Filmmaker Spotlight: John Esaki

 John Esaki is the director and writer of “Stand Up for Justice.” The film will be featured on the X1 Asian American destination this May in the Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month mini-destination. We had the pleasure of asking John what inspired his filmmaking journey and how his Japanese American heritage influences his work.

Photo: John Esaki


Tell us about your film featured on X1 this month!

John Esaki: “Stand Up for Justice,” a 30-minute narrative film, dramatizes the true story of Ralph Lazo, Mexican-Irish American high school student who from 1942 to 1945 voluntarily lived in Manzanar concentration camp—one of ten built by the U.S. government in 1942 to confine Japanese Americans during WWII. “Stand Up for Justice” was produced in 2004 by Visual Communications and Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress with grants from the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund and California Civil Liberties Public Education Program. It was conceived as a film for use in classrooms to talk about history, civil liberties and personal responsibility.

How did you get into filmmaking?

JE: After receiving a B.A. in English and teaching credential, I taught at a middle school for five years. Then classroom experiences with media-obsessed youth inspired me to study film. I was introduced to Asian American community documentaries by UCLA Professor Robert Nakamura who recruited me to work as a volunteer first. Then, I became a staff at Visual Communications from 1979 to 1999 and was involved in all aspects of production, programs and fundraising. I also free-lanced as videographer, sound recordist and editor. I have worked since at the Media Arts Center of the Japanese American National Museum which was established by Prof. Nakamura and his wife, Karen Ishizuka.

What are some films and/or filmmakers that have inspired you?

JE: I have been fortunate through the years to have assisted and learned from many of the pioneers of Asian American filmmaking—Loni Ding, Robert Nakamura, Wayne Wang, Christine Choy, Renee Tajima Pena, Steven Okazaki, Stephen Ning, J.T. Takagi, Spencer Nakasako, Michael Chin, Curtis Choy. Their works established the foundation of Asian American filmmaking and continues to inspire me.
Photo: John Esaki

Do you have a favorite Asian American film?

JE: The film that first suggested to me the possibility that you could make a film revealing and expressing your own family history was “Wataridori“—an artfully constructed composite of the Japanese American immigrant experience told through three, interwoven Issei stories. The soundtrack was constructed of unsynchronized voice-over, mixed with period and contemporary music, and was highly effective in conveying distinctive personalities though they were constructed from multiple and varied life histories.

How does your Asian heritage influence your work?

 JE: As a staff at the Japanese American National Museum, I am reminded daily of personal, family and community history— my grandparents journey to California from Mie and Wakayama regions of Japan as picture bride couples echoes similar immigrant stories from diverse communities; and my California-born parents meeting and blossoming romance while confined on a remote Arizona desert reservation offers a personal reference point to other such improbable encounters during periods of turmoil and instability. As a result, the reflection on personal history and heritage is inevitable.

What is your outlook on the state of Asian American cinema?

JE: With expressive tools relentless evolving and distribution channels multiplying, opportunities appear to be growing for Asian American filmmakers to continue to reveal Intriguing and compelling new stories from this complex and dynamic community. However, with the wealth of new content, will our attention be diffused and dissipated?

Photo: John Esaki

What’s next for you?

JE: I am working on video components for a display in August at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, commemorating the 30th Anniversary of the signing of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988—which issued an official government apology for its actions against Japanese Americans during World War II and awarded token redress payments for all survivors of camp confinement still living at the time. Thirty years ago, President Reagan stated: “Here we reaffirm our commitment to equal justice under the law.” It is time now, again, to reaffirm that commitment.

 Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, John Esaki! Watch “Stand Up for Justice,” on the X1 Asian American destination or with Xfinity Stream this May for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Just say “Asian American” into your Xfinity X1 Voice Remote!

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