What you need to know
Trauma and dispossession are at the heart of ‘August at Akiko’s’. But a soaring jazz score and sweeping cinematography suggest new directions and the possibility of moving on.
With the resurgence of great power contestation in the Asia-Pacific, we should keep in mind the traumatic reality beneath the superficial hype and glory of the sanitized official history. It’s worth looking at one of the earliest Western imperial forays into the Pacific region, and its lingering effects, as suggested in writer-director-editor Christopher Makoto Yogi’s August at Akiko’s (2018).
As the film begins, Alex — the only fictional character of the film, played by modernist jazz saxophonist Alex Zhang Hungtai, who also provides the film’s music — returns aged 36 to his grandmother’s house in Hawai‘i, only to find it gone and his grandparents deceased. Suddenly having a lot of time on his hands, he moves into a Buddhist bed and breakfast run by Akiko (credited as Akiko Masuda; the B&B is real, too), a spry old lady whose Americanized accent belies her profound wisdom. Alex spends his early mornings meditating with Akiko and the one or two other guests; his evenings are filled with music, sometimes playing the sax or piano, on one evening joining Akiko at a local festival to sing and dance. He whiles away his idyllic days among the lush tropical flora: running around with Phoenix, the little boy who lives on the former sugar plantation nearby; helping the local community weed and clean ancestral graveyards; and swimming with a friend at a nearby pond and trying to hold his breath underwater as long as possible, while the camera stays up top.
I’ve often felt a film to be limited by its need to follow a plot, which is usually built around people who are forced to do things, or which creates situations that force them to do things. And plot and spectacle often bombard the viewer with visceral excitement or sentimental melodrama, leaving little room for judicious use of silence, sound, rhythm, or performance.
The best part of August at Akiko’s is that the plot takes a back seat. Alex is free to do anything he likes, even leave. But he stays and joins the others in their volunteer work and community service. The plot can in this way serve as backdrop to the other filmic elements, reversing the usual order of figure and ground, foreground and background.
The film’s use of silence, sound, rhythm, and performance melds into an indivisible whole, forming a therapeutic and relaxing cinematic experience. It’s light on dialogue, and the plantation setting is largely free of urban noise. Even when we hear traffic, construction, Alex’s jarring modernist jazz, or one long drawn-out car horn, the cacophony finds its own rhythm and discordant coherence within the editing and pacing of the film. With this general absence of noise, the sounds we do hear (edited and mixed by Sung Rok Choi) are mostly of nature: call of bird and frog, tumult of water, toll of Buddhist bell, slap of meditation wood-chop, rustle of bamboo grove.
In one scene of this lean yet rich 75-minute film, Akiko takes Alex to a broad and flat volcanic crater, active but with magma cool enough to walk on; with all the sounds that went before, the shift of rhythm in the windswept quiet of this vast, black expanse is calming and spiritual, and we find it utterly fitting that Akiko performs a full-body gesture of worship to the Great Spirit.
Akiko herself is a wonder to behold. The first shot of the film, preceding the artfully handwritten title card, is a long one-shot of her morning routine at her shrine, lighting an incense candle and tolling a bell. Already we get a feel for the film’s rhythms, as not only is nothing rushed, but the camera is slower than Akiko, arriving at a spot after she does. The film is less interested in documenting her actions than in capturing the wake of her movements in ambient space, and the slight distance between camera and person highlights her air of self-content and spiritual centeredness. She is Alex’s closest friend in the film, and their dialogue means the most to him (and to us), but the film is never constrained by the felt need to put her on screen while they talk; she may start chatting with Alex in frame, and the scene will continue in voiceover as the camera captures mesmerizing shots of sun-speckled leaves, or rain dripping off a roof ledge, or a red leaf-bestrewn stone garden — every shot harmoniously composed. And yet her words are important: In one scene, she asks Alex whether playing with Phoenix makes him want to have a family, before giving a brief account of her own romantic past and how she ended up finding wholeness inside herself; in another one-shot scene, she leads a prayer for Alex and his family that links them all to the water, earth, and sky, moving him to tears.
The film is also a showcase for cinematographers Eunsoo Cho and José Asunción. Two scenes in particular stand out for their beauty and composition, in a film full of high-caliber images. On the second night, Alex is kept awake by the nocturnal sounds of nature, and he picks up a flashlight to go investigate; when he passes behind a screen of leaves, the kaleidoscopically penetrating light makes it seem as if the tree is alight with the holy ghost. The other image is one of the handful of shots taken from a car’s point of view as it winds along a mountain highway. This one is at dusk and rather dark, and the road is straight. Suddenly a bright yellow blob appears on the screen, like an amoeba, and quickly disappears. Then, a white blob appears, and vanishes a moment later. We see the headlights of an oncoming car and finally get it: It’s raining.
Alex stays for a reason, perhaps even unknown to himself, but hinted at by the plantation setting and by Akiko’s prayers. It’s revealed to him in the final sequence of the film. While Alex meditates each morning, we’ve been seeing shots of him overlaid with a driving car (from its point of view) and a specific place in the jungle. Alex’s grandfather let himself die in a car crash after his wife passed away, and this portrayal of Alex’s out-of-body experience suggests that his grandparents are calling to him. Psychiatrist George Rhoades, who practices in Hawai‘i, notes in “Trauma and Dissociation in Paradise (Hawaii)” that hearing voices and seeing visions, especially dream-visions of the grieved-for dead, are an accepted part of Native Hawai‘ian culture. The end of the film begins with a shot of the stone garden. One small stone begins to roll on its own; an earlier shot of a solitary leaf waving back and forth in the wind among the other, motionless leaves prepares us for this self-propelling stone, and both remind us that everything has mana or life energy, even the smallest pebble and waving leaves. Alex’s modernist jazz score kicks in; he goes to the spot in the jungle that he’d previously envisioned and hears a footfall here, glimpses a human figure there. The apparitions lead him to a cave, and he enters. Cut to a spotlit stage, where he performs in front of an auditorium empty of all but two people: his grandparents.
This personal trauma is of a piece with the historical trauma of Hawai‘i. Yogi has movingly about the underlying trauma of the film, both historical and familial, present only in its ineffability. In the course of shooting, Yogi discovered that Nīnole and Hāmākua, where much of the film was shot,
was where my family first planted their roots when immigrating from Japan [at the turn of the 20th century]. I had no idea. Years later, the story goes, they would abruptly flee the island in the middle of the night, escaping to O‘ahu [where Honolulu is] for reasons that no one knows. My great-grandmother would talk of being a little girl woken in the middle of the night then absconding without her belongings – the image of her doll’s clothing still hanging on the laundry lines seared into her adult mind.
He later discovers that his other grandmother was also from the area but, for reasons she never divulged, rarely spoke of her early life there.
Perhaps it had to do with the colonial nature of Hawai‘ian society throughout much of its history. Captain James Cook arrived at the Sandwich Islands in 1778, but already in 1790 there were White men working for and advising the king, albeit under compulsion. Historian Gavan Daws writes in Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands, “By the turn of the nineteenth century almost every district on the larger islands had a white man or two, and by 1810 several dozen foreigners were living on Oahu, especially around the harbor at Honolulu. Most were miserable loafers, human flotsam and jetsam,” but there were others who became rich and held power, even before 1800. “By the end of 1844 there were fourteen white men working for the government; by 1851, forty-eight — twenty-five Americans, twenty-one Britishers, one Frenchman, and one German.” The first missionaries, New England Congregationalists, arrived in 1820, and they spared no effort in instilling a Protestant morality and work ethic in the Hawai‘ian government and people. Cultural historian Gary Okihiro summarizes the catastrophic result when he says in Cane Fires: The Anti-Japanese Movement in Hawaii, 1865-1945, “Missionaries considered the destruction of the Hawaiian system of land tenure and kin-based production to be crucial to the advancement of industry and virtue.”
Missionary-spearheaded reforms pushed Hawai‘i into the age of industrial capitalism, in the guise first of the sandalwood trade, and then taxes, private land ownership, sugar plantations, and finally annexation to the United States in 1900 to guarantee a market for sugar. As labor historian Edward Beechert notes in Working in Hawaii: A Labour History, “Without freedom from U.S. duties, Hawaiian sugar was neither competitive nor profitable. There was no alternative market.”
The first group of Japanese laborers, imported via indentured contract for sugar plantations, arrived in 1868. Chinese labor was initially the most common labor source, but as the Reciprocity Treaty of 1876 with the U.S. was set to expire in 1886, negotiations for renewal of the treaty were affected by anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S. and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This was especially the case running up to annexation in 1900. Thus, the second shipment of Japanese laborers arrived in 1885, and the numbers increased exponentially after 1894, so that 73.5% of the sugar plantation workforce of 1902 was Japanese. Plantations switched to Filipinos after a bilateral anti-immigration agreement in 1907 and the Japanese Exclusion Act of 1924. Among the Japanese laborers, presumably, were Yogi’s ancestors. Plantation working conditions were seldom humane, and there were twenty strikes by Japanese laborers in 1900 alone, over “complaints about fines, brutal overseers, retention of withheld wages, refusal to cancel contracts, poor sanitation and water supply in the camps, and holiday work and unfair task systems. Moreover, the workers demanded the employment of Japanese overseers and payment for injuries suffered during work,” according to Beechert. Some of these occurred at Laupāhoehoe Plantation, on the northeast coast of Hawai‘i Island and in the vicinity of Nīnole and Hāmākua, where August at Akiko’s was filmed and takes place.
Besides the harsh working conditions, racism was also prevalent, as you won’t be surprised to hear. Beechert reports that “[a] Japanese storekeeper named Goto, widely known for his advocacy of Japanese plantation workers, was lynched in Honokaa [where Alex first arrives in the film] in 1899. Goto’s offense was that he acted as interpreter for the Japanese workers in and around Honokaa where his general store was located.” And racism was the motivating attitude toward the islandwide sugar plantation strike on O‘ahu by Japanese labor (and a smaller number of Filipinos) in 1920.
This background of trauma and racism is likely what led Yogi’s great-grandmother to flee to urbanized O‘ahu, and what caused “multiple suicides, mental institutionalization, severe addiction, and violent abuse” in Yogi’s family history. There’s evidence that, regarding the trauma and social dysfunction of Native Hawai‘ian youths, protective factors include family bonds, reculturation efforts, and the presence of relaxing natural surroundings. Japanese trauma in Hawai‘i is different from, but similar to, the historical trauma of Native Hawai‘ians, which on top of racism and labor abuses stems also from loss of sovereignty and Native land. According to Yogi, he and the film crew’s attraction to the place, born of trauma, “was what I wanted our film to explore: the ways in which historical trauma, colonial trauma, remains in the land. Nature as a concept not detached from history and family but instead interconnected, enmeshed with everything.” The lingering, delicately composed shots of nature in the film are thus filled with a life force drawn from a deep wellspring of spirituality, a life force that catches the camera’s eye, and, by extension, ours.
And though trauma can never be completely healed, the introduction of freeform modernist jazz into the film, along with the jazz player, injects the landscape of trauma with a new element, a new presence with its own history and quest that, while not entirely separate, nonetheless allows for new directions and the possibility of moving on. As Yogi intuits, “I had a feeling that the film wasn’t only going to be about pain and trauma, but also about the ways in which this historical pain can ultimately become the wellspring of creativity and ecstatic joy.”
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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