Raindance 2019: Director Kyoka Tsukamoto On The Personal Journey To Make ‘My Dearest Sister’

My Dearest Sister follows filmmaker Kyoka Tsukamoto’s personal journey to reconnect with her sister, a successful potter living in the ruins of Fukushima. Tsukamoto’s journey is interlocked with her spiritual quest of bridging East and West, feminine and masculine, and shadow and light in her mind. 

Tsukamoto joins us on Close-up Culture to tell us more about the film ahead of its screening at the Raindance Film Festival in London (22 and 23 September). For ticket info

Q: I understand you started writing this story back in 2012. What prompted you to start this incredibly personal journey?

A: Actually it was in 2010 when I wrote the first 2 pages of a monologue entitled My Dearest Sister.

It started: “In the dream within my dream which comes often in the early morning, I always run barefoot in search of you, my dearest sister…”

It was before the tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Fukushima. My original idea was to make a portrait of two cities, Tokyo – where we grew up – and Montreal – where I live now. I wanted to talk about Japanese spirituality and Western individualism, inspired by Jungian psychology. To explore how East and West meet in my mind. For me the story of sisters was just a thread. The tsunami was the hook. But then every time I wrote up a piece of memory, people went, “Wow, that’s the key element of the story!”

Q: What were your expectations and feelings as you started the journey to make this film?

A: The original monologue expressed the longing for the intimate connection with my sister. I wanted to share our experience and I thought that we could build a truly warm and loving relationship.

I used to be a more judgmental and cynical person. Through the process of writing and reflection, I threw out a lot of negative thought patterns and reinvented myself with a more loving and truly authentic approach to life. The filmmaking process gave me the opportunity for this growth – being a mother gave me the chance to change, and it became the essential part of the story of My Dearest Sister.

Q: How difficult was unravelling your past with your father? And also how difficult was it to understand the difference in the way you view that past compared to your mother and sister?

A: I think it was a natural process of shifting my conscious awareness through writing, and once you get to the other side, nothing is taboo. Once you know, you cannot go back to not knowing. I think we, as collective, have to work a lot on our understanding of shame. For example, we often hear statistics like 4 out of 10 people are victims and so on. But we don’t hear much about 2 out of 10 people are rapists or 3 out of 10 people are abusers… why is that?

As a creator, I think it is important not to feed toxic people who actually enjoy watching people suffer. I think we are saturated in the entertainment business, producing basically porn and horror. I think my film is demanding, it asks you to reflect, and to destroy something that you carefully paved. It gives you a tool to break a negative cycle and be healthier, even if that means you have a different view from your close family.

Q: This film arrives in a post-Me Too world. Have ripples of the movement reached the East? 

A: First of all, I think that #MeToo is just the beginning, and there is lots of work to do to heal past wounds, and get out of the abusive pattern, individually and collectively. I think there are many people who are confused and suffering even more after the #MeToo, because when they seek justice, they encounter new unexpected enemies.

I am afraid that my film is too early for many countries. I am so grateful that Raindance picked it up! I am glad that London is ready for this bomb, it will certainly explode in your mind, ha ha!

Q: Given that this is such a personal story, was it challenging to separate your emotional connection to this story with your role as a filmmaker? Or did the two feed into each other?

A: It took many years of writing and revisions. I actually re-wrote the entire narration in the winter of 2017-2018. I am from an experimental film background, so my previous works focused on telling a story like a visual poem. 

For making this first feature-length film, I had to learn how to tell a story, to weave in many layers together as a coherent whole. I also experimented to tell a story in a unique way. I didn’t follow a convention or formula for telling a story. My co-writer Ingrid Berzins Leuzy and story editor Howard Wiseman helped me a lot. But I think, as an artist, it is natural to start from where you are from. Without understanding who you really are, I don’t think you can create an authentic film.

Q: Can you tell us about the ancient queen of Himiko and the role spirituality plays in the film?

A: We think that Japan is a country of Samurai and Geisha. But that is a really shallow part of Japanese history. There were thousands of years of spiritual culture ruled by Queens. Himiko was one of them. I went to Nara for the research and that became a part of the story. If you look at Google Earth, you can see many ancient tombs – called Kofun – all over Japan. Many belong to female rulers. It is not the West that inspires the empowerment of women. It is ancient Japan that corrects the image of Geisha, a stereotype of Japanese women.

 Q: As you mentioned earlier, the film has the backdrop of Fukushima nuclear meltdown and modern Tokyo. Does this setting reflect any of the themes addressed in the film?

A: My sister still lives in Fukushima. I had a dream of tsunami just a few days before it actually happened, and that became the hook to the story. Nuclear meltdown evokes the wound of atomic bombings in the Japanese consciousness. The symbolic connection between a personal trauma and our collective suffering are expressed in these imageries. They invite us to reflect on the negative patterns such as greed and lies, that passed on from generation to generation.

Q: ‘My Dearest Sister’ will have its UK premiere at the Raindance Film Festival in London. Do you see the premiere as a culmination of the journey that started back in 2010?

A: I think it is a beginning. I hope international distributions for my film to reach wider audience. The film was screened at RIDM (The Montreal International Documentary Festival) and RVCQ (Rendez-Vous Du Cinema Quebec), and were very well received – every Q&A session was emotional and intense. Then this year we made an original French version, and are planning theatrical release in Montreal this Fall-Winter. I am looking forward to presenting it in London, and seeing how it will be received internationally!

Q: What impact do you hope this film has on audiences?

A: If you feel shitty, confused, unloved or angry, please come to see my film and it will certainly give you one clue or two to solve your problem! It will give you a tool for seeking clarity. On top of that, you will enjoy an artistically original film with beautiful images and amazing music. By the way, Christopher Doyle wrote to me once, “the piano is great and the images elegant – what do you need me for? ha ha”.

Q: And lastly, what impact has this project had on you personally? 

A: I am a filmmaker but also became a composer/pianist. I think that the process of filmmaking created an opportunity for a truly huge clean-up in my psyche, and gave me access to my new form of expression. This also became a part of the story. I composed and collaborated with some amazing musicians, such as Sarah Pagé (harp), Sam Shalabi (oud), Juan-Miguel Harnandez (viola), Soriane Renad (soprano), etc. The soundtrack album is available during the festival as a CD format.

There will be also a piano concert ‪on the 23rd ‪September at SOAS University of London, as part of Raindance Film Festival.

You can see ‘My Dearest Sister’ at the Raindance Film Festival in London (22 and 23 September). Ticket info

Title image by Jean-François Bérubé

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