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Inspired by recordings of their “very raunchy, very bawdy, very bitter, very tender” work songs, Kayo Hatta set out to make a film about the Japanese women immigrants who came to toil in Hawaii’s sugar-cane fields in the early 20th century. The result, Picture Bride, is a romantic period drama that focuses on a few characters and largely ignores politics. But Hatta insists she’s happy with it.

“It was a difficult film to edit,” says the writer/director of Bride, which first came out of the editing room as a three-hour epic with a lot of footage about a sugar-cane workers’ strike and tension between Japanese and Filipino workers. Though already scheduled for the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, Hatta pulled the film and cut it some more before sending it to Cannes a year ago.

The reaction was “not as enthusiastic as we would have liked,” she recalls. By this time, Hatta was allied with Miramax, the distributor known for its willingness to streamline and sweeten import and indie films for American release. According to the filmmaker, Miramax “supported” (some reports say insisted on) continued tinkering. Hatta added a new score, remixed the sound, and finally had a 90-minute film ready for Sundance a year late.

“I didn’t want it to turn into a didactic labor history,” explains the black-clad Hatta, her hair wet from a recent swim, as she eats soup in the Henley Park Hotel’s otherwise deserted dining room. “I think a feature film should move an audience, and inspire the audience to go do more research on its own.”

Bride changed greatly from its initial conception, but Hatta did resist the counsel of those who insisted it needed a more prominent white character or suggested that Riyo, the film’s protagonist, have an affair with the Anglo plantation owner. Now that the film has been well received not just among Japanese-Hawaiians but among film-festival audiences from Washington to San Francisco, she says, “We feel kind of vindicated.”

Though the film ended up as a fictional romance, it drew on documentary techniques and precedents. The filmmaker interviewed surviving “picture brides”—Japanese women who moved to Hawaii to wed men they knew only from photographs—and supported the initial stages of the five-year project with “grass-roots fund-raising” and grants. (“This was of course when grants for the arts were still around,” she notes.)

Fortunately, there was strong support for the film in Hawaii. The state provided $300,000, and church womens’- group volunteers sewed costumes. Though tourism has supplanted sugar as Hawaii’s principal industry, Hatta reports, “Everyone has an uncle or an aunt or a grandfather who worked in the sugar-cane fields. It’s a part of Hawaii that’s going to be gone soon.”

Hatta herself, ironically, is not the descendent of a picture bride. Her maternal grandmother came to Hawaii during the period depicted in the film, but as the wife of a Buddhist priest who ministered to the sugar-cane workers. Though she never worked in the fields, Hatta’s grandmother was the model for the headstrong Riyo. “I really needed a personal connection to the story,” says the director, who wrote the script with her sister Mari.

“She was very modern,” says Hatta of her grandmother. “She believed in love marriages. She was very proud that she

had a love marriage.”

Riyo, Hatta admits, is more rebellious than most real picture brides. “One of the things that many women [interviewed] said is, they were stuck.” Women who left their husbands had few places to go, and their pictures were printed in local newspapers to shame them.

“I just hate that side of Japanese values, the fatalistic thing,” declares Hatta. Nonetheless, “I did want [Riyo’s] journey to end with her accepting Hawaii.”

Plantation work was hard, but Hatta notes that many Japanese who immigrated to Hawaii actually improved their lot. “A lot of men came over because they were the No. 2 son,” and thus not in line to inherit any property. “I know a lot of women came over because they didn’t want to live with their mothers-in-law,” who tyrannized brides in some traditional households.

Hatta also drew on her other grandmother, a woman from rural Japan who didn’t arrive in Hawaii until the ’50s. She was the source of the film’s interest in ghost stories. In the film, Riyo says that ghosts seem more real in Hawaii than in Japan, and Hatta agrees.“Hawaii is a place where there’s a convergence of all these different Asian cultures,” she offers, and with them came many different supernatural traditions. “Very sensible people believe in ghosts in Hawaii.”

“I spent a lot of time in the cane fields when I was writing the story,” says the director, who used to work on the script while sitting at the edge of a part-Buddhist, part-Catholic cemetery listening to tapes of the women workers’ songs. “It just gave me total chicken-skin. We call it chicken-skin in Hawaii—goosebumps.”

“I believe in ghosts,” she adds. “I’ve seen a ghost before. It was not in Hawaii. It was in Palo Alto,” she laughs.

Despite the small budget, Bride stars two actors who are well known, at least in Japan. The film’s biggest name is Toshiro Mifune, the samurai-film star who plays the benshi, the narrator of silent films presented by a traveling troupe. (It’s appropriate that a big star played this small role, Hatta explains: “During this period, the benshi were bigger stars than the people on the screen.”)

Enlisting Mifune, the director says, “was just a combination of time and subject matter. He really loves Hawaii. He visits Hawaii a lot.” The principal lures were a plane ticket and a hotel room, both donated by local businesses.

When the director first went to greet Mifune, she and producers Lisa Ono

“He had no attitude at all,” she adds.

As for Youki Kudoh, who plays Riyo, she “just fell in love with the part.” She called one night, Hatta recalls, declared herself the best actress in Japan, and started demonstrating her accents. Later she also displayed her fund-raising skills, ultimately obtaining half the film’s financing after money ran out.

“She not only gave a great performance,” says Hatta, “but she ended up saving the production.”

With Bride finished and in commercial release, Hatta somewhat regrets the documentary it could have been. “Now I kind of wish when I was interviewing the picture brides that I had taken really good video footage of them,” she says, noting that some of them have since died.

Picture Bride is very much history filtered through my imagination,” Hatta admits, and yet she says that one former picture bride paid the film the ultimate compliment after a Hawaii screening: “I was watching my life,” she said.