________________ CM . . . . Volume VIII Number 15 . . . . March 29, 2002

cover Obachan's Garden.

Linda Ohama (Director). Selwyn Jacob & Linda Ohama (Producers).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2001.
94 min., VHS, $39.95.
Order Number: C9101 056.

Subject Headings:
Japanese-Canadians-Evacuation and relocation 1942-1945
Mail order brides-Japan

Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.

Review by Deborah L. Begoray.


Towards the end of this evocative National Film Board production, the 103-year-old Obachan (grandmother) of the title says: "As a Buddhist I have always believed that we will all come together one day, and life would come full circle bringing everything into harmony." The flower garden of the title is planted twice--metaphorically bringing Obachan full circle as the first time she plants it herself and then more than 75 years later her family replants it according to her directions. Obachan's Garden documents the remarkable events which transpired between these two plantings--not only a revealing a life which comes full circle but also the less than harmonious bumps along the way. The director, Linda Ohama, Obaachan's granddaughter, weaves together a multi-layered presentation of words and images which cannot fail to give a wide variety of viewers knowledge and pleasure. It is a film that will linger in the memory.

     Obachan's Garden at its most basic level investigates the mystery which surrounds the early life of a Japanese woman, Asayo Murakami. She arrived in Canada in 1923, haunted by her past. In preparing for Asayo's 100th. birthday party, her granddaughter begins a life history on film as a gift. She quickly discovers, however, that her grandmother has a secret or two requiring more research. Who was and is Asayo Murakami? How can the filmmaker discover answers?

     As well as a story with a mystery which is at least partially solved by the end of the film, Obachan's Garden is also a source of information about social and historical life in Japan, about women who arrived in Canada as "picture brides" for lonely Japanese workers, and about life in fishing settlements such as Steveston, BC, about the Japanese internment and life on a sugar beet farm in Manitoba, about life for Japanese Canadians after the war.

     Finally, the film explores the nature of truth and memory, about the complex responses of men and women to stressful situations, and about the nature of history and how researchers discover the past. The director hints at the multitude of interpretations possible for life events (Is her grandmother telling the truth? Has she left out facts? Why do people look into the past? What is the role of the individual within a community? What role do catastrophic historical events play in the life of an individual? In what ways are cultures influenced by new settings? How do people respond to a clash in loyalties? What is the role of endurance in personal/community life? How do secrets and uncertainties reverberate through families? What is the role of a mother in a family?) The film explores this complexity in a variety of ways. At the center are a series of interviews done with the grandmother and the story of her family's modern search for the truth about two (or maybe three) missing children. The camera follows the family to birthday parties, to Steveston and their abandoned home, and to Japan. But it also looks into the past with archival photos, newsreels. Finally, the director intertwines a series of dramatic re-enactments to portray her grandmother, grandfather, and their family when Ob achan was a young wife and mother in Canada.

     Viewers will likely be impressed, as I was, with the honesty of the film. The director does not avoid the unpleasant truths which her filmmaking reveals. Through an interview, she looks at her mother's troubled relationship with Obachan, at the doubts surrounding the evidence found in Japan surrounding the lost children, about the lack of agreement between Obaachan's stories and what other information suggests about the past. She includes a re-enactment with the men of her family cheering the Emperor after the bombing of Pearl Harbour and another of Obachan and her husband bitterly quarreling.

     Obachan's Garden could be used in a number of ways. It has potential as an example of superb documentary style for beginning film makers interested in telling family stories in intriguing ways. It also looks at the life of a woman told largely in her own words. Japanese Canadian women of Obaachan's generation are not often heard. The information about the Japanese relocation and internment contained in this film, while explored in novels and history textbooks, is not often related by members of the Japanese community. Finally, the themes of the film are worthy of great literature or philosophical treatises: love, loyalty, and remembrance. All of these elements would foster conversation in secondary English language arts or social studies classrooms.

     Obachan's Garden is a film to be watched again and again. It reminds me once again of the impressive depth of ability in Canadian documentary film makers and of the fascinating stories we all have in our own families and communities.

Highly Recommended.

Deborah L. Begoray is an associate professor in language arts in the Faculty of Education at the University of Victoria.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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ISSN 1201-9364