1 Hour Photo: As relevant as ever

Tetsuro Shigematsu | Photo by Raymond Shum. Photo design Terry Wong

The Cultch and Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre (vAct) are offering a pre-recorded performance of Tetsuro Shigematsu’s award-winning play, 1 Hour Photo, to be streamed online on May 28, 29 and 30. This will be a cinematic adaptation of the stage play that debuted at the Cultch in 2017 to a sold-out audience. Shigematsu not only wrote the play, but he is also the performer. The 2021 revival was to be a touring show, but the world had
other plans.

“Originally our plan was to tour 1 Hour Photo to four cities across Canada, but things took a change during the advent of the pandemic,” says Shigematsu.

The play follows the story of Mas Yamamoto, whose personal life was impacted by major currents of the 20th century. He grew up in a fishing village on the banks of the Fraser River, then went on to be confined at a Japanese-Canadian internment camp during World War Two. In the years following the war, he even helped build the Distant Early Warning Line in the Canadian Arctic during the height of the Cold War.

With live performances postponed indefinitely, a new plan had to be made to bring this fascinating story to the people.

“Rather than shelving the project all together, my producer, Donna Yamamoto, asked our funders – Canada Council in particular – if we could use our funds to adapt the play cinematically,” says Shigematsu.

Japan Camera

Mas Yamamoto’s story might seem like something created to shine a light on certain current social issues, but for Shigematsu, it is a very personal story. It all started when he discovered a mug in the home he was renting from his producer, Donna Yamamoto.

“I guess the mug was sort of my ‘Rosebud,’ so to speak. It said ‘Japan Camera’ on it. I had this vague memory that it was some kind of photo finishing lab franchise back in the day,” says Shigematsu.

The mug was one thing, but when other household items such as towels branded with the Japan Camera logo joined the collection, he asked Yamamoto about it and discovered that Japan Camera was the Yamamoto family business. He kept on asking more questions and soon arrived at the amazing life story of Mas Yamamoto.

Shigematsu had a chance to sit down with Mas Yamamoto and have conversations about his life. The original idea of the play was going to look into the life of a family that gets to handle a whole community’s memories as they develop photos, but it soon became clear that this is a story that is about much more than just a successful photo lab business.

“The more I spoke with Mas the more I realized that we were going to need a bigger canvas to tell this story,” says Shigematsu.

Adaptation

Whenever a piece of art gets adapted to another medium, some changes need to be made. 1 Hour Photo was no exception, and it did present a few challenges.

“For one thing, we had to make it significantly shorter,” says Shigematsu.

An entire storyline that involves Shigematsu’s father does not appear in this version of the play, but the message and the theme of Mas’ life became much more relevant during our current cultural climate.

“One of the side effects of COVID-19 is the rise of xenophobia and anti-Asian hate crimes,” says Shigematsu.

Last year – much like during World War Two – the pandemic was used by some to try and dehumanize the Asian community, and 1 Hour Photo hopes to do the opposite. Yamamoto’s story has more themes that connect us as humans.

“To be able to sit [with Mas] for just over an hour and hear his life story and realize that Mas is just like me and I am just like Mas. We are so similar in all these ways in terms of his depression, his setbacks, his resilience and his love story,” says Shigematsu.

Shigematsu hopes that hearing this story helps close the cultural gap between this great man and the people who are lucky enough to see the play.

For more information, please visit: www.thecultch.com www.vact.ca

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