There was a time, before digital cameras and smartphones, when photography took time and care. There was also a time when photography was really an art form and not primarily a means of documenting the goings-on of the world. One thing that’s unlikely to change anytime soon is the way photographs connect us to the past — revealing as much as they conceal as moments are captured.
Mayu Kanamori is a photographer and artist who was born in Japan in 1963 and migrated to Australia in 1981. She works as a professional wedding photographer, and has also created works exploring her cultural heritage and migrational issues for theatre and radio, for which she became a Walkley Award finalist in 2004.
As a photographer, Kanamori has often doubted her ability to truly contribute to culture or make a lasting impact upon the world — her career as a photojournalist never took off in the way she wanted it to and the wedding business can sometimes seem shallow. But her research into the life and work of another pioneering Japanese-Australian photographer helped her to look at her own work in a new way.
Yasukichi Murakami, who is the subject of Kanamori’s recently created performance, arrived in Australia when he was just 16 in 1897, and within a few years was running a busy photography studio in Broome. He became a prominent member of the Broome community and invented a new form of diving suit used by the local pearl divers. When the pearling sector dried up, Murakami moved to Darwin and opened another successful photography studio, but when World War II began, he and his family were thrown into a camp in Victoria. He died there in 1944.
Murakami’s story is an integral piece of our patchwork history, which has gone largely unnoticed and untold. It’s also indicative of the role Japanese Australians played in the development of Australia in the early part of the 20th century and goes beyond the stereotypes audiences are all too familiar with. As producer Annette Shun Wah says in her program notes: “It is rare on our stages and screens to see Japanese Australians depicted as anything other than enemy soldiers, ruthless businessmen or clueless tourists.”
Yasukichi Murakami: Through a Distant Lens tells both the story of Murakami and Kanamori, side by side, focusing on her journey to uncover the truth about Murakami. Kanamori is played by Arisa Yura, while Kuni Hashimoto plays a ghostly Murakami.
It’s largely due to these two performers’ vivacity that the work lifts from documentary to compelling drama. Yura is a natural storyteller, reaching out to the audience and asking them to lean in. Hashimoto brings fatherly authority, and has strong comedic sensibilities when necessary. And there’s some stunning work from composer and musician Terumi Narushima, played live on traditional Japanese instruments.
The visual design by Mic Gruchy is particularly strong, and almost immersive, with both photographers’ works projected onto a full wall of the SBW Stables Theatre. There are some conversations between Kanamori and a pre-recorded ghostly figure projected onto the wall which come across as a little naff and aren’t particularly well-executed. But they’re minor disruptions in a story that’s otherwise brilliantly told.
Over the course of Kanamori’s research, she discovered that one of Murakami’s greatest regrets was that he was unable to photograph one of his daughter’s weddings while they were imprisoned in the camp. It certainly reinforces the significance of Kanamori’s work and photography more broadly.