Is making a movie titled “Seppuku” a form of career suicide? If you’re filmmaker Daryn Wakasa, who recently executed a three-year-long journey to take his passion project from idea to fruition, it’s actually more of a career move.
I came across Wakasa’s name while researching filmographies of Yuji Okumoto and Tamlyn Tomita for an article I wrote about the 30th anniversary of “The Karate Kid Part II.”
That 1986 movie put those two in the spotlight for the general public, with Tomita (who was the 1984 Nisei Week queen) in her first-ever acting role as Kumiko, the romantic interest opposite Ralph Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso. And while it wasn’t Okumoto’s first movie, his role as LaRusso’s adversary, Chozen, was up to that point his biggest part in his then-nascent career.
Since that breakthrough, both have appeared together in subsequent projects, with a short, live-action movie titled “Seppuku” being the latest — and it is directed Wakasa, with the script co-written by him and Peter Parshall Jensen.
Wanting to know more about this up-and-coming Japanese American director, I reached out to Wakasa and after a few emails, he graciously agreed to meet with me at a Culver City restaurant and discuss his life, his career — and “Seppuku.”
Wakasa, 34, is the son of Marsha and Alvin Wakasa, of the Crenshaw district and Gardena, respectively and he has a younger sister, Kelsey Wakasa. Similar to Tomita and Okumoto, Wakasa was born and raised in the greater Los Angeles area, in his case the San Gabriel Valley suburb of Montebello. Presently he lives in Culver City and works for Santa Monica-based Elastic, which creates title sequences for movies and TV shows.
Like his slightly older filmmaking peer Tad Nakamura, Wakasa is a Yonsei and a representative of the current generation of Japanese American filmmakers committed to telling the stories relating to the JA community. With Nakamura thus far staying on the documentary side, Wakasa (who has worked with Nakamura) is more interested in the narrative area of filmmaking.
“ ‘Seppuku’ is a post-generational ghost story,” Wakasa said. “It’s about an Olympic track star who encounters a ghost who originated from the internment camps, that traumatic experience.” Much of the movie is actually shot on location at the site of the Manzanar War Relocation Authority facility.
The short, if things work out, could be the springboard for a feature-length movie. In the meantime, Wakasa noted that “Seppuku” was recently accepted as part of the next CAAMFest film festival in the Bay Area.
As a Yonsei, Wakasa noted he is a couple of generations away from having been directly affected by U.S. government’s WWII decision to uproot and incarcerate Japanese Americans and legal permanent residents living along the West Coast.
Still, Wakasa says what happened then affects him now. “Very rarely do we see or talk about how the generations that followed were affected,” he said, regarding the post-traumatic stress that gets passed down from one generation to the next.
“It’s like psychological emotional osmosis. What ‘Seppuku’ explores is ‘You’re never good enough,’ this idea of always having to prove yourself that really started in the internment camps, with your own country, your own government telling you, ‘You’re not good enough to be an American.’ That insecurity gets passed down from generation to generation.”
Whether it can be attributed to that insecurity he alluded to or an innate aptitude, Wakasa was motivated to achieve in higher education and in his chosen profession. He went to Loyola Marymount University as an undergrad and studied multimedia (he also later taught there as an adjunct professor), and he learned how to use design and visual communication skills to discuss issues. Next, he attended grad school at Cal Arts, in the design program, studying film direction and animation.
Professionally, he got his start at Motion Theory, founded by Matthew Cullen and Javier Jimenez, and worked in commercials and music videos. He also spent a year in New York City working for a company named Imaginary Forces, which worked on film title sequences. Returning to California, he later worked for acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro’s company Mirada Studios for about five years, so Wakasa has accrued some real-world experience in Hollywood.
During his time at Mirada, Wakasa still had a itch that job couldn’t scratch. “There was more to be explored in storytelling and how I could use it,” he said. “The reason I got into it is because of the camps.”
He made a fateful decision to leave Mirada and commit to “Seppuku,” into which he invested a big chunk of his personal savings to make. But he was motivated by finally, only recently, hearing stories from and about relatives who were put into the camps, stories he had asked about but was never told of, attributing his elders’ reluctance to share the camp experience as a source of embarrassment.
“I feel like I’ve been affected so much by the camps, even though I’m a Yonsei,” Wakasa said. “Now, unfortunately, that generation is dwindling and I’ve been dedicating my passion filmmaking career to do those stories.
“It’s not only that I want to tell them — I do — but they need to be told. It’s almost my responsibility as an artist, as a storyteller to make sure these stories get told.
“I think storytelling and being an artist is a way of me trying to figure out my identity of what being Japanese American is, what that means to me, because it’s such a melting pot of different ideologies, philosophies, cultural influences — and it’s different for each JA.
“I think by exploring this through storytelling, it’s cathartic in that way, it helps me figure out who I am and hopefully be able to use that as a lens to tell those stories.”
With the fallout of the #OscarsSoWhite social media campaign to spotlight the lack of diversity in mainstream Hollywood movies, it begs the question of whether this raised awareness could present an opportunity for Wakasa to tell those stories to a wider audience.
“I’ve seen the version of ‘OscarsSoWhite’ on a very personal basis,” Wakasa said, from sitting in on film development meetings where he was part of the creative process, including with script development.
“I tried to sneak in Asian American characters as secondary elements and it always got shot down,” he said. But he did have one small victory where he was able to pitch the director on “this huge IBM exhibit” to include an Asian American grandfather and his granddaughter as one of the stories in that project.
“Seppuku” is Wakasa’s third film; “Giri” was his second and his first project was titled “A Lost Generation,” which was his thesis project at Cal Arts and also dealt with themes of his relationship to the internment as a Yonsei.
“That really was the impetus to ‘Seppuku.’ I knew that no one was going to pay me make this story, no one was going to give me the money to tell this story in Hollywood,” Wakasa said. “The only way I was going to be able to do that was to quit my job. Everybody else probably thought I was crazy to take the money I had saved up for all these years and invest it back into this story, because it was the only way I was going to be able to make it.”
Wakasa is cognizant of how fortunate he was to land veterans Okumoto and Tomita. “We got to Yuji first,” he said. One of his co-producers was a stuntwoman who through friends knew Yuji (he plays the father of Mari, the movie’s protagonist’s father in “Seppuku”), who lives in Seattle and runs a restaurant named Kona Kitchen. “She was able to get it to Yuji and Yuji was so gracious,” Wakasa said.
When Wakasa sent Okumoto the script, he says he thought it was really cool. “It utilizes going back to the camps and talking about the importance of not forgetting where we came from and our past,” Okumoto said.
Now a producer in his own right, Okumoto says he also realized that the role of the mother would be perfect for his “Karate Kid II” co-star, Tomita. “I called Tamlyn because Daryn said, ‘We hadn’t cast that role yet.’ I put in a call to Tam to see if she was interested in playing the mom and my wife in the short and that’s kind of how I roped Tamlyn into this piece.”
Okumoto says Wakasa is the kind of filmmaker he appreciates. “He’s willing to talk about the role and tailor it to the particular individual who’s playing that role and he’s always open to suggestions, which is great.”
“Anytime JAs or Asian American filmmakers have a project out there that is important and has a message, I’m more than happy to jump in and help out anytime,” Okumoto said. “It’s important to help the Asian American film community grow and help with these projects. It’s good to help out with these young filmmakers who are coming up and Daryn is quite talented. He definitely has a great eye for painting a picture.”
Regarding the current crop of Asian American filmmakers, Wakasa says there is a community and movement happening. “I’m just lucky enough to build off of the movement that other people have already built, like Tad’s dad,” he said, alluding to Tadashi Nakamura’s father and fellow filmmaker, Robert Nakamura. “There’s so many people who have come before me. I’m just someone fortunate to ride on their coattails to be able to make my story.”
We are fortunate that there is at present a group of Japanese American and Asian American filmmaking talent in at varying levels of recognition and success, a list that includes Cary Fukunaga, Cellin Gluck, Justin Lin, Derek Shimoda, Tad Nakamura and now Daryn Wakasa.
Talent is one thing. So is luck. But so is perseverance. “I’m stubborn,” Wakasa said. “Where there’s a will, there’s a way, my mother always used to tell me. There’s got to be a way. I’m determined to get there at some point.”
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2017 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.