LOS ANGELES ASIAN PACIFIC FILM FESTIVAL 2022 REVIEW! In Omoiyari, violinist Kishi Bashi combines music with an exploration of his Japanese heritage. Along with co-director Justin Taylor Smith, Bashi explores the involuntary internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II. “Omoiyari” is a Japanese language concept that describes sympathy and compassion towards another person.
In the context of the documentary, Bashi examines the power of empathy when practiced toward others and also the devastating impact of its absence. To bring awareness to the experience of the 100,000 Japanese internees, Bashi performs at several locations where internment camps were established. His music pulls their spirits forward in time, seemingly directly out of the ground where families were forcibly relocated, in many cases thousands of miles away from their homes.
In a further layer of insult added to injury, we learn that many of the camps were built on lands confiscated from indigenous Americans. The most vivid example is the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming, originally home to the Crow tribe and many others before them for tens of thousands of years. The high mountain climate was brutal for the prisoners. Japanese Americans accustomed to mild West Coast weather were housed in rough shelters with no insulation in one of the coldest parts of the country. The first wave of prisoners was pressed into service to build the shelters.
“Bashi explores the involuntary internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II.”
There’s been a lot of discussions lately of critical race theory, i.e., Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, and Omoiyari is another vividly drawn picture of systemic racism in this country. We will never move past these harmful tendencies until we decide to face them and understand that racism is baked into our national DNA.
Bashi presents in parallel a narrative of his development as an artist understanding his native culture while revisiting the hard-learned lessons of history. Omoiyari is a gentle but insistent musical manifesto on the current state of affairs in America. Expanding beyond the sins of the past, the artist draws a straight line from the experiences of Japanese Americans in the concentration camps to Trump’s Muslim ban and the immigration crisis at the USA-Mexico border.
The soundtrack is composed of songs inspired by history and oppression, as Bashi spins out love, loss, and yearning that connects listeners to the past. Because the film was made before the COVID-19 pandemic, Bashi could not have known that hate incidents against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) would see a national spike. The considerations of empathy in the movie have become even more important during this time when fear drives so much of the conversation.
Bashi’s music is powerful and compelling, enervating stories from the past that have shaped our present. He shines a light on the darker demons of our nature that will make us captives of fear if not resisted. The companion album for Omoiyari is Kishi Bashi’s fourth and is the inspired work of a maturing artist and activist.
"…another vividly drawn picture of systemic racism..."