Multiple love stories intertwine in Tetsuro Shigematsu’s new 1 Hour Photo, but the Japanese-Canadian playwright and actor hasn’t made it easy to tease them out of their context. Fortunately, said context is fascinating—and sadly relevant to what is going on in today’s world.
Love Story No. 1 is the prickly affection between Shigematsu and his father, Akira, which hovers in the background of the new play but was the central focus of 2015’s acclaimed Empire of the Son. The older man died just two weeks before Empire opened, but father and son had the pleasure of developing a deeper—if late-blooming—understanding of each other during the research that Shigematsu did for his first full-length production.
“That was a very rewarding experience,” the former CBC Radio host says, reached on his cellphone during a postrehearsal stroll from Chinatown’s Playwrights Theatre Centre to Waterfront Station. “And then when he died.…I realized that I felt very bereft, and there were still more questions that I wanted to ask him. Sometimes I’d have the impulse to pick up the phone and call him, so on a certain level I just wanted this ritual to continue—to sit at the knee of an elder and be transported to the past.”
Enter Love Story No. 2: the playwright’s friendship with Mas Yamamoto, an elderly friend of the family. Well, “love” might be putting it too strongly: like many men of his generation, Yamamoto is not given to overt demonstrations of affection. According to Shigematsu, some of Yamamoto’s daughter Donna’s friends would occasionally want to hug him, “and he actually learned to start liking it. But at one point he looked up at me, a little concerned, and he said, ‘Now, don’t you go hugging me.’ And I was like, ‘Here I come, Mas; here I come!’ ”
Shigematsu laughs affectionately, and allows that he and Yamamoto—whose other daughter, Naomi, was the first Japanese Canadian elected to the B.C. legislature—seem almost preordained to enjoy their intergenerational friendship.
“Mas is short for Masanobu, and the ideogram for his name means ‘first to attack’ or ‘first to charge’,” he explains. “And Tetsuro means ‘a philosophical young man’. And I suppose that sums up our relationship. Mas has always been the archetypal warrior on the battlefield of life, and I’m just the curious scribe, asking questions as I ponder philosophy’s most basic issues: ‘How does one live?’ and ‘What is a good death?’ So, for me, Mas’s capacity for reinvention, his ability to start over, and the fact that he experienced so much hardship and injustice yet remained so free of bitterness were really quite inspiring to me.”
Shigematsu’s Japanese-born father, he notes, died in pain, and without fulfilling his literary ambitions. “There was a song in his heart that he never got to sing,” he says. “Whereas for Mas, I believe that in his constant starting over and reinventing himself, he was able to sing a medley of songs. When he dies, I don’t think he’ll have as many regrets, because I don’t think he was living his life according to anyone else’s script.”
And this, he adds, is all the more remarkable in that, as a teenager, Yamamoto was swept up in one of the most shameful episodes of Canadian history: the dispossession and internment of B.C.’s Japanese population. The 75th anniversary of this calamity lends a level of urgency to Shigematsu’s project: Yamamoto is one of a handful of internment survivors old enough to remember the experience, yet young enough to remember it clearly. Furthermore, it ties the story into the disturbing developments south of the Canadian border, with internment camps on the horizon for many Latin-American residents of the United States, including thousands of young “Dreamers”. And it’s also the backdrop for the play’s third love story: Yamamoto’s stymied passion for a fellow internee, Michiko “Midge” Ayukawa.
War and life separated the two. Yamamoto worked north of the Arctic Circle, building early-warning radar stations, before opening the camera business that gives 1 Hour Photo its name; Ayukawa, who died in 2013, moved to Victoria and became a historian and advocate for Japanese-Canadian rights. Both married, apparently happily, and had children. But while Shigematsu was going through Ayukawa’s papers at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, he made a surprising discovery.
“What I found,” he says, “was a trove of photographs that Mas had sent to her over the years: just little wallet-sized portraits of his various incarnations. He was working on the railway, in the orchards—all these blue-collar jobs. And he’d probably forgotten that they’d existed, but finding them was like finding an X-ray of Mas’s heart.”
Building on techniques he developed during the creation of Empire of the Son, Shigematsu has worked those images into his multimedia storytelling, along with recently discovered Super-8 footage of an internment camp, a custom-pressed LP recording of Yamamoto reminiscing, and tiny dioramas showing two rooms: the bedroom where Akira Shigematsu spent his last weeks, and the kitchen where the Yamamoto recording was made. These, in effect, are the sets for the otherwise simply staged piece; as the show progresses, Shigematsu manipulates objects in the rooms, with the action projected on-screen by tiny cameras.
Like its predecessor, 1 Hour Photo is both emotionally revealing and formally inventive. Now, however, Shigematsu is getting closer to answering the questions Empire of the Son posed—although audiences will have to discover those core truths for themselves.
“As a writer, I’m reluctant to define the story in a way that tells the reader what to think,” he says. “I feel like my role as an artist is less as a teacher, but maybe more as a catalyst for people’s own processes.”
1 Hour Photo runs at the Cultch’s Historic Theatre from Tuesday (October 3) to October 15.