If my records are correct, the last time I wrote about filmmaker Derek Shimoda was more than five years ago, when I wrote about his fun and enlightening documentary “The Killing of a Chinese Cookie,” which had played at the 2008 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, where it won the best documentary award.
“Cookie” explored the origins of that staple of American Chinese restaurants, the fortune cookie. In it, Shimoda revealed that even though the cookies are associated with Chinese restaurants, they are virtually unknown in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, et al, and that the dry cookie containing a slip of paper with an entertaining “fortune” printed on it is actually Japanese in origin, thus making the fortune cookie a uniquely American phenomenon.
Since Shimoda’s son attends the same elementary school as my son (and formerly, my daughter), I’d see Derek’s son and wife occasionally around campus, but I hadn’t seen Derek around as much as a few years ago. So, it was really great chatting with him about his newest film.
In conversation a few years back, he said he had begun traveling to Japan to work on a documentary about a former yakuza member who had become a Christian pastor and had now devoted his life to helping others turn their lives around through the Christian faith.
The title of that documentary, finished earlier this year, is “June Bride: The Redemption of a Yakuza.” It just premiered at the 2015 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Shimoda is listed as its director, along with Miho Hatori, who is also the movie’s composer.
According to Shimoda, however, things didn’t go well at its first screening during the festival. “The audio cut out halfway through the film,” he said, which necessitated that screening’s cancellation. He said, however, that many people later told him they would have continued to watch it since it’s subtitled, as most of the dialogue is in Japanese.
That wouldn’t do, however, as a director puts a lot of work into not just the visuals but also the sound, the music, the sound effects — having the film continue sans sound was a compromise he didn’t want to make. Fortunately, the second screening went “considerably better.”
I was fortunate enough to view “June Bride” via the Web, thanks to Shimoda, and like his prior work “Killing of a Chinese Cookie,” it’s another well-made documentary. Shimoda has a very artistic eye for detail, using footage shot, presumably, as B-roll, of a pane of glass, a Jizo statue at a cemetery, out-of-focus lights or plants in the breeze, that is intercut with voice-overs, a technique that while probably necessary for edits and eliminating static talking-head footage, adds depth and breadth to whatever narration is happening.
Including postproduction, Shimoda spent about five years on the mostly self-financed “June Bride.” Incidentally, the use of “June Bride” in the title is a reference to the “church” run by the ex-yakuza in question, a man named Tatsuya Shindo. June Bride is the name of the pub he owns that serves as the nerve center for his ministry.
That fact alone might make some people think Shindo’s embrace of Christianity is a con — but when I asked what he thought, Shimoda said he felt Shindo was sincere about helping others as a pastor, his belief and his conversion. “I really admire him because of what he does,” Shimoda said, noting that Shindo goes to prisons to embrace people who are ready for a change. “If that wasn’t really the case, then he had me fooled.”
As a gangster, Shindo went to prison three times for various offenses, including drug-related convictions. Because of his background, Shindo can relate to others on the criminal fringes of Japanese society as a peer, not as someone high and mighty.
As for Shindo himself, he has a terrific screen presence, with a stylish look and charismatic mannerisms. “Another thing was that his humor was top-notch,” Shimoda said.
Shindo’s story, and the stories of other wayward Japanese whom he has tried to help via his ministry, is a wonderful view into a segment of Japanese society that many, even many Japanese, might not encounter, whether in real life or other films.
“June Bride” is about to begin the film festival circuit and Shimoda hopes to get the movie screened in Japan. Ironically, that may be the only way for Shindo — who has yet to see the final cut — to see the movie.
According to Shimoda, Shindo’s ex-yakuza boss and friend hopes he will someday return to the organization’s ranks and hasn’t removed his name from its roster, thus rendering him unable to visit the U.S.
Now that the movie is completed, the next phase will be the business side of getting it seen. One thing I thought of immediately was getting it sold to Vice, the online media company. It seems like it would be a natural fit, although “June Bride” is not exploitative or shocking. “I’m not going to turn down anything,” Shimoda said, also in reference to getting his documentary shown in Japan.
As for what is next, Shimoda said he doesn’t have a concrete plan yet, but is looking to do something narrative — and not necessarily with an Asian American or Asian angle — after doing a few documentaries. Shimoda is long past the stage of needing a “calling card” type of movie. As talented as he is, I certainly hope Shimoda can land directing gig that takes him into the next stage of his filmmaking career.
More Min Yasui Dept.: Regarding my last column on Holly Yasui’s efforts to produce a documentary about her father, the late Minoru Yasui, I received some additions that need to be noted.
First, footage for the documentary is also being provided by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Steven Okazaki (“Unfinished Business”). It also looks like some footage of Min Yasui will be forthcoming from Jim Lin of University of San Diego.
Also, Denver, Colo., won’t be alone in marking Yasui’s centennial. So too will Portland and Hood River, Ore. The Portland event will take place March 28, the same date in 1942 when Yasui set out to get himself arrested to test the constitutionality of the military curfew. Hood River’s celebration will be Oct. 19, 2016, his birthday.
As for a play reading this summer here in Los Angeles, that probably won’t be happening in that time frame. Maybe next year?
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 © 2015 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.