Okuribi offers a glimpse into the fictional lives of a Japanese-Canadian girl (played by Jenny McNeill) and her father (Yuki Kedoin), and the emotional struggles they face when their annual summer trip to Japan gets cancelled.
Along the way, the film explores some of the many challenges parents face when trying to pass traditional customs and values down to their children (especially while living overseas).
Writer-director Hiromu Yamawaki was inspired to tell the story by an experience he had volunteering at a Japanese language school after moving to Canada from his native Japan.
“When I was a child, my grandfather tried to teach me the custom of Obon [honoring the spirits of one’s ancestors] and how to do Okuribi [“sending fire”], but I didn’t listen to him because I didn’t believe it was such an important thing,” Yamawaki says. “However, during my young adulthood living away from home, and teaching Japanese culture and language to Japanese-Canadian students, I realized the importance of these traditions.”
Okuribi was shot in Vancouver over a single day in early October 2022 and, as Yamawaki explains, the bilingual nature of the production offered the cast and crew a unique opportunity.
“I studied filmmaking mainly in Canada, so I had only directed films in English. However, since both of the actors in the film understood Japanese, I was able to direct them in Japanese,” he says. “My first language is Japanese, so when I talked about a character’s emotions and motivations I could explain it better in Japanese. All the other communication was done in English, so using two languages on set was an interesting experience.”
“I wanted to make a film that the audience could engage with on their own and try to figure out what is happening in the story.”
Yamawaki adds that he set out to try to make a film using the least amount of dialogue possible – a process he says involved “subtracting lines that were unnecessary to the story as much as possible.”
“I’ve seen films where the characters explain the situation and tell the audience what has happened in the story. In my opinion, this type of storytelling makes the film less interesting and less engaging,” he says. “I wanted to make a film that the audience could engage with on their own and try to figure out what is happening in the story.”
The film also employs cool/bluish color tones, a minimalist piano soundtrack and subdued performances to establish an atmosphere of solitude and distance.
“I think we did a good job of creating a sense of being alone throughout the film. Since it’s a story about two characters living in a country that is not where they are from, it’s important to set a tone of loneliness,” Yamawaki says.
“I used to think all stories should have dramatic endings or unusual twists, but working on this film changed my mind.”
He adds that working on the project taught him about the importance of using your own voice and drawing on personal experiences to effectively tell an engaging story.
“A story for a short film can come from anything. For us, it was a small disagreement between a daughter and a father, and we were able to use this to tell a heart-warming story. I used to think all stories should have dramatic endings or unusual twists, but working on this film changed my mind,” he says.
Okuribi is currently embarking on a North American festival run and is slated to screen at the 2023 Japan Film Festival Los Angeles later this year. Yamawaki says he hopes the film can generate more interest in stories about the Japanese community in Canada.
“I’d also like people to realize how important it is to teach their culture and traditions to their children, especially when they’re away from their homeland,” he says. “With this in mind, I hope Okuribi offers people a chance to reconnect with their roots.”