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Filmmaker Tizuka Yamasaki explores Japanese roots in Brazil

Brazilian filmmaker Tizuka Yamasaki certainly looks Japanese, but sounds unquestionably Brazilian. The granddaughter of Japanese immigrants to Brazil recently gave a talk, sponsored by the IDB Cultural Center, on the interconnections between the two cultures. She illustrated her comments with clips from two of her films, “Gaijin—A Brazilian Odyssey” and “Gaijin 2,” named after the Japanese term for foreigner or outsider.

Growing up in Brazil, Yamasaki noticed that while there was plenty of talk about the contributions of immigrants from Europe and Africa, no one ever mentioned Japan, even though Brazil has the second largest colony of Japanese descendents outside of Japan, after Hawaii. So in 1980, she decided to tell the story of her then-101-year-old grandmother, who as a young woman left her homeland with the first wave of Japanese immigrants in 1908.

The first “Gaijin” follows the grandmother's journey from Japan to southern Brazil, where the immigrants were lured to coffee plantations. Promises of earning enough to return to Japan in just five years were soon broken, though, and the immigrants had to adapt to life in Brazil, while clinging to their Asian roots.

A few generations later, Japan faced such a shortage of labor that it was forced to open its doors to immigrants of Japanese ancestry. Japanese-Brazilians, or nikkei as they are known in Brazil, began to immigrate to Japan. But when they arrived in what they had been brought up to think of as their homeland, they were treated like foreigners—gaijin—and realized just how Brazilian they had become.

Some 400,000 Japanese-Brazilian dekasegui or “guest workers” now live in Japan, inspiring Yamasaki to make a second film. “Gaijin 2” shows the Brazilian view of the real life of these workers and their impact on Japan. She shot the movie in Londrina, a small town in southern Brazil founded by immigrants from 33 different countries in the 1930s, a veritable “Tower of Babel,” she said. Many Japanese immigrants settled there since the impending war prevented them from returning to Japan even if they could have afforded the move. For the film, Yamasaki built a set of the town as it looked in 1940s.

The movie features an international cast, including Cuban actor Jorge Perrugoría from “Strawberry and Chocolate” and Japanese actress Yuki Kudoh from “Picture Bride.”

Yamasaki had trouble finding older Japanese actresses willing to shoot in Brazil to play the first generation of immigrations. She had to look in the US and Brazil, eventually casting a Brazilian flea market vendor fondly known by cast and crew as Dona Aya. Other Brazilian actors complete the cast.

Gaijin 2 was an ambitious project for a Brazilian film, covering 100 years of history at a cost of some $5 million. But it got support under a new law in Brazil, the Audiovisual Act ( Lei do Audiovisual ) that provides tax breaks for film underwriters.

Questioned about her nikkei identity, Yamasaki said that Japanese-Brazilians are considered quiet in Brazil but loud and disorganized in Japan. Once they go to Japan, they aren't treated like Japanese and realize that they're Brazilian in their behavior. For example, they would never consider suicide over a daughter's marriage to a non-Japanese, as does one of the Japan-born characters in “Gaijin.”

The movie also shows a contemporary young Brazilian of Japanese ancestry, who when asked what generation she is, replies that she's not nissei (“second generation” in Japanese) or sansei (third generation), but não sei (“I don't know” in Portuguese) or sometimes cansei (“I'm tired ”). This multilingual wordplay got a hearty laugh from both the Brazilians and the Japanese in the audience.

As a child, Yamasaki said she was forced to learn Japanese, but didn't force it on her own children, who eventually came around to it on their own out of curiosity. Now there are many Japanese language schools in Brazil, said Yamasaki. The two cultures need not be mutually exclusive, she concluded, but complementary.

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