Peek into the lives of international Tokyoites with our I, Tokyo series
Time Out in association with NHK-World Japan
Originally published in Time Out Tokyo magazine issue 20 (Sept 2018)
This impassioned writer-director seeks to portray the experiences of minority communities in her films. Here she talks about her professional life in Tokyo.
What brought you to Japan? Initially I was inspired to move to the city by my exposure to Japanese culture at an early age through TV and through having friends who grew up there. Later it developed into a love for the fashion and youth culture scene of Tokyo, which made me want to experience it for myself.
So when I discovered a study abroad programme that allowed me to study for a year and then won six scholarships to be in Tokyo, it felt like the universe was always trying to bring me here all along. After I spent my junior year in Japan, I went back to my school in the States to finish my degree and then came back to Tokyo earlier this year to learn Japanese and work as a full time creative.
My goal is to develop stories that expose unscripted and real life viewpoints of people around the world. I feel like Japan is a space where there are a lot of untold stories that need to be uncovered and I want to help tell them.
You directed films such as ‘Black in Tokyo’, which examined the black experience of living in Tokyo. What was the inspiration behind it? Growing up I didn’t see any unique and inspiring stories or films on black travellers in Asia, so I wanted to fill that gap and create something that could connect to people of all walks of life and show them the value of getting outside of their comfort zone. The goal was to directly allow people to see that despite their race, religion or background that they too can travel to a foreign country, live there and still embody the best version of themselves. I recognised early on that if you want to see change in media spaces, you have to create it.
Why do you think Tokyo is a good place to explore and grow your filmmaking career? I believe that a good place to document and tell stories is a place that is rich in history, culture and values. Japan has all of this and because it is so isolated from most of the world, there has been minimal media exchange when it comes to the social experiences of many foreigners and natives here compared to the level of media we get from the West and other places around the world. Part of the appeal is telling untold stories and the other part is the beauty of the city for filming. There is so much attention to detail when it comes to the architecture of Tokyo so it’s an incredible backdrop to tell stories and keep people visually captivated.
If you were to film the attractive side of the city, what would you shoot? That’s a tough one because Tokyo is so vast that there are so many places to choose from. Since I work mainly on fashion-based photography, when scouting for locations it would depend on the aesthetic I’m going for but I would probably go to Akihabara, Nakano Broadway, Omotesando or Shinjuku because they are big areas with a lot of options. I also love Odaiba because of the waterfront and the industrial spaces which are unique compared to most parts of Tokyo. It also helps that it is quieter and less busy than most of the city.
When did you first feel like a Tokyoite? Since I have always been in love with Japanese culture and fashion I was already pretty influenced by what was happening amongst young people in the city. Within the first two weeks of moving to Japan, my friend who’s a native of Tokyo told me: ‘You look like you've already lived here for a long time. Your style is so Tokyo.’ It was in that moment I was like ‘This is where I belong.’ Since then I felt so confident because although to some I am an outsider, in other ways I’m also an insider.
What is your favourite Japanese food? I love ramen and gyoza with karaage [deep-fried food, mostly chicken]. It’s the go-to late-night meal and something you can get so reliably anywhere in Tokyo. I also love a good yakisoba [fried noodles] or chicken katsudon [fried cutlet on rice] because they’re amazing comfort foods, which I also cook at home. Yakisoba allows you to include any kind of ingredient you want so it’s always a fun meal to make.
Finally, any insider tips for international visitors to enjoy the city? Every area has a hidden gem, so be open-minded and do your research. Although Tokyo has so much to see, it’s easy to get stuck just exploring the usual tourist attractions in Shibuya, Harajuku and Ginza. Instead, find the less popular and less congested places like Daikanyama where you can find cute little shops and cafés, and also the amazing art galleries in Roppongi. If you’re already in Harajuku, make your way to Omotesando and check out Commune, which is a little pop-up space that has great outdoor bars and restaurants. The possibilities are endless, so explore them!