A Love Letter to San Francisco Japantown

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From left: Wendy Woo, Sandra Young, Hiroshi Kashiwagi and Suz Takeda at Benkyo-do in a scene from "Infinity & Chashu Ramen."

From left: Wendy Woo, Sandra Young, Hiroshi Kashiwagi and Suz Takeda at Benkyo-do in a scene from “Infinity & Chashu Ramen.”

By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

A Little Tokyo audience was transported to San Francisco Japantown through the independent film “Infinity & Chashu Ramen,” which had its Los Angeles premiere on Jan. 18 at the Japanese American National Museum’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum.

Written and directed by Kerwin Berk, the movie weaves together different stories set in Japantown. Two unseen spirits — the cantankerous 400-year-old Tenshi (Hiroshi Kashiwagi) and Lucy (Wendy Woo), a Nisei from the 1940s — observe what is going on and influence the outcome.

Anyone who has spent time in S.F. Japantown will recognize the locations, which include Yasukochi’s Sweet Stop, Kokoro Assisted Living, Peace Plaza and Buchanan Mall, to name a few. The filmmaker does take a few liberties, such as showing people eating ramen at Benkyo-do, a century-old manju shop, and at On the Bridge, a Japanese pasta restaurant.

Berk previously wrote and directed a short, “The Virtues of Corned Beef Hash,” in which a young reporter (Tim Yamamura) strikes up a friendship with a Nisei veteran (Kashiwagi) who is haunted by his past. Much of that film was also shot in Japantown, mainly at May’s Coffee Shop.

Of his latest film, Berk said the various stories were based on his experiences growing up in Japantown. “I originally wrote the piece without the obake (but) it sort of lacked heart, so I tapped back into Japanese culture and our folk stories and traditions. I came up with the ghosts who kind of intervene in people’s lives.”

Suz Takeda

Suz Takeda

Regarding the significance of the title, he explained, “The underlying theme to me is that we’re all kind of connected in a certain way, we’re all in the soup together. And of course noodles (represent) so many cultures … and ramen is such a comfort food for us.”

Berk thanked the Japantown merchants who helped out, including brothers Bobby and Ricky Okamura, who own and operate Benkyo-do. They would hand Berk the keys, simply telling him, “Lock up when you’re done,” and always left out mochi and manju for the cast and crew. Berk noted that Benkyo-do — established in 1906, the year Japantown moved to its current location— has a long history comparable to that of Little Tokyo’s Fugetsu-Do.

He added, “There’s really not lot of places where Asian American acting talent can get work, so all these great friends of mine came on board. They worked for free. We could not have made this film if they had not done that … It really was a community effort and we made it for a fraction of what it should have cost.”

Shooting only took about 20 days, but post-production took about two years, Berk said. “Had we had the money, we should have probably done this in less than a year, but we just didn’t have the resources.”

Kashiwagi — a veteran actor, poet and playwright who is still going strong at 91 and has just published a book, “Starting from Loomis” — remarked, “It was a great part. I couldn’t turn it down.” The biggest challenge, he said, was the fact that most of his lines were in Japanese.

His credits include such mainstream films as Ridley Scott’s “Black Rain,” and Kashiwagi has just been cast in another movie as a retired martial arts master. “There’s one fight scene and the director — today he was here — told me it would be done … in slow motion. I could do that,” he said.

Suz Takeda, whose credits include her one-woman show “The Game of Life,” plays Juanita, a Japanese Peruvian waitress. She said San Francisco Japantown is “close to my heart,” especially since the one in Oakland, where she grew up, disappeared long ago. The movie documents Japantown as it is today, she added, so that years from now people can watch it and say, “That’s where we used to have coffee” or “That’s Grandma’s shop.”

In one scene, Takeda’s character mentions Japantown institutions that have vanished in recent years — Japantown Bowl, Kokusai Theater, and The Hokubei Mainichi. (Uoki Sakai, a century-old, family-owned grocery store, also closed its doors, but after filming was completed.)

A number of other cast members attended the screening:

Randall Nakano plays Stanley, who is reluctant to start a new relationship after the death of his wife. Larry Kitagawa and Ben Arikawa play his friends. Nakano gave a shout-out to his wife, Shirley, who is very much alive. Her photo is seen in the film.

Sandra Young plays Claire, who has a chance encounter with Hank (Todd Nakagawa), whom she broke up with 20 years ago.

Rey Taira’s character tries to strike up a friendship with a girl who has anger issues (Carolyn Hu) while waiting in line to see “Akira” at VIZ Cinema. The L.A. screening was Taira’s first opportunity to see the completed film.

Jean Franco plays Raoul, a Spanish-speaking artist who tries to communicate with a student from Japan, Tsukiko (Anna Jones).

Naomi Quinones plays Maude, who discusses the importance of chashu ramen and Bruce Lee over lunch with Harold (LJ Batinas).

Toward the end of the film, an accident brings all of these characters together.

The event included DVD signings and a trailer for another production from Berk’s Ikeibi Films — “Where Is Tanaka?” — about the search for a legendary musician who disappeared 30 years ago.

For more information, visit www.infinityandchashuramen.com.

Naomi Quinones and LJ Batinas in a scene from "Infinity & Chashu Ramen."

Naomi Quinones and LJ Batinas in a scene from “Infinity & Chashu Ramen.”

From left: Cast members, director Kerwin Berk, cast members Hiroshi Kashiwagi and Naomi Quinones at the JANM screening. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

From left: Cast members Larry Kitagawa and Ben Arikawa, director Kerwin Berk, cast members Hiroshi Kashiwagi and Naomi Quinones at the JANM screening. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

From left: Cast members Jean Franco, Rey Taira, Sandra Young and Randall Nakano. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

From left: Cast members Jean Franco, Rey Taira, Sandra Young and Randall Nakano. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

 

 

 

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