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by Mark D. McCullough
Culture, family conflict and race, strong issues within themselves cross paths and collide in director/writer Aaron Woolfolk’s first feature length film “The Harimaya Bridge”. Drawing upon his own Black expat experiences as an English teacher in Japan and inspired by classic Japanese films like “Ikiru”, “Maboroshi” and “Tokyo Monogatari”, Woolfolk competently crafts an absorbing ‘un Hollywood’ film which through its meld of minimalist English and Japanese dialogue, beautiful cinematography and unhurried pacing, artfully takes its time in unfolding its multi-layers in telling its tale of Daniel Holder…
Embittered by his father’s horrific death in a Japanese WWII Prisoner Of War camp, African-American Daniel Holder’s (Ben Guillory) long term hatred of the Japanese resurfaces when artist son Mickey (Victor Grant) announces his plans to go teach in Japan. Daniel is fiercely opposed feeling betrayed by his decision, their ensuing confrontation ends with Mickey’s storming off and leads to their estrangement. Sadly with Mickey’s untimely death there in a traffic accident this rift is never reconciled and Daniel subsequently discovers that he truly did not know everything about his son.
Two years on, a still grieving Daniel decides to go to Japan with the intention to recover all of Mickey’s paintings (including those given as gifts to friends) as an (egotistic) attempt to come to terms with his death. He arrives in Kochi Prefecture – a rural area where traditional customs are still strong – and arriving with him too is his extra baggage of guilt, anger and hatred which manifests themselves in the guise of “The Ugly Black American” abroad. Befriended upon landing by Mickey’s colleagues Yuiko, Inoue and Nakayama from the local Board of Education, Daniel rudely – a rudeness that bewilders Kunji Inoue (Hajime Yamazaki) into remarking that “Like father, like son” was not applicable in this case – commandeers their service in his mission of locating and retrieval of the paintings (as recipients of Mikey’s gift they do not quite rightly understand his demand) and to find Noriko (Saki Takaoka), the wife that Mickey secretly wed. Not surprisingly, this does not prove to be an easy task and in its course yields more surprises along the way (even to the film’s ending). What also surfaces is that prejudices do not only exists between races but can often exist between people of different backgrounds within the same race in their home country.
In spite of Daniel’s obstinacy and overbearingness – and the man is cringe worthy – Yuiko’s compassionate persona (played with great aplomb by Misa Shimizu) perseveres in trying to help guide him the “gaijin aka foreigner” through his painful road of discovery and enlightenment about his son and even himself. Notable too are the Japanese supporting actors whose facial expressions and gestures are priceless as they speak more than words could do in conveying the mood. Lending a comedic energetic spark is the character of Saita Nakayama (played by J-pop star Misono) as the young hyperactive Pop song loving office assistant who ends up disgraced because of Daniel’s ignorance. Additionally Executive Producer Danny Glover has a small role in playing Joseph, Daniel’s brother.
Although two hours long, it never bores as the time passes whilst you are immersed in its pastoral imagery, adept camera work and competent acting. “The Harimaya Bridge” is an interesting combination of Japanese cinema told with a Black perspective (Aaron Woolfolk is possibly the first African-American to make a feature film in Japan), that delivers a powerful story of love and raising awareness of race and culture.
“The Harimaya Bridge” was released nationwide in Japan last year, hopefully some of you Black Expat readers there had a chance to see it. Currently it is being launched on a city by city basis in the USA with the latest opening scheduled for Seattle on September 17th. At the moment there are no worldwide cinema release plans however a DVD should probably be available to buy later this year or by early 2011. In the meantime you can watch a preview from the YouTube trailer below.