Layers of history and identity in Little Tokyo are explored in Marissa Osato’s “to peer through veils.” Osato is an award-winning dancer and choreographer. (Photo by Scott Oshima)

By SCOTT OSHIMA

A Japanese American woman wanders the tranquil nightscape of Little Tokyo, encounters, dances with, and embodies the shadows of history in the JACCC Plaza. This is the opening of Marissa Osato’s compelling dance short film “to peer through veils,” produced by JACCC and Sustainable Little Tokyo and screening online through June 30.

Marissa Osato’s direction and choreography uncovers the layers of history in Little Tokyo — in particular, of Bronzeville. In 1942, President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 90066 forced over 120,000 Japanese Americans into incarceration camps and emptied Little Tokyo of its Japanese American community. From 1942-45, over 80,000 Black migrants, searching for work in L.A.’s wartime industry, transformed the vacant Little Tokyo into Bronzeville — a center for Black culture, jazz, and community.

As Osato explains, “In learning about the history of Bronzeville and the shared consequences of structural racism for Japanese American and Black communities in L.A., I wanted to use shadows to draw connections, to embody the empty, hidden ‘ghost towns’ in history but also within the self.”

Osato is an award-winning choreographer and dancer, and is currently associate professor at Santa Monica College’s Dance Department. She is not new to exploring Japanese American identity and history through dance: Her evening-length “The Spectacular Societyjuxtaposed quiet reflections of her grandmother’s WWII camps experiences and explosive parades of patriotic hysteria. JACCC was introduced to Osato’s engaging work through the performance’s 2019 production at NAVEL.

In the 10-minute short film, dancer Shiori Kamijo, herself a Japanese immigrant, guides us through this personal and collective experience with the past. Entering JACCC Plaza, Kamijo expresses wonder and joy as she first encounters the shadow and the music of Bronzeville’s vibrant jazz scene, echoed in Sara Sithi-Amnuai’s expansive score.

Shiori Kamijo dances with her “shadow,” performed by Vickie Roan. (Photo by Scott Oshima)

At the close of the jazz scene, the shadow reveals itself as a separate and distinct being, performed with precision and remarkable expression by dancer Vickie Roan. Kamijo and Roan display their versatility as they transition from a celebration of the jazz era to the bodily quakes of a fractured and lost hopes for a postwar Japanese American and Black “Little Bronze Tokyo.”

Composer Sithi-Amnuai shared the process of scoring the film. “One of the biggest challenges was giving space for many types of experiences, themes, and emotions — from reckoning with the past of Bronzeville to the first-generation immigrant experiences of Issei people. I wanted to acknowledge and draw from the rich sounds of the past, present and future of Little Tokyo from Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus to the sounds of the city at various points in history.”

Sithi-Amnuai, also a trumpeter and sheng musician, is one of the selected musicians for JACCC and Sustainable Little Tokyo’s Nikkei Music Reclamation Project.

to peer through veils” brought together both new and old collaborators. Dancers Kamijo and Roan are longtime collaborators and active members of Entity Contemporary Dance, which Osato co-founded and co-directs. New collaborations included Sithi-Amnuai and Alex Laya, filmmaker and director of photography, whose graceful camerawork and editing is itself a choreographic wonder. This was also Osato and JACCC’s first collaboration. Yet all of the artists were forced to navigate creating a film during the pandemic.

For Osato, “[This was] extremely challenging and extremely rewarding. Besides Sara and I accidentally running into each other at JACCC while rehearsing for different projects, we had never officially met in person, and all of our collaborative correspondence was done remotely. I’m amazed at how well we connected and am looking forward to future collaborations!”

For Scott Oshima, executive producer and program director at JACCC, “This project was a respite from this pandemic and its many losses and limitations on our lives and creative practices. JACCC feels so thankful for the opportunity to work with Marissa and all the collaborating artists in creating a vision of the future through a dance with the past.”

The film closes as the night ends and the sun rises. Kamijo, in a surreal and gorgeous denouement, awakes on top of Isamu Noguchi’s “To the Issei sculpture in JACCC Plaza — itself a remembrance of first-generation Japanese Americans. Kamijo appears at peace, lit and warmed by the rising sun and a future yet unseen.

Osato says, “I hope viewers are moved to reflect on their own internal and external layers of identity, and how those are tied to other communities and histories. In the same way that this project stoked my curiosity about the sociopolitical history of Little Tokyo, I hope viewers feel curious about the places they inhabit and consider ‘peering’ at societal issues through lenses other than their own.”

“to peer through veils” is screening online until June 30. Join the free panel discussion on Thursday, June 17, at 7 p.m. with Osato and Sithi-Amnuai, moderated by Oshima. Learn more, register, and rent at www.jaccc.org/okagesama.

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