Wednesday, January 21, 2015

In other news...

Today I had the honour of speaking at Sophia University, Tokyo, for Professor Mori Yoshitaka's class "Globalization and Culture".  I had not seen Professor Mori since I had the honour of speaking at Tokyo University of Arts last summer with fellow filmmaker and friend Adrian Storey about making films in Japan (STORY).

During the semester-long class, the students focused on themes such as exporting Japanese culture abroad, issues of free speech and freedom of the press.  Today was their last session, and I was honoured to share with the students about my work which Professor Mori described as "a great example of the cultural practice in the age of globalization."

After talking about my films and showing the trailers of 'Jake, not finished yet' (2010, VIDEO), 'A2-B-C' (2013, VIDEO), '1287' (2014, VIDEO) and THIS VIDEO I edited for the 2nd anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, it was time for students to ask questions.  A young woman raised her hand and asked, "If you were Prime Minister Abe, would you pay the $200 million ransom to ISIS in exchange for releasing the two Japanese hostages they are threatening to kill?" (NYTimes story HERE)


A friend recently was looking online for information about my newest film, '-1287' (WEBSITE) and found some reviews of the film that I had yet to see.  Reading them, my deep sense of responsibility to share this story with as many people as possible was renewed.

After the showing of the film, one of the audience members (while sobbing) said, "I'm so sad and can't find words because I feel like someone I knew has just died." That may sound a bit too dramatic if you haven't seen this film, but I shared this sentiment, and so did the rest of the audience, I'm sure. I couldn't stop crying. It wasn't so much about her death itself that made me cry— instead what moved me was how she lived and the tender and honest conversations she had with the filmmaker, Ian Thomas Ash.
 --- The Lost Note Book Returns Film review: Ian Thomas Ash's "-1287" (READ)
With this documentary, Thomas makes death approachable, something you can bare to stare in the face if only for a short while, and that is definitely an experience worth having.

--- Raindance Film Festival – Review + Q&A -1287 (READ)

アメリカ人監督がガンに侵された日本女性を追った記録映画が登場 (記事)

Recently, I have also received the news that my short film 'Even the Birds Need to Be Loved' (STORY) will be screening in the inaugural Snowtown Film Festival in my hometown of Watertown, NY (January 30 and 31, WEBSITE).  Having been completed shortly before the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the film has only been publicly screened twice, both times in side events for the Lake Champlain International Film Festival (story HERE).  The screening at Snowtown will therefore be the first official screening at a film festival.


As the fourth anniversary of the March 11 disaster approaches, screenings of my film 'A2-B-C' continue strong.  I am extremely honoured that the film continues to find an audience and contribute to the ongoing campaign to raise awareness about the situation in Fukushima.

Screenings are scheduled to take place in multiple cities across Japan (in Japanese 上映スケジュールここ) and upcoming international screenings can be found HERE, including:
  • February 11, 2015 at William and Mary College
  • March 8, 2015 in San Diego
  • March 11, 2015 at the University of British Columbia
  • March 11, 2015 at the University of Hawai'i
  • April 9, 2015 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln
2015 has only just been begun, but it is already shaping up to be a busy year with more exciting news to come...

Monday, January 19, 2015

No respect

Over the weekend, I attended screenings of ‘A2-B-C’ (website ENGLISH/ 日本語) for the third time in Kyushu.  The first time was in Usa (STORY) and Nakatsu (STORY), and the second time was in Fukuoka and Oita (STORY), while this time I was in the City of Beppu, perhaps best known for its multitude of natural onsens, each with their own unique characteristics.

Arriving in Beppu on Saturday, Mr. Kotegawa, the organizer of the screenings, gave me a “Tour of Hell”, the name given to the onsen hotsprings district, including the “Lake of Blood”, “Sea Hell” and “Shaven Head Hell”.  The area is also known for a variety of delicacies cooked over the “Steam of Hell”, baskets of food, such as hard-boiled eggs and pudding, being lowered into or hung over the pits of steam.

In the afternoon, Mr. Kotegawa took me for a “steam bath”. On the floor of a little hut built directly over one of the “Steams of Hell” was a grate covered with medicinal grass upon which we laid naked side-by-side, in a fashion not unlike the puddings we had eaten earlier (!). After 10 minutes, the limit that one is recommended to remain in the steam, we crawled back out on our hands and knees through the small wooden door, where we then washed the sweat and grasses from our bodies in a hot spring. This was followed by a “mud bath”, where, still naked, we swam around in a large pit filled with a mixture of mud and hot water that was bubbling up directly from the inner depths of the earth. Awesome.

On Sunday, there were two screenings of ‘A2-B-C’ held in a beautiful theatre purpose-built for Kabuki plays. Lining the sides of the theatre were traditional box seats, while the main seating area was a “pit” in which each guest sat on thin cushions called "zabuton".

The Q&A sessions lasted for over an hour each, and together there were over 150 people in attendance at the two screenings. Topics we talked about included my thoughts about Japan’s investment in the 2020 Olympics while there are still so many people in Fukushima living in temporary housing (I think it is shocking), if I drink water/ eat local food when I am filming in Fukushima (I do), and whether I am making a new film in Fukushima (I am). I also addressed the fact that I prefer not to be referred to as a "director".

Traveling with my films over the past year and half, it would have been easy to become caught up in what I can only describe as the artificial and fleeting moment of being a “film director”. But “director” is a word that I feel should be used for truly great makers of fiction films, such as Director Kurosawa.  The word “director” (especially as it is used in Japanese), while a gesture of respect, creates a gap, something like a class divide, between the person who uses it and the person about whom it is being used. If I thought of myself as a “director”, or worse, if I were to act like a director, then I feel I could no longer make films as it would change the relationship I had with the person I was documenting resulting in a film that would be lacking in both depth and compassion.

'A2-B-C' has been merely a vehicle for helping to share the voices and stories of these families in Fukushima, but it is the mothers themselves who are the ones that are worthy of respect, having spoken out despite the very real fear of retaliation and alienation.

So, please, just call me "Ian".

When a screening is are over, I reminded the audience in Beppu, both the film and I leave to go home. But what remains is the desire within the people who have shared in this story to help those who have been affected by this great disaster. I have documented a problem, but it is after the film is over and the lights go up that the real work begins.

I was extremely happy to see many students in the audience, both from local high schools and Asia Pacific University (APU) located in Beppu. Several APU students and faculty approached me after the screening and expressed their interest in holding a screening at their university, and it is my sincere hope that this will take place.

It was also wonderful to see many familiar faces from my previous visits to Kyushu, and I was once again reminded of how grateful I am for this continued support. Thank you all so very much! Until we meet again…

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Fukushima, Food

Back home in Japan after a wonderful two weeks abroad visiting family for the holidays, I am settling in to what I sense will be another year of significant changes for me.

One thing that remains the same is my commitment to the screenings of 'A2-B-C' (website ENGLISH/ 日本語).  Leading up to what will be the 4th anniversary of the disaster in March of this year (it is hard to believe that nearly four years have passed), there are an increasing number of requests to show the film, both in Japan and abroad.  

It has been six months since the theatrical release ended in Tokyo (INFO), so currently the only way to see 'A2-B-C' in the capital is at a privately-organized screening (in Japanese 自主上映会スケジュールここ).  There was one such screening yesterday organized by the Tokyo chapter of food co-op PAL System (パルシステム東京映画祭INFO).

In addition to delivering food to its members, PAL System also delivers information about current topics through its newsletters and website.  Yesterday they added to that films, holding their first ever "mini Film Festival", screening three films during the one-day event.

Curious about how a food co-op came to program my film, I spoke with some of the executive staff prior to the screening.  They told me that many of their members are young mothers, and that the themes they focus on in their newsletters can be divided into three main topics: The Earth (such as global warming and energy issues), Society (abroad such as political turmoil, or at home such as the nuclear debate), and Food (such as food safety).  PAL System decided to create a film festival with films covering these topics, and they told me that they felt 'A2-B-C' actually dealt with all three themes.

The information about the three films was sent out to their members with interested people asked to register for the screenings they wanted to attend.  But when over 1,000 people registered to see 'A2-B-C', there was a problem: the cinema only had 250 seats.  In the end, the tickets had to be distributed through a lottery which meant that only a fraction of the people who wanted to see my film could do so.  The hope is that they will be able to hold another screening of 'A2-B-C' in the near future.

During the post-screening discussion, we talked about the courage of the mothers who so bravely shared their stories in the film, and about the difficulty of speaking out in Japan.  And, of course, we talked about food, which led us to talking about Ian's Kitchen (the cooking show I had a few years ago, INFO) and about the importance of growing, cooking and eating healthy and delicious food.  In light of Fukushima, this is ever more important and something that can no longer be taken for granted.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Message in a bottle

When we were saying goodbye, Beatriz and Raul, married artists from Spain whom I met six months ago when I was in Brazil (STORY), gave me a small glass vial inside of which was a neatly folded and rolled scroll.  Admiring it in the palm of my hands, I asked them if I should open it. 

"No, later," they said, their eyes adding "when you are ready". 

A few days later, on my way back to Japan, I was visiting my father during a stop-over in the US.  He had recently moved, and it was a time of much newness and unknowing.  One afternoon, sitting alone at my father's table and feeling I was ready to open the vial, I removed the cork and attempted to extract the scroll.  Having unfurled slightly, the paper would not fall out simply by turning it over and shaking it.  In the moments I took to consider how to extract it without damage, I felt my anticipation of finding out what was written on the paper increase.

Using a straightened paperclip to snag the paper and pull it out, I was reminded of the trick we used to use to eject a stuck disk on our very first Mac.  I slowly eased the scroll out of the vial as my heart beat faster.

Finally in my hands, I ran my fingers across the smooth paper as I held my breath and unfurled the tiny scroll, upon which I found was written... nothing.  It was a piece of blank paper.  A half-crooked smile appeared on my face, and I thought, "Hmm.  That is not what I was expecting."

At the time, I had understood this gift as a lesson about anticipation, that sometimes it is the anticipation of something, rather than the thing in and of itself, which brings us joy.  And although several times I started to write about Beatriz and Raul's gift, I found that I could not express into words what I was feeling about the blank paper, which in retrospect is a clear indication that I had not been fully receiving or understanding the gift I was being given.

Today, more than six months later, I find myself finally ready to open the vial; not literally, of course, for it has already been opened, but in a deeper sense.

So often we sit back waiting for something good to happen, as though everything in this life has been predetermined, is out of our control, and has nothing to do with our own effort.  Where I had been anticipating some inspirational words or easy answers would be provided for me on the paper, Beatriz and Raul's gift was a reminder that what I am seeking will only be revealed through an effort much greater than simply uncorking a bottle.

The page that I had first seen as Blank, is not.  Rather it is New, waiting to being filled.  We are like that paper, our lives provided to us, but the words that will fill our page are written through living with purpose.

As this New Year begins, may our eyes and ears be open to the words we seek and may we receive the strength to fill our page with those words by living our lives accordingly.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014


May your 2015 be filled with much Health and Happiness.


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Thanks be

On this, my 39th birthday, I reflect on the incredible year this has been and am so very grateful for the help and encouragement of so many family members, friends and supporters.

For many years now, I have not wanted to celebrate my birthday, although I had not been able to articulate why that is until last year:
Today, I spent the day exactly how I had always wanted to: doing something that wasn't about me in a place where no one knew it was birthday.

As I put my thoughts about today into the words I wrote above, it clarified for me my feelings about birthdays: we have been put on this earth to do for others, and we are called to celebrate the gift of life that we have been given not by celebrating our own birth and receiving physical 'presents', but by celebrating that mystical exchange of grace that occurs when we use our 'presence', the life that we have been given, to do for others. (Full story "The more they take away, what remains only grows stronger" HERE).

As I did last December in my "2013 Year in Review" (HERE), I would like to reflect on some of the life-changing experiences I have had in 2014 and for which I am so very grateful.

January 2014
I traveled to India for the first time where 'A2-B-C' (website ENGLISH/ 日本語) was screened in the CMS Vatavaran Environment and Wildlife Film Festival in New Delhi, and where I wrote THIS story about the street children who were separated from the outdoor screening venue by a single sheet of cloth.
February 2014
After screening 'A2-B-C' in Texas' Thin Line Festival (STORY), I flew to Taiwan for a three-city screening tour.  One of the highlights was the amazing outdoor screening in Taipei's Liberty Square (PHOTOS).

March 2014
One of the busiest months for travel that I have had, March began with my participation in the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW)-organized congress "The Effects of Nuclear Disasters on the Natural Environment and Human Beings" in Germany (STORY), followed by an intense 48 hours of travel to Switzerland and back (STORY).  Marking the 3rd anniversary of the March 11 disaster back home in Japan (HERE), an article I wrote about the newly passed Secrecy Law was published to coincide with the anniversary (ARTICLE).  I also wrote an entry called How to "do" a film and World Tour (HERE) about how I had been able to continue my work in the face of so many challenges.  The month ended with a trip to the US for screenings of 'A2-B-C' in NYC and Bryn Mawr, as well as a visit with family (STORY). 

April 2014
In April, things started gearing up for the nation-wide release of 'A2-B-C' in Japan beginning with a preview screening for mass media followed by a Q&A led by Radio DJ and broadcaster Peter Barakan (STORY).
May 2014
In May, I traveled to Fukushima and posted THIS Video Message for Children's Day.  I sat for a series of interviews (HERE) ahead of the theatrical release of 'A2-B-C', and the film opened to a sell-out crowd (STORY).  After reflecting on this incredible journey in an entry called "The Very Beginning" the day after the opening (HERE), I flew to Edmonton, Canada, for the Global Visions Film Festival where two of my films were screened (STORY).  This was followed by a trip to Brazil, my first time in South America (STORY), where 'A2-B-C' was awarded THIS special recognition and where I met Bonkohara Kuniko, Hiroshima atomic bomb survivor and director of the Association of Hibakusha in Brasil (STORY).  On the way home to Japan, I made a stop-over in  I the US where I gave THIS talk outside Washington, DC.

June 2014
Arriving home in Japan, I went straight from the airport in Tokyo to the cinema where 'A2-B-C' was screening and where I was told that the initial three-week run for the film had been extended for an additional three weeks (STORY).  In preparation for the nation-wide release, I took part in THIS press junket; meanwhile, the 25th screening of 'A2-B-C' in an international film festival was held in Poland (STORY).  I then took part in the symposium "Deciphering Japan" at Tokyo University of the Arts (HERE) and the film and I were attacked in THIS online article.  The theatrical release of 'A2-B-C' in Tokyo ended with a sell-out crowd and with the film at #1 on the Cinema Today access ranking list (STORY).  June ended with screenings in Nagoya and Hiroshima (STORY), my participation in the academic conference Cultural Typhoon (INFO), and putting the finishing touches on my new film, '-1287' (INFO).

July 2014
Beginning with a screening at Tsukuba University (STORY),  private screenings of 'A2-B-C' continued (HERE), the domestic tour continued in Osaka and Kyoto (STORY), and I was invited to speak at the University of Kobe (STORY).  Private screenings were held in Kamakura (STORY) and the picturesque city of Matsumoto (PHOTOS), and the domestic tour continued in Kobe (STORY).

August 2014
My short film "Even the birds need to be loved" was screened publicly for the first time in New York (STORY), and I marked Hiroshima Day (August 6) at a screening of 'A2-B-C' in Tokyo (STORY).  Having finished my new film '-1287', I began preparing for the Asian Premier of that film (HERE), as well as the continuing screenings of 'A2-B-C' (which I wrote about HERE in an entry called "Snorting Doc").  Meanwhile, I was asked to moderate for the first time a press conference at the Foreign Correspondent's Club of Japan (STORY).

September 2014
The World Premier of '-1287' was announced (STORY), and the domestic screenings of 'A2-B-C' continued in Nagano, after which I had the adventure described in "Stick 'em up! Your money or your... freedom" (HERE).  At a screening in Oita, I was heard screaming "Fukushima is NOT a zoo!  And nuclear refugees are NOT animals.  They are people!” (detailed HERE).  The next day, apparently still in a confrontational mood, I could be heard hissing " If something terrible happens to them as a result of having spoken out, it will not be because of this film!  It will be because of people who think like you, Doctor," at another screening (story HERE).  At the end of the month, I met my dad in the UK for a little R&R and to visit family friends ahead of the UK premier of '-1287' (STORY and PHOTOS HERE).

October 2014
The World Premier of '-1287' took place in London's Raindance (photos HERE), and "Japan's Foreign Filmmakers: 'Weastern Cinema'', an article I wrote for the festival catalogue, was published (story  HERE, full article HERE).  Ahead of the Asian Premier of '-1287', articles about my work were published (HERE), and I made a quick trip to Singapore (just 36 hours!) to take part in the workshop “Exposure and Effect: Measuring safety, environment and life in Asia” (STORY).  The Asian Premier of '-1287' was held in the Taiwan International Documentary Festival at which really personal questions were asked at the first post-screening discussion (HERE) and where the second post-screening discussion lasted longer than the film (HERE)!  The month ended back in Japan with screenings of 'A2-B-C' in Chigasaki and Wakayama, along with some devastating news that really put things into perspective for me (STORY).

November 2014
The month began with screenings of 'A2-B-C' in Kyushu where I met a real live Samurai (!) (STORY), and I officially started my new job at the University of Tokyo (STORY).  I traveled to the US for screenings of two of my films in the Lake Champlain International Film Festival where I was honoured to receive THIS award.  This was followed by a screening of 'A2-B-C' at McGill University in Montreal, screenings back in Japan in Akiruno and Seto, and my continuing work at the university (STORY).

December 2014
Jordan.  In my first trip to the Middle East, I felt called to visit Petra, where I had an amazing experience (links to the 4-part story are HERE), followed by a screening of 'A2-B-C' in Amman (HERE).  Back in Japan, the film screened in Mie to a packed house after this strange coincidence on the train (STORY).


My last trip abroad this year has brought me to the US to be with family for the holidays. 

Today as I receive so many birthday wishes, I am grateful for the thoughts and prayers.  And yet I find that I continue to be uncomfortable with the marking of my birthday.  As a child grows up, there is a celebration of that new life, balanced with prayers for the child's continued health.  Yet now, as an adult, I struggle with receiving congratulations simply for having been born.  Rather, I believe, it is I who should convey this greeting, this thanks, this praise: thanks be to my parents who gave birth to me and raised me; thanks be to the family members and friends who give me strength; thanks be to the supporters who help make possible my continuing work, and thanks be to God.

Celebrating my 1st birthday with my sister, Amanda.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Out with a bang

This will be my last blog from an airport this year.  Just back from Jordan on Friday (STORY and PHOTOS HERE), on Sunday I traveled down to Mie Prefecture where the theatrical release of 'A2-B-C' (website ENGLISH/ 日本語) continued (more on that in a moment).  

Back to Tokyo bright and early yesterday morning, I worked half day, ran some errands and then attended a dear friend's Christmas concert in the evening.  It is now Tuesday afternoon, and I am on my way to America to visit family for Christmas.  When I have shared with people I am going to America over Christmas they have almost always said, "Oh, you're going home for Christmas", to which I have replied, "No, I'm going to America for Christmas, and then I'm coming back home to Japan."

There is nothing like visiting my family's home for Christmas, and I am so grateful to be able to do so this year.  But it is just that: my family's home, not mine.

Meeting many nuclear refugees living in temporary housing over the past three years has taught me so many things: you can make home where you are, despite the often difficult circumstances.  And more than a physical house, what is important in life is Health, Family, Love.

'A2-B-C' was screened over the weekend at the Shintomiza Theatre (INFO), with more than 80 years of history as a cinema and decades more as a Kubuki theatre, in Ise City, Mie Prefecture.  Roughly three hours by train from Tokyo, I took a Shinkansen bullet train to Nagoya and then transferred to the "kintetsu" rail, with its old-fashioned cars that arrive at the gorgeous pre-war station building in Ise.

With an hour and a half on the train from Nagoya to Ise, I opened up my computer, plugged in my earphones, put on some music and started catching up on some of the dozens of e-mails I had fallen behind on while in Jordan.  At some point, the junior high school student sitting next to me got off the train, and I moved over from the aisle to the window seat where I feel there is more privacy.  A few stops later, a man boarded the crowded train and sat next down next to me.  Immersed in my work, I didn't pay much attention to him until I felt him staring at me.  Assuming that he just wasn't used to seeing "foreigners", I ignored him until he blatantly started staring at my computer screen.  Just as I started to lift my head to give him a look that I hoped would discourage him from staring at me any longer, he said something that sounded an awful lot like "Are you Ian?"  Taking out my earphones, I then clearly heard him repeat his question, this time adding my full name.  "Are you Ian Thomas Ash?".

Replying yes, he put his hand into his jacket pocket and pulled out the ticket stub for the previous night's screening of my film.  "My name is Kuno," he said, reaching out to shake my hand as he continued, "Thank you for your film."

It turns out Mr. Kuno is an organizing member of the citizen's groups that asked the Shintomiza Theatre to program "A2-B-C".  In addition to helping the theatre with advertising, they also volunteered during the screening.  Arriving at the theatre, several of the volunteers where out front wearing bright orange jackets and directing the cars in the parking lot.  The screening was sold out, and Mr. Mizuno, the theatre owner, told me they had set up folding chairs in the back to accommodate more people.  Later, after the screening, Mr. Mizuno told me that this was the best weekend for the theatre all year.

Just before entering the cinema for the post-screening discussion, I was surprised to find out that tickets to hear me speak were sold separately from the film ticket (!) which to my knowledge has never been done before.  I always feel a great responsibility to fairly and accurately represent the people who appear in my film when I speak, but now I suddenly felt a strange responsibility to give    over a hundred paying customers their money's worth (!).

Despite slight jet-lag (or perhaps it was just simply being tired), the discussion went smoothly and lasted over an hour.  Although it generally takes me a few minutes to warm up, once I get going, my adrenaline really starts pumping and I can get quite excited.

When the topic of the secrecy law came up (INFO), by some strange coincidence, the mic I was using suddenly started crackling and then went completely dead.  Dropping the mic, I screamed at the top of my lungs, "IF THEY ARE TRYING TO MAKE ME QUIET, THEY WILL ONLY SUCCEED IN MAKING ME LOUDER!!!" to great laughter and applause.

And now my flight is being announced, so I shall end this entry here.

Thank you all so very much for your support and encouragement.  This has indeed been the most incredible year for which I am so very grateful.

In Peace,
Tokyo, Japan