The Official Top Japanese United States of American Narrative Feature Filmmakers of All Time

So in trying to be more open to the idea of not being so Korean United
States of American-centric
, here are the greatest Japanese United States of American Narrative Feature Filmmakers of all time.


Again, the rules — they must be Japanese American (at least 1.5 generation, raised in the United States) and have directed a narrative feature film (the feature needs to be able to be referenced on a reliable source i.e. IMDB, festival site or an official website.

Here’s what I got so far (in alphabetical order):

  1. Steve Akahoshi “Hollywood Vampyr

    “Okay, I know nothing about this film, but I do know Steve (an actor;
    series regular on ‘Tour of Duty’), who wrote, produced and directed an
    impressive short film, ‘At Face Value’ before this feature debut. He
    also recently served as 1st A.D. for Brian Tochi’s directorial debut,
    the TV movie, ‘Tales of a Fly on the Wall.'”

  2. Gregg ArakiMysterious Skin He is the daddy of the JA
    filmmakers. He may not be the first or the most “Japanese American” in
    his subject matter, but he is easily the most successful and infamous. His
    stuff really cracks me up. And his latest (which I wrote about in my
    Sundance 2005 round up
    *) is amazing. Both totally juvenile and campy while
    being mature and hard-hitting.
  3. Roddy Bogawa
    Some Divine Wind
    He just premiered his latest film “I Was Born
    But…” which I talked about in my NAATA Festival coverage*. He’s done a
    bunch of films. Roody has been able to maintain his outsider New York
    punk rock filmmaker chic status while pumping out his experimental
    films. He is a true filmmaker in the purest sense. In addition, he was my sensei when I wanted to learn how a
    moving camera works.

  4. Gregory
    The Night
    (another good find courtesy of stealinghome) Another film I have never heard about. From the official website,
    it looks like a very DIY affair. No mention of a festival run, but it
    is available on DVD if people are curious. Here’s the pitch: “An
    unsuccessful writer, who leads a desolate life, has an affair with
    an ex-lover, who is the wife of a once-successful actor, but their
    relationship pushes them to confusion and obsession.”
    It seems like the cast is all Caucasian. There’s also a cameo role by Sean Young. Could be interesting… or not.
  5. Kayo HattaPicture Bride
    This is awful. But I have to admit that I have never seen this film. I
    have heard a lot about it. Time for me to rent it this week just so I
    don’t feel like a total loser. I guess she (edit: oops) has a new one out this year
    as well called “Fishbowl.” Haven’t seen that either. Geez, I am a loser.  FROM CT: “BTW – Kayo Hatta’s “Fishbowl” is a short, and excellent at that.”
  6. Philip Kan Gotanda “Life Tastes Good”
    I can’t believe I originally forgot to add him to this list. Playwright
    and filmmaker, he was an inspiration for me during college when I read
    his play “The Wash.” Up to that point I had only read David Henry
    Hwang’s and Frank Chin’s stuff, it was refreshing to read something
    that felt different but still Asian American. His movie was okay. Not
    the best piece of cinema. If you do some looking, you can probably
    catch it on IFC.
  7. Eric Koyanagi “Hundred Percent
    probably never saw this film, but you should have. From what I understand, it had numerous
    internal problems on the business end. At one point,
    rumor was that the producers shelved it partly out of pride (too low an
    and partly out of spite (against Eric). When I saw it at ACV back in
    1998 (? -97?)
    *, I thought it was going to bust out and be “Better Luck Tomorrow
    before “Better Luck Tomorrow” was even out of its diapers. It had an
    all-star (at the time) Asian American cast — Tamlyn “Karate Kid 2”
    Tomita, Dustin “21 Jumpstreet” Nguyen, Garrett “Voyager” Wang,
    Keiko “pre-Gilmore Girls” Agena, Darion “I am a Basco-brother” Basco
    and Lindsay “I-Work-A-Lot-And-You-Probably-Recognize-Me” Price
    alas, it never had its much deserved theatrical release (or DVD release
    for that
    matter). The film is easily as good as any first feature out
    there. And Eric is a really awesome guy on top of it. It’s heartbreaking that the film never made it to its
    audience. Though I am not close to the inside nor pretend to really
    know, I suspect it is the fault of one man on the producing team (jyb)
    who once berated me for sending him a VHS of my short film that turned
    out to be on a bad tape. He then refused to let me give him another one
    because I had insulted him so badly initially with my lack of
    professionalism. (Asshole).

    Update: the film is available on DVD. I recommend it.

  8. Nathan Kurosawa “The Ride (courtesy of stealinghome) I had not been aware of this film either, but here is what the S.F.
    International Asian American Film Festival 2004
    had to say: “Director
    Kurosawa uses the juxtaposition of the self-centered David and the
    wiser Kahanamoku to instill THE RIDE with a respect missing from most
    contemporary surfing films: respect not only for the ocean, but for
    oneself. Most impressively, THE RIDE sets itself apart through its
    surprisingly deft touch with historical fiction, its attention to
    details of Hawaiian dress, architecture and speech, and especially to
    its recreation of the life of Kahanamoku, one of surfing’s—and
    Hawaii’s—greatest legends.”
    Sounds cool.
  9. Karyn Kusama “Girlfight I can’t believe I forgot this one originally also. (thanks for pointing it out angry asian man).
    This was a big one and got a lot of hype, though it didn’t do so well
    at the box office. It did make Michelle Rodriguez into an A-list
    supporting actress for any movie that was an extended music video.
    Karyn’s new project is the very high profile Aeon Flux. It’s been a
    while, we’ll see if there is a shelf life on the sophmore slump.
  10. Brian T. Maeda “Buddha Heads(a.k.a. “Savage boys”)

    “While I won’t rate this the highest amongst AA narrative features,
    like a lot of them, I credit the filmmaker for making it happen. It has
    its moments, and I appreciate that some of my JA cultural history was
    put on screen.”

  11. Paul Mayeda Berges “The Mistress of Spices

    “This Hapa JA is best known for co-writing screenplays for several
    successful films directed by his wife, Gurinder Chadha, but made his
    directorial debut with this love story set in San Francisco, starring
    Aishwarya Rai.”

  12. Anne Misawa “Eden’s Curve

    “Though this film won an award at the North Carolina Gay and Lesbian
    Film Fest, I have not seen it and cannot comment on it. But
    director/cinematographer Misawa is fairly established (just wrapped on
    her second feature), and is additionally known in the academic world,
    as a prof at the UH film school.”

  13. Jon MoritsuguMod Fuck Explosion
    He’s actually done a bunch of features but I think this is his claim to
    fame. He along with Gregg Araki and Roddy Bogawa make a really odd trio
    of campy weirdo Japanese American filmmakers who do really out there
    stuff. I know he released a film recently called “Scumrock” but I never
    saw it or heard what happened to it.
  14. Jimmy T. Murakami “Battle Beyond the Stars

    “I can’t say I know alot about JTM, though I’m curious. He is an
    animator, and received an Oscar nomination for Animated Short Film in
    1969. For sure, though, he directed this live action narrative feature,
    which is an adaptation of Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” — set in

  15. Eric Nakamura and Michael IdemotoSunsets

    “Notable for being one of the four films making up the Class of ’97
    (along with ‘Shopping for Fangs,’ ‘Yellow’ and ‘Strawberry Fields’). A
    gritty yet mellow B&W slice-of-slacker-life. Eric is also founder
    and editor of “Giant Robot” zine, and Michael went on to star in Eric
    Byler’s debut feature, ‘charlotte sometimes'”

  16. Robert Nakamura and Duane Kubo “Hito Hata: Raise the Banner

    “While it is not on IMDb (it should be [though you can look it up at
    the CAAAM website which
    qualifies it . MK]), in this case I don’t think that should be the bar,
    or I say we make an exception, since we know it is legit. In addition,
    were co-founders of one of the original APA media orgs, Visual
    Communications, founded in 1970.”

  17. Desmond Nakano “White Man’s Burden (courtesy of patentlypete)
    I never saw this movie. But I do remember when it came out, it wasn’t
    very well recieved.  But he seems to be a pretty successful guy. I
    loved “Last Exit to Brooklyn.”
    : “ps: Desmond Nakano currently has a new feature, ‘American Pastime,’
    marking his much needed return from the dead (after a long absence from
    the filmmaking scene).”
  18. Stann Nakazono (and Dom Magwili) “Much Adobo About Nothing

    “Stann and Dom (who wrote the screenplay) traveled to Park City in
    1999, showing this film from the back of a van, establishing their own
    ‘Van-dance’ film festival — talk about DIY. Sadly (now I feel like MK)
    I never saw the film, just heard about it. But, as you might guess from
    the title, this was one of the earlier Pinoy efforts to get on screen.
    BTW – Stann is another old school VC classmate, and shot my super-8
    (film, not video) VC student film, ‘Chisai Samurai,’ back in 198….
    er, a long time ago.”

  19. Lane NishikawaOnly The Brave I saw this at VC I think in 2005. It is
    a very ambitious undertaking for a low budget film. Full on battle
    scenes in World War 2, I don’t know if he exactly pulls it off (also
    the film was never color corrected or negative cut I believe, so the
    version I saw was a pretty low grade video output which may have
    something to do with it). It’s a commendable effort though and
    definitely a story that needed to be told.
  20. Ron Oda (with co-director Kris Chin) “Asian Stories (Book 3)

    “In my nostalgic daytripping recollecting the old school JA filmmakers,
    I neglected these guys, of the newest generation of DIY filmmakers who
    were amongst the 18 or so who had AA indie features on the festival
    circuit in ’06. Modestly understated, I found the film engaging, and in
    particular, give them props for presenting characters who, though
    simple and flawed, remained sympathetic and intriguing.”

  21. Steven OkazakiLiving On Tokyo Time
    Now I feel like a really big loser, because this dude is old school…
    I mean “Kangol hat and Jerri Curls” old school and I haven’t seen this
    film. Actually, I don’t think I’ve seen ANY of his films and he’s won
    an Academy Award for his documentary work. Shit. I wish I had more to
  22. Ryan Shiraki “Home of Phobia
    Okay, here are my bittersweet personal factoids about Ryan. I first met
    Ryan when he came back to my hometown of Providence on some collge
    break with one of my best friends. They had become fast friends at
    school and I guess because he was from Hawaii, it was cheaper to tag
    along with my friend to her home than go back to Hawaii. Anyway, he is
    definitely a charming guy and my friend had told me stories about how
    he would do backflips down the dorm hallway. He then transferred to
    Brown and began hanging out with another really close friend. So I saw
    him a bit in college and partied withhim on occassion. He has
    beena  chubby kid when I first met him, but over the course of
    time he got bulimicly skinny and openly gay. Still charming. A few
    years out of school, I had heard he started working at SNL as a talent
    coordinator. I sent him some spec writing material to see if he could
    hook me up. What did Ryan do? He wrote me back saying that he doesn’t
    accept unsolicited material. So much for helping another brother out.
    (And by the way the unsolicited line is bullshit — I happen to know
    one guy who got a
    job at SNL by sending in one-liners to Norm McDonald cold — if you
    ever get one of those letters, it means that they don’t want to get
    sued by you if something they write looks similar. They’ll probably
    send along a release form to sign as well — just forget it and move
    on). Okay, maybe
    my shit wasn’t funny (probably still isn’t). But if you are someone’s
    friend, there are better ways to handle a situation than hiding behind
    the same
    bullshit response I was getting from total strangers. Come on, man…
    Okay, enough griping. Makes me feel like a loser. We’ve both made our
    films and are out there, so the game is reset in my mind. Last factoid,
    you may remember Ryan
    as the token Asian in some of the skits. Most memorable was as an Asian
    design engineer in one of their spoof commercials. I haven’t seen his
    film (or talked to him since he mailed me his rejection letter). But I
    have to give it up to him for working his way up the ladder and making
    a film that premiered at Sundance in the midnight section with an
    impressive cast (which includes one of my favorite SNLers Rachel
    Dratch). Fucker.
  23. Rea
    Tajiri “
    Strawberry Fields
    She is one of my all-time favorite filmmaker
    friends. She is so cool and she put so much into this film — including
    a whole year of the project being frozen in post due to lack of
    funding. She deserves much more than she got out of this film. She
    should be working full time in Hollywood. But like Eric Koyanagi, I
    think she got shafted on the distribution end (not for the same
    reasons, but still shafted is shafted). You can see her film on DVD
  24. Iwao Takamoto (and Charles A. Nichols) “Charlotte’s Web’

    “Do animated features count? Legendary Nisei animator, creator of the
    Scooby-Doo character, among others, has produced, designed or otherwise
    been involved in many animated TV shows, but is credited with
    (co)directing only this feature film title. He got turned on to drawing
    as a teenager while in camp, and landed a job at Disney upon returning
    home after the war.”

  25. Michael Toshiyuki Uno “The Wash

    “Since this was mentioned in PKG’s bio, as a play, it should be noted
    that a feature film was produced, based on the play, receiving several
    Indie Spirit Award nominations, including Best First Feature, Lead
    Actress (Nobu McCarthy) and Supporting Actress (Patti Yasutake). PKG
    wrote the screenplay, and MTU, who had recently been nominated for a
    short film Oscar, directed.”

I haven’t put together an Honorable Mention list, but I do want to give a super special shout out to Risa Morimoto who not only is the executive director of ACV but also has produced her husband’s feature film “The LaMastas.” Risa has helped so many young Asian American filmmakers (myself included… though I am not that young) through her work at ACV while also struggling to get her own directorial debut off the ground. She is a true inspiration.

And also Chris Tashima (the fact checker for this list) who is a member of this elite special forces group (and also got an Oscar).


24 thoughts on “

  1. How about Lane Nishikawa? He has a new movie just coming out called “Only the Brave,” about the Japanese-American army regiment.

  2. BTW…I’m sure it was just a typo…because the last time I saw her, Kayo Hatta was still a woman. I think Picture Bride was the first feature film written, directed and produced by Asian American women.

  3. wow…I remember seeing hundred percent at my first acv film festival…I liked it–and not just cuz I busted a gut seeing Dante Basco done up as a Rasta hahaha.  That’s a shame to hear about all those problems with it.

  4. just wanted to point out u referred to Kayo Hatta as a ‘he’.  She’s a cool person.  I met her at a party at someone’s apt. about 7 years ago right after she premiered ‘Picture Bride’.  My friend Richard hated it.  I told him to come over.  I was like, hey Richard, tell her what you thought about Picture Bride.  So he went off on it.  Then she stopped him halfway thru and was like, hey let’s be fair I’m the director.  Richard was like what the fuck and looked over at me but I was long gone laughing my ass off at the other end of the room.  Haha I was fuckin immature back then.

  5. Kayo Hatta came to my production class at UCI two weeks ago.  She is definitely cool.  Kayo was showing her new filmmaking interest, which is using a mini digital video recorder (pocket-size) to capture moments in life.  it’s pretty neat because you don’t have to carry around a huge video camera to capture images.

  6. Another note regarding “The Ride”…World Premiere attendance estimated at over 15,000. Yup, you read it correctly…over 15,000 people showed up at Sunset on the Beach at Waikiki for it.Gregory Hatanaka for “Until the Night”…don’t know much about him either except one in one interview he said he was from Torrance, Calif.

  7. i swear that bob nakamura, though he’s a documentarian, did a narrative feature a long time ago about internment. pat morita was in it and i’ve seen clips but can’t remember the name.

  8. so if you could only find 10 JA filmmakers, isnt it more like the _only_ 10 JA filmmakers? Top 10 implies that there are suckier JA filmmakers out there, doesnt it? you’d need an 11th filmmaker that’s not on the list to really say that this is the top 10… ^_^and out of curiousity, why arent documentarians included?

  9. so what’s the difference between a journalist and a novelist? jkjk!sarcasm doesnt translate well in the online world. at least, that’s been my experience.

  10. Man…I would love to check out “Home of Phobia.”  Can you hook me up, Mike? 
    I still think “Yellow” is cool.   I might get in trouble here…I’m not sure which country the director is from.

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