Director Kira Dane did not know much about the Japanese Buddhist concept of mizuko kuyo, a Buddhist ritual meant to pacify the distraught spirits of babies who have been lost, until shortly after she had an abortion a few years ago. A friend mentioned that the ritual might help her process her feelings, so she decided to participate in the ceremony in order to commemorate the loss of her own mizuko, or “water child.” Dane documents her emotional journey in the weeks after discovering she was pregnant and deciding to have an abortion in her new film Mizuko, which was co-directed and produced by her NYU classmate and fellow filmmaker Katelyn Rebelo. Dane, who grew up bilingual thanks to her Japanese mother, narrates her story in both English and Japanese, and the film is interspersed with moving animations designed by Rebelo.
The pair quickly realized the need for an honest and open film. In 2018, before Mizuko began screening at film festivals across the country, they presented their vision for the film to a panel of judges at the Tribeca Film Institute. Afterward, they were approached by several women who “came up to us to say how excited they were about the film,” Dane told Tricycle. “People were eager for a conversation about abortion that lies outside of the pro-life or pro-choice binary.” Rebelo agreed: “In a lot of ways it validated why we wanted to make this film—so people could release all of their emotions.”
Since completing the film with the Institute’s support, Mizuko has screened at some of the most prominent film festivals across the globe, including SXSW, the Seoul International Women’s Film Festival, and DOC NYC. Tricycle subscribers can also stream the film throughout the month of January as part of Tricycle’s Buddhist Shorts Festival.
Tricycle had the chance to talk with both Dane and Rebelo about the process of making the film, connecting to modern Buddhist culture, and how they feel about releasing their film at this particular moment in American politics.
Kira, what does mizuko kuyo mean to you?
Kira Dane (KD): Mizuko, meaning “water child,” is a special term in Japanese used to refer to a life that never makes it to being born. The philosophy behind mizuko kuyo comes from the perspective that all life is an endless ebb and flow of water, with no true dividing line drawn between life and death. A life that ends as early as its time in the womb—whether it’s by choice of the parents or by miscarriage—is seen as the smallest of tides pushing back into the sea, before it even formed a wave.
But that life is still something that can be acknowledged, appreciated, and mourned. People who’ve experienced an abortion can go to a special mizuko kuyo temple, where they’ll erect a small statue of Jizo in a long line of Jizo statues belonging to others who have also experienced abortion or miscarriage.
Abortion is arguably one of the most complicated moral questions that humans have to commonly face, and the answer will never be defined simply or collectively. But mizuko kuyo allows for the space to define this answer for yourself.
Jizo is a Buddhist bodhisattva and protector who is thought to travel between the realms of afterlife, carrying lost spirits in his cloak, and bringing them to where they need to go. But Mizuko Jizo is a special kind of Jizo that looks like a child, and he represents both the lost baby and his/her protector. A mizuko kuyo temple essentially acts as a graveyard for unborn souls. People will often knit red caps and cloaks for their statues to keep Jizo warm on his journey into the afterlife. And they might leave offerings of toys, juice boxes, or pinwheels, which signify the wheel of dharma, or life pushing backwards and forwards in unpredictable gusts of wind.
Being able to put all of my emotions about the lost child that I never even wanted into a physical object was so important for me. By doing that, I turned this idea of a life that I rejected into something real and tangible, which was indescribably difficult and uncomfortable. Because it was a future I didn’t want, and didn’t believe in, and I had to literally make a face for it, and look it in the eye. But by doing that, I also relieved myself of carrying the weight of that face in deep, hidden parts of myself.
Abortion is such a complicated experience because, like miscarriage, you’ve lost something that has no concrete image, physical presence, or personality. You’ve made the decision to destroy a part of your own body, something that was both you and not you. It is a special kind of grief. And it is arguably one of the most complicated moral questions that humans have to commonly face, and the answer will never be defined simply or collectively. But the mizuko kuyo ritual allows for the opportunity and the space to define this answer for yourself. To be able to do that privately and in peace, while also feeling a warm connection to strangers through the faces of all their own statues. That’s what felt so special about mizuko kuyo.
Katelyn, what was it like for you to learn about the mizuko ceremony?
Katelyn Rebelo (KR): Kira was the one to introduce me to this practice, which meant that I went into this project knowing that there was so much that I needed to learn—my knowledge of Buddhism was incredibly limited. We had a long period of research before we started the film.
In addition, during the making of the film I had to confront beliefs that I hadn’t realized I was holding on to. I was surrounded by Christianity growing up, and I never really questioned the ways it influenced the ways I view life and death. Right now, I don’t associate myself with any religion. I was raised Catholic, and most of the people around me were pro-life. My reaction was to automatically be the opposite of that. But I was pro-choice without ever really digging into what that meant. So this film helped me clarify my views around abortion and religion all at once.
Kira, I was wondering about your current relationship to Buddhism. Are your Japanese family members Buddhist?
KD: For me, this project has actually been a pathway toward Buddhism. My family’s roots are Buddhist, but my mom is very much an atheist. Both my parents had a non-spiritual and non-religious approach when it came to my upbringing. Now, I guess I would consider myself a Buddhist, but I’m not a very strong practitioner. I moved to Nara, Japan, after we finished making Mizuko. Some of the oldest Buddhist temples in Japan are here and there’s a general understanding that this is the one of the places where Buddhism filtered through Japan. The Shugendo Buddhism that came to Japan is an esoteric branch that is closer to Tibetan Buddhism in a way that a lot of other Japanese Buddhism is not. There’s also just so much to learn, and so many different paths to choose from that I haven’t fully found my way. But [exploring them all] is all very exciting to me.
Kira, did you have any hesitations about speaking Japanese on film? I know that many second generation kids (like myself!) are sometimes nervous about speaking their ancestral languages in public.
KD: I appreciate this question because it was definitely nerve-racking for me. I grew up speaking Japanese to my mom, but I do speak differently than a native. I’m half-Japanese, and a lot of people in Japan don’t consider me Japanese at all. But being Japanese is one of the most basic ways that I define my own identity. So to be able to put my Japanese out there while not caring if it’s not perfect, but just using the language I spoke growing up, was liberating.
Also, the film would have been really different if I didn’t speak in Japanese. Two distinct sections in the film show the completely different ways of thinking about abortion in the two cultures that affected my decision and how I processed it. So having those sections in Japanese—showing my Japanese self—made a lot of sense.
How did you two decide to incorporate animations into the film?
KR: I’ve always been interested in making more experimental films that had a social- justice framework. This is a smaller film, so to be honest, much of the animation came about as a result of not having access to a lot of equipment. But I also have always seen animation as a personal way of filmmaking.
This film is being shown on the festival circuit at a time when reproductive rights in the US appear to once again be in danger, especially considering the recent realignment of the Supreme Court. What have been some of the reactions to the film in this context?
KD: I think the current political climate has added a sense of urgency. It does feel like more people are gravitating towards the film, since the future of people’s ability to have abortions is in question.
I still get emails from people who reach out to share their stories. A middle-aged woman told me, “I’m 55, I have two grown daughters. This film moved me to tears. I had two pregnancies decades ago that were not considered viable. And this really meant a lot to me.” Messages like that are why we made the film. All I’ve ever wanted as a filmmaker is to be able to connect to strangers like that.
KR: Like Kira, I’ve also had people reach out, sometimes people who I haven’t talked to in a while, who tell me their own experiences. While we were making this film my own mom told me for the first time that she had a miscarriage in the past. Our goal was to allow people to talk about these experiences in a different way.
What would you ultimately like viewers to take away from your film?
KR: I think the film asks the questions: “What does a conversation about abortion look like without the binary ideas of pro-life and pro-choice? What is the grief that may follow the decision?” As far as I can tell, there haven’t been many conversations in the US that exist outside of that binary. A lot of what we wanted to do was to avoid discussing a personal experience in a political way.
KD: What’s bizarre to me is that there is a loud conversation surrounding abortion in the US, but that conversation often does not address the most basic things. It’s all politics. It’s all about whether or not we can make this choice. All of that distracts from the fact that there’s no conversation around the question of “What does this really mean?” What does it mean to kill a life that is inside of you, one that a lot of people don’t even recognize as a life?
Something that I’ve really come to through making this film is how arbitrary life is. I really saw this as an opportunity for both myself and for a larger audience to create a dialogue around admitting that we don’t know so much about what happens before we’re born and after we die. We should be honest about that and be honest about saying, “Hey, I have no idea what I’m doing here.” Maybe this abortion is wrong. Or maybe there’s no such thing as wrong. Maybe this is tragic, but also OK.
Kira, what do you think ultimately inspired you to do the mizuko kuyo ceremony?
KD: With all of the cyclical conversations, with all of the mounting aggression, and the shame, and deafening noise surrounding abortion in the US, I never once considered the possibility of grief. I felt absolutely nothing, because so much of my energy was spent on making sure I could get the procedure done and move on with my life. What I didn’t realize is how much I pushed away my feelings about this decision and what it really meant to me.
I don’t always talk about what kick started my research, but three months after my abortion, I tripped on psychedelic mushrooms, and suddenly I felt an overwhelming sense of grief, when I had thought I felt no sadness about the abortion at all. More shockingly, I felt a presence, and I felt the deep loss of that presence. I just sat there and cried for what felt like hours. I felt like I was at the top of a deep well, and as I cried I was watching my own body dripping away into a dark void below. I felt like my body was a morphing, uncontrollable pool of liquid with no boundaries, pliable and vulnerable.
I experienced much of my own grief through the element of water, which aligns with the philosophies behind mizuko kuyo. But I knew next to nothing about the ritual at that point. Then I had a conversation with a good friend, and she mentioned that she had heard of rituals surrounding the loss of a child in Japan. Around that time I started reading William LaFleur’s book Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan, and I was so moved. Through its description of its complicated history in Japan, it reaffirmed my own sense of discomfort in the way abortion is handled in the US. And by describing this Buddhist ritual and its very complicated history in Japan, this book allowed me to turn my experience into not only a Buddhist lesson but a lesson about my own cultural heritage, the political history of my mother’s country, and a more solid sense of my own morality and mortality.
One core lesson in Buddhism is that there is no boundary between our idea of self and all other things, and this false boundary is what brings us suffering. When we are still a fetus, it is the only time in our lives where we fully represent what we actually always are and always have been, which is a very tiny living part of a much larger living whole—and you might say the pregnant mother, for a brief period, is also a manifestation of that. For a few weeks, I was one body and another at the same time. This allowed me to physically understand how arbitrary these lines are that we draw between what we think we are and what we think exists outside of us. It was the biggest lesson in Buddhism in my life.
Mizuko is now available to watch on Vimeo on Demand.