A low-budget film about a woman who operated Japan’s first school for disabled children in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) is currently enjoying a long run in Japan and is also being shown in the United States.

“Fudeko Sono Ai — Tenshi no Piano (Fudeko, Her Love — The Angel’s Piano)” tells the story of Fudeko Ishii, who dedicated her life to providing care and education for children with developmental disabilities.

Directed by noted creator Hisako Yamada, the film has been showing in Japan since January last year, and is set for wider U.S. release next month, titled “Fudeko and The Angel’s Piano.”

Born as the daughter of a high-ranking bureaucrat, Ishii (1861-1944) was well educated and socially well placed at the dawn of Japan’s modern era. However, her life changed drastically when she had a daughter with developmental disabilities, and her two other daughters and her husband then died of illness.

Faced with those tragedies, Ishii could have put her disabled daughter into a foster home, but she decided to bring her up by herself. Then she moved to rural Takinogawa in northern Tokyo where she worked at a school for disabled children opened by Ryoichi Ishii, a kind-hearted teacher with samurai lineage, despite widespread discrimination against handicapped people in those days. Before long the two were married and she became a driving force in the school.

Although Fudeko Ishii is truly a pioneer in the provision of welfare for disabled people in Japan, she has been little known compared with some other women in her era, such as Umeko Tsuda (1864-1929), who founded Tsuda College in Tokyo.

But that was one of the key reasons why Yamada, 76, picked up Ishii’s story, as she strongly believes “Ishii’s work should be more recognized.”

Yamada is well known for her works on social issues, including “Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen),” a series of films about a boy who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, and 2004’s “Ishii no Otosan Arigato (Thank You, Daddy Ishii),” about Japan’s first orphanage.

Also, Yamada has a daughter, now aged 44, with developmental disability, and believes she was well suited to shed light on Ishii’s life. “I made this film not just as a director, but as a struggling mother of a disabled child,” she says.

But what has ensured wider success for this social-issues film has been the determination of Yamada, who convinced popular actress Takako Tokiwa to take the central role of Ishii, and kabuki actor Emiya Ichikawa to make his film debut in a cast that also — unusually for Japan or most other countries — includes children with developmental disabilities. Around 100 such children appear in the film, including 10 in major roles.

“Through their performances, I wanted to ask what the value of life is,” Yamada says. “From an economic viewpoint, disabled children may be inefficient, but their minds are so beautiful.”

To help with that side of the casting, JDS (Japan Down Syndrome Society) ran an advertisement in its newsletter.

“I was not sure if we would receive enough applications, but to my surprise there were around 200!” said Sachiko Nakatsuka, JDS secretary general.

In fact, that advertisement had an even more unexpected result, as it paved the way for a U.S. screening of the film after Hiromi Ashmore, a Japanese mother and JDS member living in Los Angeles, saw the advert and contacted the film’s makers, Tokyo-based Gendai Production, asking if it could be screened in America.

“I wanted to watch the film in the States, but they had no plan for any overseas screenings at first,” she says.

A positive response

After Ashmore received a positive response from director Yamada, who had learned that the U.S. resident was the mother of a Down syndrome child, and with support from Los Angeles residents, including many Japanese-Americans, the film premiered on Nov. 18, 2007 at the Aratani Hall in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. It attracted an audience of 1,200.

Having played a key role in making the U.S. screenings happen, Ashmore says she was inspired by the director, who had called for better welfare provision through many of her films.

“I want to do something to improve the situation,” she says.

Meanwhile, Yamada says she was very pleased with the reactions of American audiences to the film. She observed that they occasionally laughed out loud with genuine joy at some of the children’s antics — which she says Japanese people would be very unlikely to do.

“It’s not a form of discrimination to laugh kindly at those children performing in the film,” Yamada says. “In fact it was a wonderful collaboration to film a touching story with them.”

The next U.S. screenings of “Fudeko” will be on Feb. 2 and 3 at Starplex Cinemas in Irvine City and the James Armstrong Theater in Torrance, Los Angeles. For details, call the U.S. numbers (310) 378-3550 or (310) 377-4238. For Japan screenings, visit www.gendaipro.com/fudeko/schedule.html

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