Ema Ryan Yamazaki, a documentary filmmaker based between Tokyo and New York, stands as a captivating storyteller with a truly unique vantage point, seamlessly navigating the cultural tapestry woven between her Japanese roots and British upbringing. Ema’s filmmaking journey commenced in New York where she attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, focusing on documentary and editing. Upon graduating from NYU, she began her career as an assistant editor, mentored by documentary mogul Sam Pollard.
Notably, her debut feature, ‘Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George’s Creators,’ weaves animation, archival gems, and interviews to illuminate the extraordinary tale of Hans and Margret Rey. In 2016, she co-directed a documentary for NHK on Martin Scorsese’s film ‘Silence.’ Ema’s commitment to multifaceted narratives led her to Tokyo in 2017, a pivotal move shaping her documentary, ‘Koshien: Japan’s Field of Dreams,’ exploring the cultural phenomenon of Japanese high school baseball.
In this interview, Ema Ryan Yamazaki talks about her latest film ‘The Making of a Japanese,’ which recently premiered at the 36th Tokyo International Film Festival, the creative vision that drove the project, and the challenge of working with kids, among other things.
Q. How do you divide your time between Tokyo and the US?
A. Well, until a few years ago, I was more in New York and would often visit Tokyo. But, I think at this point, I am based in Tokyo and I often go to New York or other places for work. I have a one year old son now and that’s also made me stay in one place more often. So at this point I would say I am more based in Tokyo but often doing some work outside of Japan as well.
Q. Tell us about your film ‘The Making of a Japanese,’ which recently premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival? How did the film come together?
A. I went to a Japanese public elementary school but I realized that after leaving elementary school, I became more and more Western. I went to an international school, and then I moved to New York. And looking back at my life, I realized that everything I learned about being Japanese and also a lot of my strengths as a person came from my years in the Japanese elementary school. Things that people praised me for, like, ‘Oh, you are so hard working! You are on time! You are responsible!’ Well, I learned all this in the elementary school. So that made me realize that if I made a film about Japanese elementary school maybe that will offer insights into why Japan is like this. You know, a lot of foreigners wonder why Japan is like this. And the answer is not because we eat sushi or have anime. I think education is such a big part of it. We are not born this way. We are taught and we are educated. So I wanted to make a film on the Japanese school system. You see, cleaning our own classrooms and serving each other lunch is a very unique thing. It was not like this everywhere in the world yet. Maybe people don’t know more details to it, maybe they here know that, but there’s a lot more to it. So I thought it would be a very interesting world to share with an international audience. So this is why I wanted to do it. And it took a long time, but it’s finally done.
Q. You said that it took a long time. Can you also break it down a little? So what were the different steps involved?
A. I wanted to film at a public school and not a private school—one that was big and would allow me to film freely and not with just one teacher or one kid but a big bunch. The school must be fully available. So it took five years to kind of find the right combination of city, school, headmaster, parent support, etc. I think in Japan you always need a special reason to do something that’s never been done before. So we used the Tokyo Olympics. We realized that Setagaya City, which is where the school we filmed is in, was going to host the American Olympic team. This was before the pandemic. So we thought maybe they would be interested in showcasing their school to an international audience on the occasion of the Tokyo Olympics that same year. That was the original way that we gained support. And then eventually I found the right school and the right headmaster. And then COVID happened and everything was cancelled and I had to decide if I was going to do it anyway during COVID or just wait. And I ultimately continued because I thought some of the themes I was always interested in. We filmed 700 hours that it took over a year to edit, and that’s why took us so long to get the film done.
Q. Is there any specific reason why you chose to focus on 1st and 6th graders?
A. In Japan, there are six years of elementary school. So I thought it would make the most sense to focus on the incoming first graders who are learning everything, don’t know anything, learning everything for the first time. Often the 6th graders help the first graders learn. These kids didn’t know anything six years ago but they eventually become ready to lead their own school, responsible for so many things. So to me, it made sense. Unless I wanted to film six years with the same kids, it made sense to focus on the youngest grade and the oldest grade.
There is great seriousness. Of course school is fun, but the drills are not supposed to be fun. They are taken very seriously, which is why even in my film, you see a teacher get upset by the kids who are taking too much time. The first graders don’t know what to do but they very quickly learn to take it all very seriously. And so I think if there’s a big earthquake one day they will actually save some lives.
The dynamics greatly changed while working with 7 year olds and 12 year olds. 7 year olds, I feel are straightforward. They like you. They think you are interesting. You just have to keep them comfortable and not make them nervous. And that’s why I think we got many, many wonderful scenes. I think with the older kids it was sometimes harder. Obviously they didn’t see me as themselves but they saw me as an adult. So I had to kind of figure out how to communicate with them, give them their space sometimes.