Bending History, Time, and Perception With Filmmaker Rea Tajiri

Wisdom Gone Wild
Rose Tajiri in a still from Wisdom Gone Wild

Documentary filmmaking is sometimes thought of as a record of history. But can documentaries also be a way to experience the past (lived or imagined) or different states of reality? Veteran filmmaker and CAAMFest 2023 Retrospective Spotlight honoree Rea Tajiri immerses the viewer in these experiences in a style that is like a poem or a lyrical essay–but with moving images. Tajiri’s latest documentary Wisdom Gone Wild, chronicles her mother Rose Noda Tajiri’s journey with dementia, along with the changes it brings to their family dynamics. While much more personal than her other projects, this latest film touches on many of the recurring themes in Tajiri’s work: the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, memories (or the lack of) from this period, and her ongoing journey to unearth personal and collective emotional legacies.

The inspiration for Wisdom Gone Wild actually came much earlier in Tajiri’s career, when she was on tour for her 1998 film Strawberry Fields, a coming of age movie set in the early 1970s. 

“Strawberry Fields was one of the first narrative features by an Asian American woman, and was part of the historic Class of 1997 [at the San Francisco International Asian Film Festival, now CAAMFest] which also included Justin Lin and Quentin Lee’s Shopping for Fangs, and Chris Chan Lee’s Yellow,” says CAAM Executive Director Stephen Gong.

Strawberry Fields follows a rebellious Japanese American teenager Irene (played by a young Suzy Nakamura), is at odds with her tightly-wound mother, who attempts to maintain the facade of a tidy life–even as her marriage disintegrates after the untimely death of the family’s younger daughter. The sister’s ghost frequently visits Irene and guides her on a road trip in search of the story behind an old family photo depicting their grandfather at a mysterious train station in the desert.

Strawberry Fields
Reiko Mathieu and Suzy Nakamura on the set of “Strawberry Fields”

When Tajiri was preparing to screen Strawberry Fields at the Venice Film Festival, she had a surprising phone call with her mother. She describes the conversation: “I called her and she said, ‘You’re not my daughter, who are you?’” For two years, Tajiri made  long-distance phone calls to her brother in Southern California and flew back and forth from New York to coordinate their mother’s care. Finally, Rose was officially diagnosed with dementia. In the ensuing years, Tajiri began taking snapshots of everyday moments of caregiving–visits to the doctors, outings to museums–to share updates with relatives. And when the camera came out, so did another side of her mother. Tajiri describes: “My mother was starting to develop this uncanny ability to kind of be a performer for the camera like suddenly she was this very interesting model.” At the urging of friends, she began to take short videos with a point and shoot camera (before the advent of the iPhone). 

Glimpses of images are a theme running through Tajiri’s body of work. In her 1991 documentary History and Memory: For Akiko and Takishige, Tajiri recreates a scene that repeatedly flashes through her mind unbeckoned. In the vignette, a woman’s hands reach to fill a bucket with water; the background is the parched dirt of the desert Southwest (similar to the landscape in Arizona, where her mother was incarcerated during World War II). 

Tajiri’s frequent references to historic images are not surprising, given that her father was the photojournalist Vince Tajiri, who once worked for the Nichi Bei newspaper in San Francisco. Young Rea grew up in a home with a darkroom in the basement.I have a really distinct memory of going through and playing with things and in the household and that there were always tear sheets or pictures in piles,” says Tajiri, who remembers “just looking at them and and kind of finding them in a mysterious because they they were like images without any context” The images that captured her imagination most were the ones showing Asian Americans from an earlier era. “They were dressed very formally. They were black and white photos. And everybody had this brilliantine in their hair, or the women had really curly hair.” 

This fascination with imagery led Tajiri to Los Angeles, where she studied conceptual art at California Institute of the Arts in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There, she and her classmates experimented with picking up 8-millimeter movie cameras and recording their worlds. “One of the things that always struck me was when I picked up an 8mm was just the act of recording something, capturing something that was ephemeral and then getting it back a week later, and then sort of feeling like oh, that was just that’s just a piece of the past that’s a memory,” she reflects. After graduation, she was led to do more video work, often serving as a production assistant on Hollywood films. “I realized after working on a few industry films and being a PA and working in the art department that it was a really different sensibility. And if I stayed I would be kind of getting further away from what I was interested in,” says Tajiri.

History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige
Still from “History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige”

So she packed her bags and moved to New York in the early 1980s, where she fell in with a crowd of CalArts graduates, as well as a cousin who made a fateful introduction to a friend who inspired the filmmaker to turn her lens on Japanese American history. The friend? Yuri Kochiyama, who she found out lived next door to her parents in Hattiesburg, Mississippi during World War II when Tajiri’s father was stationed with the all-Nisei 442nd Regiment. The Japanese American civil rights activist would sometimes join when Tajiri was showing her early video artwork to friends at The Kitchen Center. Kochiyama had many questions about the younger woman’s conceptual art, which blended the study of theory and the language of cinema. Soon after, Tajiri made her groundbreaking documentary History and Memory. “It mainly was influenced by just thinking about how to take that kind of content, but also look at it through these different lenses, talk about family and kinship and identity, history,” says Tajiri. “And I think that a really common thread is of course, memory and how we navigate and come to terms with memories.”

Soon after, Tajiri also teamed up with Pat Saunders to direct and produce the documentary Yuri Kochiyama: Passion for Justice, which chronicles her life from her incarceration during World War II to her friendship with Malcolm X and political awakening leading to advocating for worldwide nuclear disarmament, the Japanese American redress and reparations, and international political prisoner rights.

Rea TajiriTajiri broke new ground in blurring boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. Along with that hybridity, her use of conceptual art to illuminate historical and political issues inspired many other emerging filmmakers. One of those was Grace Lee (Asian Americans, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs). “History and Memory blew me away when I was first trying to learn about filmmaking. It was formally inventive, intensely personal and incredibly moving,” says Lee, who interned for another filmmaker Shu Lea Cheang who shared an office with Tajiri. Lee ended up working as an Production Coordinator on Strawberry Fields. “I got to witness her tackle her first fiction feature up close,” Lee tells CAAM. “I’ve always admired how much creativity and imagination she brings to her projects and it’s been wonderful to watch her work evolve over the years. I’ve also met many of her former students and am happy to see that the same spark she lit under me continues to happen with so many other filmmakers over the years.”

Since 2008, Tajiri has taught film at Temple University. She used her videos from the early days of her mother’s dementia as examples to show her class how to shoot handheld tracking shots. And in the process, she realized that these clips could be a film. She continued to slowly gather recordings, and in 2016 she received funding from CAAM’s Documentary Fund, which helped support the project through the editing phase. 

As Wisdom Gone Wild is shown on the big screen, Tajiri hopes audiences will shift from considering dementia as a tragedy and instead think about “how can you connect with someone who’s elder and to come to terms with listening and connecting and in hearing stories validating the stories and building the wisdom and the knowledge.”

Wisdom Gone Wild is not the capstone on Tajiri’s career. She is already at work on her next film; this one will be a hybrid project focusing on her father.

Wisdom Gone Wild airs on POV on PBS, Monday, November 20. Check your local listings for times.