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VOX POPULI: Remembering a Committed Artist

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Hiroshi Kashiwagi plays a Nisei veteran in “Kikan: The Homecoming.”

By KERWIN BERK

Deeply saddened by the news that Hiroshi Kashiwagi passed away. I suspect that sadness will linger for quite some time.

Many have spoken about his role as an activist, his tireless work for civil rights, his importance to the Japanese American community. His legacy is undeniable. His place in our history indisputable.

We will never forget that Hiroshi. We owe him a great debt.

However, I will also remember another Hiroshi. A man who had a wry sense of humor, a man who loved to eat, a man who was a committed artist.

Hiroshi was first and foremost a theater actor. He enjoyed doing films but it was the stage, the footlights and the greasepaint that he truly loved. When he rehearsed with an actor for the first time you could see a trace of skepticism on their faces. How could a man this old be any good? Can he even remember the script?

Then they would run lines.

And Hiroshi’s voice would kick in, a voice that could be heard in the back row of the balcony. And that skepticism would be gone, replaced by a sense of admiration for here was a man in his 90s still doing what they both loved — acting.

The first time we met was over coffee in San Francisco Japantown to talk about a role in a film. I asked him if he would be interested in playing a Nisei man who ate corned beef hash and eggs every day for breakfast at May’s Coffee Shop.

“That would be a stretch,” he said.

Life began to imitate art after that film — “The Virtues of Corned Beef Hash” — ran its course. Like the characters in the film we would meet every couple of months for lunch. I think he picked restaurants that served food he wasn’t allowed to eat at home — things like curry and kaarage, yakisoba, tonkatsu and even corned beef hash and eggs.

Hiroshi Kashiwagi (pictured with Wendy Huynh) played a cantankerous spirit in “Infinity & Chashu Ramen.”

A few years later we made another film. We had a big opening in Japantown. Overwhelming, in fact. A city supervisor even presented Hiroshi with a civic award. Months later, I noticed that Hiroshi had a couple of the awards hanging on a wall at home.

“Oh, they give those to me all the time,” he said.

We took “Infinity & Chashu Ramen” on the road to cities that had large Japanese American communities — Sacramento, San Jose, Santa Cruz, Los Angeles. He met many old friends and made so many new ones along the way.

He fell ill before our screening in Seattle. I talked to him on the phone and told him the trip wasn’t worth risking his health. The next time I saw him was on the ferry to Bainbridge Island.

Hiroshi managed to make it to every screening except one. He gave me some lame reason for missing the show, something about going to the White House and seeing President Obama.

“Is that the best excuse you could come up with? Meeting the president?” I wrote.

“I actually want to meet Michelle,” he wrote back.

Later, I asked him if he would consider reprising his role from “The Virtues of Corned Beef Hash” on stage. The play itself would be more ensemble and focus on the history of Japantown. We went so far as to have a couple of table reads. I remember complaining ad nauseam about my lousy third act.

“It’s not that bad,” he said.

A few days after the last reading he wrote to me. He said his hearing was too far gone and that he was having trouble memorizing lines. He didn’t want to disappoint anyone and said I should recast his part. This was a man who loved the stage, and I thought how incredibly difficult it must have been for him to write that note.

“I knew it. You didn’t like the third act,” I wrote back.

“It did kind of stink,” he replied, but adding that he wouldn’t mind doing another film someday.

I couldn’t see doing the play without him. So, I put the pages up on the bookshelf behind me, where they sit today gathering dust, lousy third act and all.

I kept his last line in mind, however, and in the late summer of 2018 we were back in Japantown shooting his scenes for yet another film.

I am grateful that Hiroshi was able to see “Kikan.” His part is small but he was a theater man and he would be the first to say, “There are no small parts.”

The film begins with his character — Jimmy Ibata — carrying a wounded soldier on his shoulders through a forest in the rain. He is strong, young and courageous.

Hiroshi picks up the character 60 years later. Jimmy is leaning on his 14-year-old granddaughter for support as he walks through a Japantown that he helped build.

I will watch the final scene differently from this day forward because of its unintended meaning. I will no longer see Jimmy Ibata. I will see Hiroshi … not as strong, older but still courageous … walking through a Japantown that he helped build.

On behalf of the casts and crews who worked with Hiroshi, I would like to extend our heartfelt condolences to his wife Sadako, his sons Soji and Hiroshi, and the rest of his family. His life touched us all and we are all better for knowing him. He will be missed … and more importantly he will be remembered.

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Kerwin Berk is a Bay Area director, writer and producer whose credits include “The Virtues of Corned Beef Hash,” “Infinity & Chashu Ramen,” “Kikan: The Homecoming,” and the TV series “Gold Mountain.” Opinions expressed in Vox Populi are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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