May/June 2020 for My Sight is Lined With Visions
Muted Memories: Strawberry Fields, dir. Rea Tajiri
By Theresa Wang
In many ways, Strawberry Fields (1997) is a spiritual sequel to director Rea Tajiri’s documentary History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige (1991): a daughter comes to terms with the disavowed past of her mother. As noted by its title, the documentary is concerned with the authority of images in validating truth within history and memory. By intercutting archival footage with fictional reenactments and puncturing the visual with pensive voiceovers, History and Memory understands the inadequacies of dominant images to uphold objectivity and considers remembrance itself “a generative, creative, and fictionalizing act.” With hindsight, it seems that Strawberry Fields, as a fictional drama, emerged out of an interest to expand upon the creative capacities of remembrance as fictionalization and to use the frictions of reality to enhance fiction. After all, it is an image, a thirty-year-old photograph of the protagonist’s grandfather in front of barracks in an internment camp, that seizes her attention and incites the action in the film.
Crucially, in Strawberry Fields, the desire to know is a violent one. Irene Kawai (Suzy Nakamura) is a rebellious teen pyromaniac whose mercurial hostility towards authority is twofold provoked by her parents’ separation and the insurmountable grief she feels around her younger sister Terri’s untimely death. Terri lingers throughout the film as a ghost-image goading Irene into uncovering their mother’s elusive past: that she, in her youth, was forcibly relocated with her family to an internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The film fumbles in the beginning to reach this reveal as it is initially disjunctive in cohering a connection between the narrative schemes of family drama, coming-of-age, and acquainting with cultural inheritance. Then a series of outbursts prompts Irene to run away from home with her boyfriend. For Irene, the roadtrip fantasy is another distraction, not unlike the flames she absentmindedly flares up from her matches. A friend she encounters on the way is the only who is able to see past the pretense of mania into her bereft mind, and is the one who inspires her to return to the image, to evince the haunted—to find the forgotten place.
Rather than a reconstitution of erased history, Strawberry Fields expresses through Irene the frustration of a generation’s unwillingness and inability to acknowledge trauma. This feels a move away from History and Memory, where Tajiri presents a moment of healing through forlorn acceptance of her own mother’s reticence to divulge her past, her desire to keep private memories forgotten. Irene’s discontent is warranted: she wants to face the truth. In an argument with her boyfriend, he insists on looking straight ahead all the way. But how is it possible to move ahead, to progress, if the past is inaccessible and unknowable to us? To consider a future is to participate in a world-building and an intervention, but how can that be endeavored without implicating and mediating a past?
Although Irene wishes for the truth, she also lacks self-awareness. Irene refuses to acknowledge the presence of Terri on her actions. Whether imagined, hallucinatory, or haunted, the trenchant editing adds a level of experimental narrative unreliability. Her repressed grief parallels that of her mother’s, and met with her mother’s inability to offer reprieve, Irene resigns to destruction. The film comes to end with an explosion on the vacant former camp grounds and the ghost of Terri choosing to stay behind in the past where she belongs. Despite its intensity, the resolution feels like acquiescence. Whereas History and Memory displaces certain power of history in return for memory as a generative fiction, Strawberry Fields understands history as no longer a default.
The moral complexity of the film is in how it navigates rhetorical strategies of memory, accountability, and legacy against the emotional need for self-determination. Irene’s relationship with her mother is fraught and it is unclear whether she achieves the forgiveness Tajiri herself finds in History and Memory. Her final act of ignition isn’t to destroy a world and start anew, to look straight ahead like her boyfriend suggested, but rather to confess the distress and ineffability of understanding that the past and present are constantly invariable and unknowable. By cognizing a shared vulnerability and incompleteness, she finds new comfort in conceiving a space built upon an indeterminable path.
Theresa Wang is a writer and curator based in Toronto.
Mimura, Glen Masato. “Antidote for Collective Amnesia? Rea Tajiri's Germinal Image.” Countervisions: Asian American Film Criticism, by Darrell Y. Hamamoto and Sandra Liu, Temple University Press, 2000, pp. 150–162.