Even today, you’d have to go far to run into a radical individual like Leonie Gilmour. But in America in 1901, to meet a young woman like her must have been on par with witnessing a comet.
Raised in New York by a single mother, Gilmour studied at Bryn Mawr, a liberal-arts college in Pennsylvania, and Paris’ Sorbonne university on a scholarship. She then got a job as an editor for Japanese poet Yonejiro Noguchi; things took a short-lived turn for the amorous, and she bore a son, Isamu Noguchi — who became one of the most influential and important Japanese artists of the 20th century.
At the beginning of the biopic “Leonie,” Gilmour (the always excellent Emily Mortimer) is so formidable that her Bryn Mawr professors keep her at a wary distance. When a classmate, Catherine (Christina Hendricks), shyly extends an invitation to friendship, she retorts with a line that’s like a slap in the face: “Don’t disappoint me by being ordinary.”
Gilmour waged a constant battle with “ordinary”: She refused to socialize with young women (or men for that matter) in what could have been her own set; she avoided prospects of conventional marriage and pursued her dream of becoming an editor with single-minded passion.
And it was this very revulsion of ordinary that attracted her to young Japanese writer Noguchi (played by kabuki actor Shido Nakamura), known as “Yone” to his American friends. As “Leonie” director Hisako Matsui tells The Japan Times, “Yone was hot. He was extraordinarily handsome and very exotic. I think Leonie fell for him the second she clapped eyes on him.”
In the film, Matsui is careful not to let this show. Gilmour is standoffish with Noguchi, right up to the moment when he practically demands that she sleep with him. This is when Gilmour shows a sliver of crystalline foresight, asking her would-be lover to promise that it would not be just a flash-in-the-pan relationship but a proper step toward marriage.
“My feeling is that Leonie was a calculating woman in many ways,” says Matsui. “She knew what she wanted, and wasn’t afraid to say it.”
In the film, Noguchi writes out a declaration on a sheet of foolscap stating that Gilmour is his wife, but in his haste, spills a glob of ink and renders it illegible. In reality, Matsui believes that the statement remained unspoiled, and Gilmour carefully kept it for future use as leverage.
“Yone was not unpopular with the ladies,” she says. “Leonie sensed that, and wasn’t about to be outdone by another American woman. The declaration of marriage would have sealed their pact and given her security.”
Gilmour needed that security. While Noguchi was living with her (at least some of the time) in New York in late 1903 and early 1904, he was making frequent trips to Washington D.C., primarily to court Washington Post reporter Ethel Armes. The same year, he and Gilmour separated; Noguchi returned to Japan to attend to family business and Gilmour gave birth to a boy in a hospital in Los Angeles, where her mother lived, and made sure that the news got into the papers.
In D.C., Armes was humiliated; Noguchi called off their relationship, and Gilmour, with baby son in tow, moved in with her mother (played in the movie by Mary Kay Place).
“In many ways, Leonie was a hard woman,” says Matsui. “But you have to admire her determination, not necessarily to succeed in life, but to remain true to herself.”
For the next three years, Gilmour lived in Sacramento, California, in a sort of hippie farming commune with her mom, raising a baby whom she never named. In the movie, Gilmour decides that Noguchi should name his son himself, and is prepared to wait until his return to the U.S. In the meantime, the baby was called Yosemite by the neighbors — Yo for short — and Gilmour took care of him while working on her mother’s farm and editing Noguchi’s manuscripts with professional dedication.
“Yone was drawn to Leonie for her adamant professionalism,” describes Matsui. “She was never a woman to let personal issues or problems interfere with work. You just didn’t find women like that, least of all in Japan. Yone may not have loved her in the conventional way but he respected her deeply.”
Gilmour’s own feelings for Noguchi remained enigmatic, but she took the plunge of crossing the Pacific to be reunited with him. In the movie, Noguchi names his son Isamu at the port in Yokohama, not two minutes after Gilmour’s landing. “It means ‘valor’ and ‘courage,’ ” he explains to her. “I want my son to be a man of great courage, with masculine principles.” And then he turns his face away, for it would never do to be seen in deep conversation with his wife. By way of excuse, Noguchi tells the tired, baffled Gilmour, “In Japan, the man always walks first. The wife follows!”
The private life of Isamu Noguchi never got the publicity that his work did, and much of his early life is veiled in mystery.
Matsui came to know about his mother when she visited the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum in Kagawa Prefecture one day in 2003. She picked up a copy of his biography (“Isamu Noguchi — Shukumei no Ekkyosha,” penned by Masayo Duus) at the museum gift shop and was struck by the passages about Gilmour. In the book, Isamu speaks of his mother not in the conventional tones of a loving son, but as a child completely enthralled with, and simultaneously terrified by, the tremendous life force that was Leonie Gilmour.
Says Matsui: “She had never seen Japan, didn’t speak the language. She hadn’t seen Yone in three years. Yet Leonie decided to take Isamu and join him in Yokohama. Can you fathom a mind that would accept all the adversities and still decide that this was what she was going to do?”
Against all odds, Gilmour treated the Japan experience as one continuing adventure. Although she separated again from Noguchi in 1909, she remained in Japan until 1920, living in various parts of Kanagawa and Tokyo, teaching English to support herself and bearing Isamu’s sister, Ailes Gilmour. She kept the father’s identity a secret and the secret died with her in 1933.
It took Matsui seven years to complete work on “Leonie.” During that time, she circled the globe in search of funds, locations and cast. By the start of this year, she had racked up 523,000 “air miles” (they’re actually kilometers), which adds up to 13 times around the planet.
“I never felt like giving up,” says Matsui. “I’m a lot like Leonie in that way. Somehow I find the energy to soldier on.”
Matsui is a life force herself: a female independent filmmaker working in Japan. She says that her gender opened doors that are closed to male directors.
“I have the freedom to move around and do things,” laughs Matsui. “Partly because everyone thinks I’ll never be able to pull it off, and partly because people are more ready to help a woman filmmaker. We’re like a very rare species in Japan.”
Before turning to directing, Matsui had been a casting agent and film producer, but, “frustrated with the way actors and actresses were treated in Japan,” she decided to make her own films, coming out with a feature debut called “Yukie” in 1998. “Leonie” is her third and most ambitious film: It took the most time, covered an enormous distance, and required a multinational cast and staff, with Hollywood producer Ashok Amritraj supervising the proceedings.
Having lived with Gilmour in her mind for seven years, literally “breathing her life and soul,” Matsui found it difficult to convey Gilmour’s magnetism and charismatic appeal without making her look somewhat of an egomaniac. She certainly never fit the bill of a downtrodden mother struggling against the restrictive fences of Japan’s patriarchal society. Rather, Matsui’s story is nuanced, drawing Gilmour as a woman who embraced her fate with intelligence and discipline, and never allowed emotion to dictate her actions.
“She wasn’t really altruistic toward people and she was never a tender mother,” says Matsui. “But she was a first-class editor who continued to support Yone’s writings long after they separated. And she raised her children to be independent thinkers, to live life with creativity and spirit.”
In the book Matsui bought at the museum gift shop, Isamu Noguchi confesses that during his childhood, he lived with the overwhelming fear that he would come home from school and find his mother was not at home. The feeling lingered to haunt his adult life. In “Leonie,” Gilmour gives just that impression: She is a mother doing her duty by her children, but Matsui’s lens shows that her thoughts are not always there. And you’ll see her eyes wander to some future vision or destination that no one could quite understand or ever follow.
“Leonie” opens Nov. 20; it will screen in English and Japanese with Japanese subtitles.