At Akiko Masuda’s Zen Buddhist bed and breakfast on the Big Island of Hawaii, the host offers a few words of guidance for guests: “Leave no trace… leave only a ‘presence,’ a feeling that for a moment you loved a place so deeply that both you and the place were transformed, and both became more beautiful.”
The transformative power of place is the theme of August at Akiko’s, one of the New Yorker’s best films of 2019, which follows Alex Zhang Hungtai playing a fictionalized version of himself as a jazz musician searching for his late grandparents’ home in Hawaii. Alex’s search for his ancestral roots coincides with a personal transformation brought to fruition through his friendship with Akiko.
Tricycle spoke with Akiko Masuda and director Christopher Makoto Yogi about the significance of ancestral callings, their contemplative approach to filmmaking, and how a place can embody its history.
August at Akiko’s is Tricycle’s Film Club selection for the month of March. Watch the film here before April 3.
How did the film’s setting, Wailea Village on the Big Island of Hawaii, become central to the story?
Christopher Makoto Yogi (CMY): I first visited Wailea when I was location-scouting for another film, looking for areas that reminded me of the Hawaii of my childhood in Honolulu and Oahu. Because of development, much of that feeling of old Hawaii is gone. We ended up in Wailea, and I found it so beautiful and welcoming. We stayed at Akiko’s [bed and breakfast], and I thought Akiko was amazing, such a great storyteller. When I stepped into her B&B, I was taken back to my grandfather’s small, wooden Japanese house. The feeling of connection to the place was central to deciding to return and shoot there.
Akiko Masuda (AM): Sometimes we can’t even voice our deep connection to a place, it’s just a very strong feeling, something that we feel in our na’au, our gut. It’s just something we feel beyond explanations, it’s very deep.
When I go to newer subdivisions in Hawaii, everything is packaged; it’s all manicured, trimmed, and weeded. Wailea is pretty natural, there’s not much organization by human intention. Whatever survives all the rain and the sun, and doesn’t get cut down, grows. This is old Hawaii, still wild, still untamed, and very verdant.
Akiko, the film must have put a spotlight on the role you play in the Wailea Village community.
AM: I’ve had people come up to me and say “Akiko, we saw your film!” At the Big Island premiere [of August at Akiko’s], I said, “This is not an autobiography or a documentary about me. It is not about me, get it? This is about the spirit of a place.” It’s the same for the community work I’m involved in; I like to avoid any kind of grandiose hero worship. In any organization, all you need is one person to say, “OK, you guys, show up.” That’s all I do.
Here in Hawaii we have the word ʻohana, family. Most of us are transplants, and our family becomes the people we work with, eat with, and see on a regular basis. It was like that during filming: all the filmmakers lived and ate together in a house that is spirited with families who lived there in the past.
What role did the ancestors play in the community and in the film?
CMY: After we spent some time at Akiko’s B&B, I returned to Honolulu and went on with my life. A few months later, I was building a family tree on ancestry.com, and I discovered that both sides of my family could trace roots back to Akiko’s area of the Big Island, just down the road. I had no idea that any of my family had ever lived on that island. I had been so moved when I was there; something in me was stirred but I didn’t know why. Learning that I had roots in this place was the genesis of this project. Something was calling me to go back and make something, but also to use the process of filmmaking to learn about Wailea and its community. The entire piece was born out of a kind of ancestral calling.
So I reached out to Alex, who is a friend of mine and someone I respect as an artist. He grew up in Honolulu like me, but left a decade ago and traveled around the world as a musician. The project was a homecoming and a reconnection for both of us, and we combined both our stories into his character’s journey.
You arrived in Wailea without a script, only a sense of how the film would begin and end. How did that process unfold?
CMY: Akiko played a big part in that. I wrote a ten-page treatment—basically a short story or poem—that captured the feeling that we wanted, but it didn’t break the film down scene by scene in a traditional way. We knew the general arc of the story we wanted to tell. But how we got there—we left it up to the place to guide us. Akiko described the film as a river that we were riding down. It was a process of trusting and keeping our eyes and ears open. Akiko would come up with ideas and suggest people for us to incorporate into the film. It also helped that Alex is an improvisational musician. It all just seemed to work.
All the actors seemed unselfconscious and at ease on camera, though nobody was a professional actor. Was it difficult to get used to being filmed?
AM: No—there was no script to memorize. I just did what I’ve done with the hundreds of guests that come through my B&B. And I looked—or felt—for moments when dialogue would ensue and just followed with that. We were all just being ourselves! In the magic of filming and the editing room, they captured these moments and put them together into a piece.
CMY: The intention was to try to capture life there as it is. We were a very small crew, so we tried to be as invisible as possible so that we didn’t impose on the real life that was unfolding in front of us. I can’t recall a moment in which anybody felt they were too aware of the camera.
Akiko, I’d love to learn more about the Buddhist aspect of your B&B. How did you decide to make daily zazen (Zen meditation) practice a part of it?
AM: I’ve been sitting since 1980. I taught dance at the time, and one of my students invited me to an art show at a Zen temple. As I was walking up to the temple from my car, somebody yelled at me, “Go home, put on long clothes and get a brassiere on!” I thought, “Oh, what a nice entrance.” But I went home, put on a bra and long pants, and went back, and while I was there, I started sitting. Then it just became a way of life. I hadn’t been planning to start a B&B, but when I did start my business, I incorporated my Zen practice into it. In my life, there’s not too much forethought; something presents itself, and I respond.
Can you tell me more about the relationship that develops between Akiko and Alex?
AM: The day Alex arrived, I drove home from town and looked across the street to a giant boulder, and here was a guy sitting on top of the rock, with his feet on it, a cigarette in his mouth, and a cellphone to his ear. I thought, “What the heck?” I parked my car and walked over, and he didn’t even look up. I said, “Excuse me. You’re sitting on a very sacred stone. Please.” He jumped off right away and was very apologetic, and I walked away. That was the beginning! I thought, “Oh my goodness! He lives here in Hawaii and he can’t recognize that’s a special stone?”
But on the first day of filming, we filmed the scene in the back courtyard, where Alex and I talked and I prayed and did a little oli, a chant, and he wept. I thought, “This is the beginning of a man that is going to really open his heart.”
CMY: A lot of it was just capturing their friendship as it developed over the course of the shoot. There wasn’t much scripting as to what their relationship should be. Luckily, they became friends, and that made a nice story! But if their relationship had gone another direction, that would have been the story.
Alex says that when he watches himself on screen, he can see how much torment and anger he was going through at the time. Now he’s in a much different place, and he sits zazen every day.
There’s a brief shot where a rock on the ground begins to roll on its own. Does that scene have a meaning?
CMY: The film emphasizes the surroundings just as much as the subjects. In traditional filmmaking, the camera follows the characters around; whatever they do is what you’re supposed to get out of the shot, and the background is just that, the background. But we wanted to flip that. We wanted the film to foreground the elements that are normally put in the background, to make you spend time with a tree, or a leaf, or a cat. So a rock felt like an extension of that. We treat these natural elements with as much connection and empathy as we would a character in the film. The rock is a character in the film, that’s how I think about it.
When I shot it, however, I had no real explanation for that scene. The thought came into my head, and we decided it would be perfect for this film. Now I can look back on it and intellectualize it after the fact, but in the moment, it was a very intuitive decision.
What do you want viewers to take away from the film?
CMY: The main thing that I would love is for people to glimpse a story of Hawaii more rooted in the place, a story different from the normal depictions of Hawaii that are mediated through tourism or Hollywood movies, a lot of which feels very distant and unrecognizable. This film reminds me of my home, the people there, and that sense of family, ‘ohana, as Akiko said, and the spirit of aloha. It feels very genuine, very sincere, and a little bit different than what you would normally see on, say, Hawaii Five-0, or any of the other big-budget depictions of Hawaii made by people who aren’t from there.
I loved introducing Akiko’s and Alex’s spirits to the world as well. Both of them have such beautiful presences and charismas. Akiko is such a great storyteller; Alex is such a great artist.
AM: After the screening in Honolulu, somebody asked, “What was the profound meaning of those long driving scenes?” That question was coming from another context. I don’t know what the context is. I asked the people at the film, “Please, all I ask is that you be present. Don’t worry about ‘profound this’, ‘profound that’, or ‘what’s the meaning of that?’ Just be present and let the film be.” If we can simply be present, like we are with a friend that’s getting ready to cross over, then we can see how deep that humanity is. That’s what I want people to take from the film: Be present.
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