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In Japanese, the word “hāfu” — a colloquial term for people who are half-Japanese — is a label that some accept, but others reject, preferring such terms as “daburu” (double) or “mikkusu” (mix).

So seeing the title of Bilal Kawazoe’s new film “Whole,” which tells the story of two biracial men of radically different backgrounds in Kobe who become friends, my first thought was that Kawazoe, who is of Japanese and Pakistani parentage, had come up with yet another alternative to the hāfu label.

Not so, as he explains in a video call. The title instead refers to the characters’ quests to become “whole” in terms of their identity. Kawazoe says his brother, Usman, came to him with the idea of “making a film based on the identity crises and the experiences of mixed people in Japan.”

“We did a lot of research and realized there wasn’t really a narrative film (on that theme),” he continues. Instead, they found films that were “quite stereotypical or just one-sided.”

“So we kind of felt this sense of responsibility to make an honest film on this whole mixed-race experience,” he says.

The brothers shared responsibilities for scripting, with Usman writing the first draft and Bilal polishing it into the final version. “We did make a short film together before this, my film school graduation project,” Bilal says, “but this was the first time we took it really seriously. We wanted to really make something that people would actually see.”

The pair accomplished their goal: The film was screened at the 2019 Osaka Asian Film Festival, where it won a Japan Cuts Award. And although at 44 minutes it’s not a full feature, “Whole” will show at Uplink Kichijoji in Tokyo from Oct. 15 and other theaters across the country at later dates.

Usman stars as Makoto, a biracial man who does manual labor jobs and gets along well with his Japanese coworkers, despite the occasional racially tinged jibe. He also has a good relationship with his easygoing Japanese mother (Kou Ozaki), who lives with Makoto in a small apartment and works at an undefined night job.

Meanwhile, the biracial Haruki (Kai Sandy) returns to his wealthy family after dropping out of an unnamed university in the United States. His mother (Meimei Kikuchi) greets his return with barely concealed annoyance, while his father is away on yet another business trip. Haruki meets up with Hitomi (Aoi Ibuki), a friend since kindergarten who doesn’t understand his frustration with straddling two cultures. (When he shrugs in response to a question, she mimics him, saying, “You’re like a foreigner.”)

Makoto and Haruki first encounter each other at a ramen joint, where their responses to the remarks and questions from a drunken Japanese customer are a study in contrasts: Makoto shrugs them off, Haruki bristles at them. (“I’m not ‘half,’ I’m ‘double,’” he says.) And yet the two men also form a bond as their lives begin to intertwine.

“The story is based on my brother’s experience, but in a sense, we had very similar experiences,” Kawazoe says. The film, however, did not take shape easily or quickly, despite the brothers’ familiarity with its subject matter and short running length. “Starting about half a year before the initial shooting, we talked a lot about the characters and rehearsed the lines,” Kawazoe continues. “We were always figuring out how the character would act and what he would say given his background. We really wanted to make it authentic as much as possible.”

This meant challenging the stereotypical representations of multiracial people often found in the Japanese media. Counter to the idealized view of mixed-race models living in luxury and ease, Haruki gets locked out of his house by his indifferent and uncaring mother and finds refuge with the working-class Makoto, who may have little in the way of education or money but is loved by his mom.

“They kind of envy each other,” Kawazoe says. “They feel the other person has more than they do. I think most humans (feel this way), so that’s something that we really wanted to say.”

Actor Usman Kawazoe brought the idea of making a film about the varied experiences of mixed-race people in Japan to his brother, director Bilal Kawazoe. | © 078
Actor Usman Kawazoe brought the idea of making a film about the varied experiences of mixed-race people in Japan to his brother, director Bilal Kawazoe. | © 078

The film also shows how both Makoto and Haruki are conflicted about their identity, with Makoto hesitating to read a letter from his long-lost father and Haruki ranting to Hitomi about how Japanese are narrow-minded and stare at him as if he were an animal at a zoo. “But what are you?” she asks him, implying that he himself is Japanese.

“This is something you don’t see on TV or in Japanese films,” Kawazoe says. “It may seem overdramatic, but there are people, not very visible in this society, who really go through these things, and that’s something we wanted to show because we felt that it’s not always rainbows and butterflies for people who have mixed heritage in Japan.”

The film offers no pat conclusion, no simple uplifting message. “There is no one answer to the question of your identity and your place,” Kawazoe says. “Every mixed-race person goes through different experiences and everyone has their own way of finding their identity.

“The film is not saying, ‘Hey, this is the answer’; it shows the journey of two people. We hope that it would give insights to those who are struggling or to those who just don’t understand what it’s like to be different in a homogeneous society.”

”Whole” will run at Uplink Kichijoji in Musashino Ward, Tokyo, from Oct. 15-28. Screenings at theaters across the country will be decided at later dates. For more information, visit www.whole-movie.com.

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