September 01, 2008

Unchained Heart


Murray Bramwell talks with Japanese-Australian photographer Mayu Kanamori about the 2008 OzAsia Festival event, CHIKA, a multi-dimensional performance work about the ten year imprisonment of Japanese tourist, Chika Honda.

When she first heard of the arrest in Australia in 1992, for alleged heroin smuggling, of Japanese tourist, Chika Honda, media artist and photographer Mayu Kanamori gave it only passing consideration. “I thought: they’ve arrested a group of mafia types, how embarrassing –they’re Japanese.”

Gradually though, spurred by investigative journalists in Japan and then with publicity in the mainstream press, momentum was gathering to have “the Melbourne case” of wrongful arrest and misplaced baggage re-examined. This again brought the matter to Mayu’s attention. A civil rights activist, Hideko Nakamura, was visiting Chika Honda in prison in Melbourne, and was part of a network providing Japanese food and other comforts. Familiar with Mayu’s previous performance media work, The Heart of the Journey, Nakamura encouraged a meeting at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre in April 1992.

Kanamori recalls the visit. “I read up about the case before they took me to the prison but I wasn’t 100% sure that she was innocent or not. Until I met her – and then I knew. I thought: ‘she is innocent and her story needs to be told.’”

It was then that she called on collaborators from the Heart of the Journey project – director Malcolm Blaylock and composer Thomas Fitzgerald – to begin what she calls a documentary performance. Fitzgerald prepared the Japanese-influenced music, some recorded, some to be performed live, and Mayu also edited some of the material for a Radio National feature for Radio Eye which was nominated for a Walkley Award in 2004.

The current stage version, using documentary images, archival footage, recorded interviews and featuring dancer/choreographer Yumi Umiumare, was first performed at the Malthouse in Melbourne in 2005 and again at the Performance Space in Sydney earlier this year. The performance at the Festival Centre’s OzAsia Festival this month is the third season of the work.

After the initial visit, Mayu Kanamori spoke to Chika once a month, gathering material for the production. She could not take tape recorders or video cameras into the prison and she also had to reconstruct a chronology which had begun ten long years before.

“I found by the time I had arrived on the scene the core of the story was finished- in Chika Honda’s case all the hardship, the arrest, the Federal Police investigation and the disastrously incompetent mistranslations and misunderstandings of the court case had finished. Even from the human emotion point of view she had already gone through depression, panic attacks, suicide attempts and by the time I saw her she was no longer bitter. Of course, she wanted her name cleared, but she’d learnt English, made Australian friends, and was well-adjusted prior to her release in that year.”

“When I first went to see her I asked her if she was sure she wanted to do this. I said : ‘I’m not Sixty Minutes, getting you millions of viewers in one go.’ But I could tell her story in a slow and gentle way, I could find out how she feels and take as long it takes to do that. The context of live performance is very strong. You watch a documentary on TV and think : ‘Wow, what injustice, and when the commercial break comes, that’s it. Screen culture doesn’t have the energy and intensity of live performance where performers and audience get much closer to the story.

Asked what conclusions she came to about Chika Honda’s experiences, Mayu Kanamori reflects : “ I didn’t know where this was going to take me. What I felt most was Chika’s humanity, eventually she was not bitter. She decided to make the most of her life. Her heart is very beautiful. She took me through. At first I thought: ‘this story is about injustice’, and it is – but it has changed, it is also about human endeavour.”

CHIKA is playing at the Dunstan Playhouse on September 26 and 27. Mayu Kanamori and other supporters are hoping Chika Honda will be granted a visa to return from Japan to attend the performance.

“Unchained Heart” The Adelaide Review, No.343, September, 2008, p.26.

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