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Visible Apparitions

History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige, dir. Rea Tajiri

Still from History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige, dir. Rea Tajiri

By Vicky Du

A few weeks ago, I watched Rea Tajiri’s History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige (1991) on my laptop in bed, twice in a row, late at night on a Thursday.

History and Memory is about Rea’s search and reconstruction of a missing image: her Japanese American family’s imprisonment in internment camps during WWII. This history was shrouded in silence both by her family and our country. Rea’s mother tells her, “I thought to myself: Now why did this happen, you know? You could go cra... you could go out of your mind. So you just put those things out of your mind, you know?” And so her family chooses to forget their home was stolen, that they were “placed behind barbed wires for no reason at all.”

The film made me ache in a way I often felt these last few years while working on my film about my family, our censored history and inherited trauma; it centered a general existential emptiness I’ve felt for as long as I could consciously remember. While I was watching the film, there was a particular section of Rea’s voiceover that made me wince.

“I began searching because I felt lost, ungrounded. Like a ghost witnessing others living their lives, but not having one its own.”

It reminded me of a particular line from Ocean Vuong’s novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, describing how the protagonist falls in love and experiences being desired for the first time, despite being  “yellow and barely there.”

Throughout my life, I’ve often felt myself disappear. I could go unnoticed. People wouldn’t talk to me, or ask me anything. I could become a ghost—visible, but not alive to the people around me as a wanting and needing person. To this day, I can’t tell if others are making me disappear, or if I’m doing it to myself. (Throughout childhood, disappearing was my means to comfort and safety in an abusive and unpredictable home.)

After watching her film, I asked Rea over the phone what she meant by feeling like a ghost. “I was floating along, I felt unseen. That was probably an impetus to become an artist. People didn’t see me. I have a strong personality but I still felt absent. They didn’t understand this sort of strange state that I could find myself in, a little bit lost.”

“There’s probably been this trauma, this whole past,” she added.

It's an odd thing for your family's history and your personhood to be defined by absence. That negative space is stamped out through forgetting, floating, violence, silence, and secrecy. It inevitably hurts.

I asked Rea, “How did you know you were in pain?”

She laughed. “I guess I must have always felt like this big absence. This big void. There’s something weird about us. In the film’s release, I learned that other Asian American women feel this too. They feel a similar absence. It’s sadness, but not quite sadness. I experience that they have experienced loss. If I see that in them, probably I’m reflecting that somehow too. We’re mirrors for each other.”

After speaking with Rea and watching her film, I felt like I had more of an outline; that we who asked too-blunt questions, followed our longing and intuition, and anxiously pointed our cameras, could construct images to fill each other up.

Vicky Du is a queer, Taiwanese American documentary filmmaker living in New York.

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