The Heron and the Geisha: A Life In Dance
Noriko tries on a wig made by master wigmaker, Mr. Osawa.
Noriko Sakamoto, a certified nutritionist from Japan, left everything and came to New York City in 1995 to study acting. After several years of study, she realized she'd rather work behind the camera, and eventually became a television editor, cutting shows like Trauma: Life in the ER, for New York Times Television; Weird US, for Kralyevich Productions, Inc and History Detective, for Lion Television.
During those years in New York, Noriko also studied classical Japanese dance with the Tachibana School in the Buddhist Church on Manhattan's Upper West Side. When she finally met the grandmaster of her dance school, Noriko realized she had to document the world of Tachibana dance.
When asked why she decided to make the film, Noriko explained it this way. "When I saw Iemoto Tachibana dance, I was moved by her combination of strength and grace. I realized I had to show people what I saw in the dance."
Noriko and her husband, Sean Sakamoto, an ad copywriter, took classes together at DCTV in downtown Manhattan, where they learned the basics of shooting, sound, and lighting. They sold their New York apartment, and traveled to Tokyo with their one-year-old son to begin production on what would originally take five years to complete. They soon learned that properly convey the dance, they had to show the world from which it came, and that included the elaborate wigs, kimonos, make-up, and even the footwear that is all used in the dance.
Noriko was already an experienced editor, but she had to learn to direct on the job. Telling her husband what to shoot, when he didn't speak a word of Japanese and everyone was talking at once, was just one challenge she faced. Noriko also had to walk the fine line of being a student of a very strict teacher in a traditional world, and being a director who has to get the shot no matter what, even if that means sticking the camera in her grandmaster's face and asking her to explain herself one more time.
Once the shooting was finished, the editing came easy. Noriko's sense of timing and storytelling had been honed over years of high pressure work freelancing in New York. "Weaving the story together took a long time to get right, but it was fun," Noriko said. "I think people will finally have a chance to see Iemoto's dance the way I do, as a rich example of incredible mastery and grace."
Sean Sakamoto, Producer Bio
Sean Sakamoto made his first movies as claymation monster films when he was just 8 years old. As a student in the creative writing program at San Francisco State University, he created a short film, Critizen, with his friend, Micheal LaHaie, which screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 1995.
Sean then moved to New York City with dreams of becoming an actor, but a few auditions put him off that plan. He worked at Scholastic, Inc. and wrote freelance for Black Book magazine before getting into internet advertising as a copywriter, but he still remembered fondly his brief foray into filmmaking.
When his wife, Noriko, said she wanted to make a documentary about her dance grandmaster, Sean agreed immediately. "I'd seen Iemoto dance, and I knew how lucky we were to have the chance to get close to her and document what she does," he explained. "When I first saw her dance, she took the stage and my heart leapt into my throat. Iemoto Tachibana is a force of nature. Bringing her art to a wider audience is a chance to do some real good in the world."
Sean took classes at New York's Downtown Community Television Center on lighting, sound, and camera technique. Then he bought the equipment he needed out of proceeds from a sold apartment. "At first we tried to get grants, but we found the process of grantwriting to be very time consuming. We really could have used the help, but we realized that if we were going to make this documentary, we were better off doing it on our own."
They flew with their young son to Tokyo to shoot for six weeks and follow Iemoto Tachibana around the city. The biggest challenge for Sean was that he didn't speak a word of Japanese. "I had to guess what the most important thing to shoot was, since I didn't know what was being said. Sometimes my wife would point at something, and I'd focus on that."
There were times when his ignorance of the language and customs actually worked to his advantage. "Sometimes I just went backstage to get a shot, or walked into places with a camera that I probably wasn't allowed to go. But since I couldn't understand anyone, nobody knew how to get rid of me. It also helped that I had the blessing of Iemoto Tachibana, a woman that I think most theater administrators would not want to oppose," Sean said.
Once the footage was shot, Sean and Noriko went back to New York to begin post-production. It took five years to cut the film, because they both had to work to pay the bills. Finally, it took a move back to Japan where Sean now teaches English to give Noriko the time to finish editing. Sean spends the extra time he has studying Japanese and putting the finishing touches on "Rictus", novel about a virus that spreads optimism before its victims die. While he feels a bit alone in rural Japan, the move was necessary to complete the Heron and the Geisha.
"Being back in Japan actually really helped put me in the right frame of mind to finish cutting the Heron and the Geisha," Noriko said. They're both happy with the documentary and extremely grateful to the Rhode Island International Film Festival for the opportunity to premier the documentary at such a prestigious location.
"It's fantastic that they have a Japanese category. We feel honored to be able to participate," Sean said.
What's next for the family? "We want to make a narrative about an alienated foreigner in rural Japan," Sean said.