By Miya Sommers.

With the end of the community’s first entirely virtual “Day of Remembrance” season, Sansei Granddaughters’ Journey offers us a path for remembrance through art and ceremony. (Ed. Note: You can view the film by clicking on the link at the end of this review.)

In this powerful 30-minute documentary, artists Reiko Fujii, Ellen Bepp, Kathy Fujii-Oka, NaOmi Judy Shintani, and Shari Arai DeBoer take us beyond their pilgrimage to Manzanar. They guide us through a journey spanning generations, showing how the incarceration experience is imprinted in their artistry and can be channeled as a tool for addressing intergenerational trauma.

They begin by explaining the painful legacy that ties them together. As daughters and granddaughters of those incarcerated during WWII, they are looking to immerse themselves in their family’s incarceration stories. For this part in their journey, they come together during the 2018 Manzanar Pilgrimage. A sound bite from a speaker during the Pilgrimage program reflects the central question for this group of daughters and granddaughters.

From left to right: Shari Arai DeBoer, Reiko Fujii, Ellen Bepp, Kathy Fujii-Oka, and NaOmi Judy Shintani.

 “I kept wondering why are we coming to the desert when everyone else is going to Disneyland?”, the speaker shares. “It was because the years of internment were so impactful on his life.”

As a fifth generation Japanese American, this stuck out to me. Why do we continue to go to the desert? As the speaker notes, it is important for her family members . But does this mean for us who weren’t incarcerated?  What is the purpose of visiting the desolation and pain of our ancestors?

Although they do not stress this point, this film is conducted on the backdrop of a Japanese American community ceremony, an annual pilgrimage. In 2021, the Manzanar Pilgrimage will be in its 52nd year. Much like the rest of Japanese American ceremonies during the COVID pandemic, it will be conducted online. What is the purpose of the ceremony and what does it mean for it to change or to be reborn?

The Sansei granddaughters answer this question through showing us how the use of ceremony – both new and old, can bring us closer to our ancestors and closer to our collective healing. However, Sansei Granddaughters offers us a fresh take in showing us that we have the ability to make a ceremony anew that is reflective of our needs and the larger social climate.

They do this by both performing a ritual of their design at Manzanar as well as reflecting on their paths as artists. It is clear they are each telling the same story- a story of inheritors of the incarceration trauma needing to release that pain. But for each artist, the pieces of their families allow them to tell this story in new ways. For Fujii-Oka, whose family owned a nursery prior to incarceration, the use of the cherry blossom in her work speaks to the “spiritual revitalization from the gardens of my ancestors”. Shintani’s “Innocent Dreamer” focuses on texture  – emphasizing the itchy dryness of a hay-stuffed mattress with a sleeping child etched onto it. It makes the incarceration ever more real, and for NaOmi Judy Shintani, it asks the viewer to ponder how we could be allowing this to happen, yet again, now to migrant children in U.S. immigrant detention facilities.

As the film closes out, it ends with the artists reading out the names of their family who were incarcerated. The final scenes cut to the artists in the desert landscape with their art – connecting their stories back to this land. This closing reiterates the way that the artists are mindful of place. Though they are holding this ceremony on land where Reiko Fuji’s family’s barrack once stood, during their ritual they ask for permission from the Paiute and Shoshone nations that were the original stewards of the land before U.S. empire came through.

Remembrance Shrine by NaOmi Judy Shintani at 2019 Presidio exhibition. Photo by Eddie Wong.

Watching this film in a global pandemic reminded me of a podcast that I listened to recently about what the world will be like after it’s over. One of the guests talked about how not only has there been a loss of many elders – especially in Native American communities – but that the pandemic also meant the loss of important language and cultural knowledge. For many communities, Native or not, they cautioned that there may be a loss of ritual and ceremony due to the disruption that required self-isolation and distance.

I thought of this as I watched the Sansei’s Granddaughters’ ceremony, seeing them include mediums that are familiar to ceremony from Japan – lanterns, drums, washi paper ties – but are very unfamiliar for me as a fifth generation. There are so few rituals that are part of my identity. With that podcast in mind, I thought of how the incarceration experience forever altered how Japanese Americans engaged in tradition and culture. And that I find myself trying to reconnect to a history that often feels too far away.

But the Sansei Granddaughters are a reminder that communities in the United States have undergone various iterations of institutionalized violence – settler imperialism, mass enslavement, war, genocide, labor exploitation, forced assimilation, surveillance, mass incarceration, gentrification. Yet, the connections to our people’s history have never been completely severed. While there has been extreme loss, we can mourn that loss and find healing through ceremony. As the Granddaughters have taught us, the ceremony is for you to create.

As you watch Sansei Granddaughters’ Journey, may you be inspired to take your own journey.

Author’s Bio: Miya Sommers is a gosei community organizer and educator, and is a third generation settler on Chochenyo-speaking Ohlone territory.

Editor’s Note:  We also posted a story about Sansei Granddaughters’ exhibit at The Presidio in 2019, see Sansei Granddaughters’ Footsteps.

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