Preparatory study of mizuchi animation model for feature film “Topaz: Ten Meditations” in form of clay folk art artifact. Photo courtesy of Sansei Legacy Project.
ALAMEDA — A fundraising campaign is underway at Sansei Legacy Project to close a $12,000 production gap for a groundbreaking motion picture titled “Topaz: Ten Meditations,” the first animated feature-length theatrical film on the Japanese American incarceration experience.
The motion picture explores themes of loss, displacement and longings for home and sea through the unusual figure of a “mizuchi” or water dragon.
The water dragon is being brought to life through the medium of stop-motion animation by Sean Morijiro Sunada O’Gara, the film’s director at Sansei Legacy Project and a leading Sansei avant-garde filmmaker whose fine art cinematic works have been featured in international Asian American film festivals.
Topaz, one of the 10 War Relocation Authority camps during World War II, was located in Utah and held thousands of Japanese Americans who had been uprooted from the San Francisco Bay Area.
“We are inviting the community to join us in making film history and in bringing this unique and essential project of remembrance to the public,” said O’Gara. “This is a rare opportunity to be a part of a landmark event in cinema history.
“Donations toward our $12,000 goal are tax-deductible. Major gifts today will make a tremendous difference, ensuring our ability to complete our fine art animated film in time for its scheduled Sept. 11, 2019 release date, marking the 77th anniversary of the opening of Topaz. Your generous donations today will help us succeed in this endeavor.
“We shall be holding a special event at our fall premiere screening where all donors will be thanked and honored publicly. In addition, a wall of special honor listing all donors will travel with the film wherever it screens.”
“Topaz: Ten Meditations,” takes viewers on a challenging journey of reflection through a visual poem consisting of ten dreamlike meditative sequences, all whose central compositional element is a majestic stop-motion water dragon.
The mizuchi seen onscreen is being hand-sculpted by O’Gara in painstaking fashion with the simplest of tools and materials to emphasize an artistic connection with the hand-carved artifacts created at Topaz.
O’Gara added, “We decided at the outset to feature onscreen an actual tangible sculpture instead of a computer-generated figure. A true artifactual presence was of paramount importance in this production from the beginning, and I think viewers will sense and appreciate this presence immediately when watching the film.”
“The mizuchi depicted in the film represents an incarcerated child’s dream of returning home to the West Coast, of leaving the dry Utah desert of barbed wire and barracks behind and seeing the ocean again,” O’Gara said. “Of course, when one hears the word ‘mizuchi,’ one thinks immediately of ‘mizu’ or water. Water, in addition to being associated with with the sea, is a powerful symbol of healing, rebirth, restoration and life. A fantastical marine creature seemed a fitting poetic image in a film about displacement, loss and the longing for a return to a fullness of life beyond the desert.”
“The mizuchi figure itself holds personal significance for me,” O’Gara revealed, “since my mother used to tell me wondrous stories when I was very young about a beautiful Japanese dragon who lived by the water’s edge. Her family had a cherished metal dragon figure, passed down for generations on my Issei grandmother’s side of the family, the Kurokawas. My mother said the dragon had a thick body with an articulated moveable tail. Tragically, she said, during the war years the figure was buried and never recovered.
“While battling cancer in her sixties, my mother conceived of the idea of reviving the family’s mizuchi through the medium of cinema. She planned to shoot some live-action footage of the ocean, and I would follow this activity by animating the dragon through stop-motion, bringing both elements together. My mother lacked the strength to travel the distance from her home to the sea due to her weakened condition, so instead she shot a few feet of footage of the sky. Two weeks later she died along with the project.
“A decade following her death, after much reflection, I decided to revive the mizuchi figure, this time as a particularly meaningful means of entry into engaging with and reflecting on the story of Topaz. I wanted a fresh approach in expressing the incarceration experience which would lead to unexpected yet welcome ways of thinking about this period.
“My first project featuring the mizuchi was a fine art short film titled ‘Kaeru (to return),’ released in 2007. ‘Topaz: Ten Meditations’ extends this piece, its feature-length form offering a grand canvas in exploring themes of loss, displacement and longings for home and sea on a deeper aesthetic and contemplative level.
“In addition to situating the dragon in this context, recently, I have finally begun the process of reviving my mother’s original project to a level with which I think she would be pleased, expanding her ideas into a theatrical narrative motion picture, set as a beautiful, prayerful Japanese American folk tale. Filming will begin on this lyrical feature project immediately following the release of the Topaz project, with a scheduled release date in three years.”
O’Gara’s 35mm motion pictures have been official selections at international Asian American film festivals from New York City to San Francisco. Among his cinematic firsts, he created “Ayamori,” the first camera-less IMAX film (hand-painted and hand-printed in the 70mm/15 perforation film format and processed at Metrocolor Laboratories on the former MGM Studios lot in Culver City). “Ayamori” premiered at the IMAX Pictorium at Great America in Santa Clara in 1989.
O’Gara conceived of and curated “Cinema of Remembrance,” the first major retrospective on Japanese American incarceration films, in 1997 at San Francisco’s Kabuki Theatre as part of the Bay Area Day of Remembrance Commemoration, in association with Sansei Legacy Project and the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California.
O’Gara’s 35mm film “Eiga-zuke,” created through the process of burying raw film stock in Japanese pickling agents, premiered in New York City at Asian CineVision’s Asian American International Film Festival in 1994 and was cited in David Bordwell’s book “Film Art,” the standard university text in cinema studies.
His follow-up film, “Eiga-zuke II: Tsukemono Sound Edition,” premiered at the USC School of Cinematic Arts in 1995 as part of Visual Communications’ program “Expanding Definitions: A Showcase of Asian Pacific Animation.” Following this project, he was awarded a Film Arts Foundation grant for “Miso,” an experimental piece exploring particle explosions in a single bowl of miso soup, which screened at the Kabuki Theatre, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and Locus Arts Space in San Francisco.
First Topaz Film Foray
O’Gara’s earliest cinematic foray into exploring the Topaz experience through water dragon imagery began with the making of “Kaeru (to return),” a spare yet arresting work that screened at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco in 2007 as part of the filmmaker’s multi-screen installation “Umeboshi Altarpiece.”
In “Kaeru,” a film intended primarily for a young audience and funded partially by grants from the California Civil Liberties Public Education Program and the Berkeley JACL, O’Gara sought to broaden the definition of the educational internment film, forgoing detainee interviews and archival camp footage in favor of centering the work on the interior visions of a young detainee.
As the release of “Topaz: Ten Meditations” nears, O’Gara will undertake what he considers the final act in his Topaz-related animation activities, the conducting of a series of stop-motion workshops for ten former Topaz detainees and descendants.
He commented, “I am looking forward to this concluding and significant activity with regard to Topaz. We plan to partner with a major Asian American media organization for greater visibility. We are assembling a group of ten remarkably creative individuals who were incarcerated at Topaz or whose parents were incarcerated at this camp. This project titled, ‘Topaz: Ten Meditations, Detainees and Descendants,’ will launch mid-2019 with a release date just following ‘Topaz: Ten Meditations.’
“‘Topaz: Ten Meditations, Detainees and Descendants’ will showcase the ten participants’ completed works through a traveling exhibit, which will begin with a five-city California tour and then move outside the state with its ultimate destination being Delta, Utah, the city closest to the Topaz concentration camp site.
“For preservation purposes, we shall deposit archival copies of the ten detainees’ and descendants’ works at three community institutions in San Francisco and Los Angeles to ensure future generations will be able to experience directly the artistry and creative visual expressions of these witnesses to the incarceration experience, so that this period of injustice will not be forgotten.”
Tax-deductible donations to Sansei Legacy Project’s film project may be made online or by mail through Buena Vista United Methodist Church, 2311 Buena Vista Ave., Alameda, CA 94501. For donations by mail, make check payable to Buena Vista United Methodist Church and print on check’s memo line “Sansei Legacy/Topaz Project” to ensure the donation goes to the film project.
For online donations, visit www.buenavistaumc.org/donate and type “Sansei Legacy/Topaz Project” in the space provided on the “In Honor/Memory” line.