A chance encounter led me to Isa. I was working on a series of short experimental films exploring hidden dimensions of Japanese American wartime history. Common sense tells us that among the 120,000 Japanese Americans the US government imprisoned during World War II, some of them must have been gender nonconforming and same-gender-loving individuals. Yet queer wartime perspectives remain extremely rare. In contrast to most gender-segregated prisons, Japanese Americans were incarcerated by family units, a strategy that not only pressured people to conform to heterosexual norms but also converted incarceration into a multi-generational family experience. My films try to imagine how queer Japanese American immigrants survived the isolation, humiliation and heteronormativity of the wartime era. After a screening of Looking for Jiro, an audience member approached me and excitedly suggested that I make a film about a butch Japanese American he was researching in San Diego. Months later, long after the precise details of our conversation had fallen away, I was able to locate and reconnect with the researcher, who generously directed me to Isa Shimoda.
I made two trips to San Diego to shoot footage and visit the Japanese American Historical Society of San Diego, where Shimoda’s archival collection resides. I learned that Shimoda arrived in San Francisco from Japan in 1903. She later moved to San Diego and opened a restaurant that served ten-cent lunches around the clock to Japanese Americans working in the local tuna canneries. She was known for her masculine attire as well as her skills at naginata, a sword-based martial art practiced by women in Japan. Her restaurant was a refuge for the women who endured gruesome hours cleaning fish and lived in meager housing shelters known as “fish camp.” While in San Diego, I spoke with a gentleman who remembered going to Shimoda’s restaurant when he was a child. His mother, a close friend of Isa’s, worked long hours in the cannery and could never get rid of the stench from her clothing. The fact that Isa dressed like a man, hand rolled her own cigarettes, and challenged men to sword fights clearly left a lasting impression on this young fish camp resident.
In 1942 when Roosevelt issued an executive order to arrest all persons of Japanese ancestry, Shimoda was imprisoned in Poston incarceration camp in Arizona. My research at the National Archives in Washington DC revealed that Shimoda had two sets of government records: the first lists Shimoda as "female" upon entering Poston, the second identifies Shimoda as "male" upon release. Shimoda's legacy not only challenges traditional narratives of wartime history that emphasize heroism, masculinity, conformity, and assimilation– but also opens up space for exploring gender and sexual subversion.
My experimental film On the Line uses Shimoda’s story as a point of departure for honoring the Japanese American women who lived, loved, and worked together during the prewar era and beyond. The film envisions an immersive fantasy of butch bentos, femme fish filleting, and lesbian desire by establishing multiple planes of queer inhabitance. The first presents the textures and sounds of the cannery docks and fish camp. The second juxtaposes Shimoda’s restaurant, where women enjoy food, drink, and dancing alongside the tuna cannery, where women from Japan were given the most “dirty” and undesirable work. This imagery is interrupted by a third dimension that ebbs and flows with women dancing, sword-slinging, and oceanic flowering of same sex desire. When the factory whistle blows, the women leave the restaurant and head back to their work on the assembly line, whose specter looms large as the continuous “heartbeat” of factory life.
This project radically transformed my artistic practice and aesthetic approach to experimental filmmaking. After working closely with the Center for Asian American Media to find archival home movie footage that capture the intimacy of women and the complexity of cannery life, I began exploring found sound and a broad range of 16mm and 8mm filmmaking techniques for the first time. As a result, I produced a film that brings together archival footage, digital film, and hand processed film footage that has been painted, bleached, rubbed, manipulated, and scratched. My work with handmade film processes brought color and a “painterly quality” into the work that resonates with my earlier MFA training as a painter. This project helped me reach a whole new level of filmmaking. Through the textural and sensory qualities of experimental film, On the Line conjures up the homosocial worlds of the tuna factory, the restaurant, and naginata, where women might find same-sex intimacy amid sake and fish guts while the men were off to sea.
"Shimoda's legacy not only challenges traditional narratives of wartime history that emphasize heroism, masculinity, conformity, and assimilation– but also opens up space for exploring gender and sexual subversion."
Learn more about grant recipient Tina Takemoto.