At a film festival in San Francisco last year, Steven Okazaki introduced his work-in-progress, the short documentary The Mushroom Club, to a supportive audience. He asked them to pardon, in his words, "my terrible monotone voice doing the narration. I think that'll soon be replaced by Sean Connery." Everyone laughed.
Some of Okazaki's charisma comes from his willingness to imply that he is not charismatic. While it's true that not many people know who he is, the San Francisco Bay Area-based filmmaker-up for an Academy Award this year-has been nominated twice before and has won once (for 1990's Days of Waiting, which offered a unique perspective on Japanese-American internment during World War II). His understated manner, however coy, has served his work especially well.
The Mushroom Club takes a brief peek into the soul of a city known for "its Mazda cars, its sake and its baseball team"-and, of course, for its near annihilation by an A-bomb six decades ago. Okazaki's first documentary feature, broadcast on PBS in 1982, was the unceremoniously titled Survivors, which examined the legacy of America's atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Last year he made The Mushroom Club as a sort of postscript to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the attack on Hiroshima. The film (its title comes from the name of a support group for children born with radiation-related defects) accomplishes a lot in its thirty-five minutes. It is a gently meditative look at the catastrophe's long aftermath; a personal, colloquial commemoration-and therefore a powerful one. It alludes to an ongoing struggle within the Japanese soul between pacifism and militancy. Hiroshima's quietest and most beautiful place, Okazaki's narration proposes, is now a cemetery.
In a conversation at a coffee shop near his Berkeley office, Okazaki says he likes working in the Bay Area because to him it seems about as far away as one can get from Los Angeles and New York without feeling completely out of the loop. While those other cities go about their film industry-insider business, they seem to tolerate San Francisco as a high-minded (if low-profile), espresso-addicted individualist friend with some artful, "out there" ideas.
Okazaki grew up in LA, but came north for college. He got into filmmaking because he figured it would be good for his social skills and because the painting program at San Francisco State University was full.
"I got a call telling me, 'Pick a new major,'" he remembers. "I went through the catalogue, and thought, 'Oh, film-that would be interesting.' I also felt inadequate mechanically-I didn't know how to tune up my car or anything, so this seemed good for me in several ways."
He finished school in 1973 and got involved in educational programming. "I went into children's films not because I love children, but to take advantage of them," he dryly observes. "I just wanted to make movies-any kind of movies. Eventually it became a huge passion. I tried to see 150 to 200 movies a year. I found cheap ninety-nine-cent rep houses and lived in crummy apartments."
Okazaki says he floundered a lot professionally, but gradually learned to trust his instincts. "If it's compelling enough, people forget that you're not qualified," he says. "I've always been one of those people who feels like an outsider, wherever I am. Hiding behind the camera makes it easy for me ... When you've got a camera aimed at someone," he goes on, "you can ask intimate questions right away."
As his career matured, Okazaki came up against what he calls the PBS constraints-"doing stories about animals and British people"-but he pressed on. His notable non-fiction efforts have varied widely in their range of subjects; from Hunting Tigers, a serendipitous venture into the subculture of Tokyo performance art, to the notably grittier Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street, about the lives of five San Francisco street kids. "HBO runs that one a lot," he said. "I won't even know that it's [being aired] and suddenly I'll get a lot of e-mails. The letters are so intense-from recovered addicts or people close to them-it's amazing. I connected with their lives in some way. I'm wary of being taken as the "serious guy"-with a lot of my documentary work, it has been so serious-but the intensity of reactions can be very rewarding. I think you have to be up for the responsibility of it."
His competition for this year's documentary-short Oscar includes three formidable challengers: God Sleeps in Rwanda, The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club and A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin. Of course Okazaki would be glad to win, but like most artists working with this form, he's most concerned about continuing the work, however semi-obscure it remains.
Okazaki chooses his films very carefully of late. "I ask myself, 'Is this really something I want to devote my time to?' When you're done with a project, you never feel like you got it right," he says. "But you do well if you have credibility. It's not just about 'because this product will sell.'"
Just before screening The Mushroom Club for the San Francisco audience, he intimated the reason why this film and its 1982 precursor have continually deserved the devotion of his time: "It's something about the hopeful image that Hiroshima presents to the world." Quietly, the idea seemed to resonate.
The Mushroom Club is playing in select US cities. Consult this schedule to find a screening near you.
Jonathan Kiefer is Maisonneuve's film flâneur. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Jonathan Kiefer.