous,” Tanaka explained while munching on some sushi rolls at small West L.A. restaurant. “But there was always a discrepancy. Did I want to spend all my energy and my life in general to be a part of creating something just to sell? I’d always felt that advertising is a way of manipulating people and I think in some way, it wasn’t right for me.”
It wasn’t until she was exposed to a celebrated film that she found a unmistakeable direction.
“When I saw ‘Hellfire,’ I felt that I wanted to do something that had the same impact on other people as it had on me,” Tanaka said about the 1986 documentary that follows a married couple of painters who gained worldwide fame through their depictions of the horrors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
“I was so impacted by that film,” Tanaka said firmly. “My father was also in television, making documentaries, and that’s when I realized I wanted to be involved in making documentaries also.”
Her route to “Pushin’ Forward” ran through the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, where she was employed as an assistant producer for Japan’s TV Asahi. Disenchanted by the drive of the mainstream media to create the next Olympic “star” for public consumption, her focus turned to the Paralympics, which followed the Summer Games. Inspired by the courage and resolve of the lesser known athletes, she convinced her chief producer to let her create a short feature to be shown on a news program in Japan. The 12-minute segment, titled “Another Atlanta,” was the only substantial coverage of the Paralympics in Japan. It introduced prime time viewers to the event for the very first time and led to wide national coverage of all subsequent Paralympics, a development in which Tanaka takes great pride.
The “Nanking” project began at an equally unexpected start point.
AOL vice-chairman Ted Leonsis was on vacation when he learned of the late Iris Chang’s award-winning historical volume, “The Rape of Nanking.” After reading the book, he knew it was a story that needed to be told on a broader stage.
The documentary reached a global audience when it was picked up by HBO and broadcast around the globe.
It retold the history of the Japanese invasion and occupation of Nanking, China, in the early days of World War II, as part of a larger plan to actually conquer China. As Japanese forces decimated the city–then China’s capital–a small group of Westerners established a “safety zone,” where some 200,000 Chinese sought refuge.
The film relates the experiences of survivors and those who assisted them, as well as testimonies from Japanese soldiers.
Tanaka was one of several researchers charged with gathering information from the Japanese perspective.
“The film heavily leans on the Chinese perspective,” she explained.
“I started to do research on the Japanese side, and later we got more people to help sort out all the information from both sides.
“I did actually find a lot of stuff shedding light on the Japanese soldiers’ mental and/or emotional state through their experiences in Nanking. Unfortunately I don’t think it gave enough light to the Japanese end of the story.”
Tanaka won’t be on pins and needles as the news and documentary class of Emmys are handed out Monday in New York. In fact, she won’t even be there, opting to focus on future projects that are keeping her busy.
“Right now, I’m still kind of exploring,” she said of the many ideas circulating around her head. “Because of the way things are changing with media, I know it’s not going to be only documentaries. It’s going to be the film, it’s going to be the web site, it’s all going to be multimedia.
What I’d like to do now is to keep looking for meaningful projects to work on. I know the power of media, and I would like to utilize it in a way that gives a positive impact to our world.”
Still, she admitted it would be a special thing indeed to receive one of those coveted, golden-winged statuettes.
“If I get an Emmy, that’s great. That will look good on my resume,” she said.