- Significant Connections:A Conversation with Aaron Woolfolk
The Harimaya Bridge, the debut feature film of Los Angeles–based writer and director Aaron Woolfolk, opened in Japan in summer 2009 and in the United States in spring 2010. There are a number of remarkable things about the film. First, The Harimaya Bridge combines American and Japanese cinematographic techniques, casts, and settings, and is subtitled in both English and Japanese. Second, many aspects of the film are far more Japanese than American: most of the filming was done with a Japanese crew and cinematographer in Japan, and most of the roles are played by Japanese actors. American actor Ben Guillory stars in the lead role of Daniel Holder, and opposite him are Japanese actors Saki Takaoka (Noriko) and Misa Shimizu (Yuiko). Minor roles are played by the American actors Danny Glover (Joseph), Victor Grant (Mickey), and Peter Coyote (Albert) and the Japanese actors Hajime Yamazaki (Kunji) and J-Pop singer Misono (Saita). So skillful is the blending of different cinematic and aesthetic conventions that Guillory sometimes looks as if he has walked onto the set of a foreign film.
Guillory's character, Daniel Holder, is a middle-aged American father whose estranged artist son, Mickey, has died in an accident while living and teaching in Japan. Grief stricken and remorseful, he is also angry with himself for having alienated his son, and angry with his son for having gone to Japan against his wishes. Daniel has hated the Japanese people since learning that his own father was tortured and killed by Japanese soldiers in a POW camp during World War II. With Mickey's death, he reluctantly goes to the country he despises—but where Mickey chose to make his home—to recover his son's paintings and other belongings. Upon arriving, Daniel can barely contain his hatred for the Japanese people, their language, and their culture, despite the unstinting efforts of his hosts to treat him with kindness and civility. Eventually, he discovers that he must choose between hating the Japanese and embracing his son's memory and the family Mickey left behind in Japan. It should be noted that Daniel is African American, adding further complexity to this remarkable film. [End Page 147]
The following interview with Aaron Woolfolk took place in Honolulu in summer 2010.
You initially went to Japan to teach. Please talk about your transition from English teacher to film director.
I first went to Japan with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program, an English-teaching/cross-cultural program sponsored by the Japanese government. I was assigned to Kochi Prefecture, a very rural area, far off the beaten path. I went there knowing that my ultimate goal was to become a filmmaker. I had worked on some film projects at UC Berkeley. To me, the JET Program was a detour—a chance to have an interesting life experience. But when I got to Japan, got to Kochi, I loved it! And I decided that I wanted to stay there for two or three years—maybe even longer. Suddenly, filmmaking wasn't so front and center for me anymore. In Japan, I had a great job, great friends, a girlfriend I loved being with, a nice little apartment. I was so happy with my life there. And I should mention that Kochi is known as being a place that foreigners fall in love with and never leave. I know a lot of Americans who have lived in Kochi ten, fifteen, almost twenty years. While there, I felt the beginning of that kind of attachment.
But, filmmaking and going to film school were still in the back of my mind. And I felt a bit guilty about putting my dream on hold indefinitely. As an afterthought, I applied to film school. I thought I would get rejected and then wouldn't feel guilty about staying in Japan, because at least I tried. Well, much to my surprise, Columbia University's film division actually accepted me. Now, in those days it was really difficult to get into a top graduate film program. I started to think about what to do: stay...