Documenting the Vogels as they give the gift of art

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

As far as art collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel were concerned, Megumi Sasaki was more than a filmmaker who turned their lives into an award-winning documentary (“Herb & Dorothy,” 2009): She’s a close friend and a daughter. Having never had (or apparently even desired) children, the Vogels were by all accounts touched by Sasaki’s inherent sincerity and enthusiasm, and genuinely came to depend upon her common sense and judgement.

“When Herb had to go into the hospital, I took him there and talked to the doctors,” says Sasaki during an interview at a cafe in Aoyama, Tokyo. “Dorothy or his sister would call me to see how he was doing, and it was like everyone just assumed I was his daughter and I would take care of him.” When Herb died at the age of 89 — just before his birthday — last July, PBS immediately called Sasaki for an interview.

Now the couple is gone and “it’s just Dorothy,” says Sasaki, known to the Vogels as Meg. “I call her once or twice a day at least and see her for meals, once or twice a week. She’s sad about losing Herb, and says it still feels so odd not to have him in the apartment. But Dorothy’s very smart and very tough. She loves life in a way that I think is distinctive about New Yorkers. She’s not miring herself in grief, and she hasn’t changed much. She still refuses to cook! We always eat out.”

Sasaki has had two life-altering journeys: One was to India, where she went after quitting her job at a Tokyo film distribution company in her early 20s; and the other was to New York, when she bought a plane ticket with the last of her remaining cash while in India.

“I was tired of the salaryman life in Tokyo,” recalls Sasaki. “I did it for two years but it just didn’t suit me. I couldn’t take the commute from home to the office every day. So I took off. I had always longed to go to India. And I thought it would be for a few weeks at most but that stretched out to four months.”

India taught her a freedom she had never before encountered, as conventions, social restrictions and material needs were just stripped away.

“You need so very little to live, and to travel,” says Sasaki. “I was never the type to pack a heavy suitcase, but in India, I pared my belongings down to the barest essentials and learned to get along without stuff. Everyone warned me about thieves but I had nothing to steal. What was important to me? Maybe my passport, but I could easily renew that at the embassy. So I decided to just let go. And having done that, I saw that life had so many possibilities.”

And then in New York, Sasaki had a revelation. “The city reminded me of India in so many ways. Total chaos and lots and lots of energy. This was where I could function.”

Now a Brooklynite who travels to a shared office just eight minutes’ walk from the Empire State Building, Sasaki has been a New Yorker for 26 years. “Longer than my time in Japan,” she laughs.

In New York, Sasaki worked for NHK and got a feel for filmmaking. At the company, Sasaki was famed as the woman who could “make things happen” — she had a way about her that made documentary subjects and PR agents say “yes.”

“I love working in New York,” she says. “Contrary to what many people think, it’s a city that doesn’t require a whole lot of money to live in. It’s always been a melting pot of races and nationalities.”

Sasaki also says that a surefire indicator of global politics is to watch the shifting demographics among the city’s cab drivers. “After 9/11, it seemed like all the taxi drivers were suddenly Afghans. After the war with Iraq, Kurds and Iraqis came in. So whatever else is happening with the American government, New York always has its own agenda.” Sasaki says that that part of New York has never ceased to fascinate her.

It’s no wonder that an urban fable such as “Herb & Dorothy” would unfold there — and Sasaki says that even though she was used to Manhattan eccentrics, nothing quite prepared her for the experience of meeting with the Vogels.

“I had the documentarian’s logic and methodology,” she laughs. “I was prepared to go in, introduce their art collection, have them explain what it was all about, what their collection meant in the art world and all that. The reality is, they did nothing of the kind. I asked why they purchased what they purchased and the answer I got was: ‘Because we liked it.’ It was like pulling teeth, but then I realized that not everything can be explained or put into words. The enigma is the best part of it, sometimes.”

After the success of “Herb & Dorothy,” Sasaki got to work on the sequel, “Herb & Dorothy 50×50,” which opens in Tokyo on March 30.

Sasaki had never been an art collector, nor particularly enamoured with the art world. But while working on the two films, she says she remembered what it was like as a child to just draw and paint for no reason other than that she felt like it.

“I recalled how I had toyed with dreams of being an artist,” she says. “Art was something I did because I liked it, nothing more or less. I hope that sense of freedom comes out in the movie because, really, that’s the best part about the Vogel collection. They just went out and bought what they liked, and stashed it in their one-bedroom apartment.”

For a chance to win one of five “Herb & Dorothy 50×50″ badge sets, visit jtimes.jp/film . The deadline is April 8.