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Documentary filmmaker Megumi Sasaki learns to live in the moment in New York

by

Special To The Japan Times

For a long time Megumi Sasaki felt that something did not quite fit.

The feeling settled like a shawl around her shoulders — she tried to shake it off but couldn’t.

“It wasn’t that I disliked Tokyo or college,” says Sasaki, recalling her days as a French literature student at Aoyama Gakuin University in the metropolis. “But everyone thought I was a bit strange. I wasn’t into the stuff everyone else was into. I was never your typical college girl, carrying brand handbags and going to Roppongi. Sometimes I would look around and wonder what I was doing there.”

This Bruce Chatwin-esque inner query led Sasaki to yoga classes and reading the books of Shirley MacLaine. Both helped keep her equilibrium.

In 1984, Sasaki was 22 years old and about to graduate from university. Being interested in media, she had procured a job at Tohoku Shinsha, a prominent film distributor.

“I lasted just over two years at Tohoku Shinsha,” Sasaki says. “After that, I had to leave because the life of a salaryman just wasn’t for me.”

Sasaki had developed health problems and felt suffocated in Tokyo. She had lived with her parents in Sapporo before she left for college and had enjoyed Hokkaido’s wide open skies and big-hearted people.

“Being in a corporate environment in Tokyo was the hardest thing I had ever done,” she recalls. “I wasn’t in a boring, grueling job or anything. I was in the film industry, in charge of buying rights for foreign films to show in Japan. Everyone told me it was an enviable job. However, I couldn’t take it and was plotting my escape.”

She decided on India, primarily because “they were the first people to discover the concept of zero, of nothingness. I thought that was so cool.”

She had already gone overseas once before as a high school exchange student to the U.S., and so the departure process felt easy. Despite her experience, she didn’t have much cash and started selling her belongings upon arrival.

“Jeans, sneakers, sunglasses,” she says. “I sold most of what I brought so I could stick around for as long as possible.”

And then the day came when she had exactly zero in her wallet.

“I had nothing to lose,” she says. “With the exception of my passport, there was nothing I really truly needed. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is what real freedom looks like.'”

Sasaki traveled all over India, from Calcutta to Khajuraho to New Delhi to Jaipur. She stayed for two months in Nepal, trekking to the base camp in the Himalayas.

“And then I went desert-trekking near the border of Pakistan,” she says. “I was able to build up a really strong body and became convinced that whatever happened in my life, I’d be all right.”

She also cultivated a world view that has stayed with her ever since.

“In India, I saw beggars whose arms and legs had been cut off by their parents so they would earn more money from pity,” she recalls. “Yet they had such a will to live and to keep going. Everywhere in India, I could feel this incredible will power. I don’t feel that in Japan. People in Japan get depressed so easily, and they talk about ending it all.”

In December 1987, Sasaki left India for New York, hoping to crash at a friend’s place in the East Village.

“I had exactly $20 in my pocket,” she says. “The next morning I started looking for work and since $20 wasn’t enough for subway tokens, I bought a busted-up bicycle from the 1950s so I could get to work.”

Soon she was holding down multiple jobs — “working as a waitress, teaching Japanese, what have you, from morning till night” — until she could cobble together the funds to rent her own place.

“Since then I’ve had a love-hate relationship with New York,” she says. “At times, the racism, discrimination and general harshness of the city would get to me. The frustration would become intense and then something would happen or I would meet someone inspiring and I would feel that New York is it. And the cycle begins again.”

When the Berlin Wall collapsed, Sasaki flew to Eastern Europe to cover the fall of the Soviet empire for Yomiuri America. Since then she has worked extensively for Japanese news shows, visiting more than 40 countries to report on war and disasters and their socio-political repercussions.

“Living in New York has taught me to live in the moment, and be passionately interested in the world. But it’s also given me an appreciation for art and design,” she says. “And I’m always interested in the business side of art because in New York, you can’t ignore the issue of money. The longer I live there, the more I’m forced to think about it.”

Sasaki bought an apartment in Brooklyn Heights (now one of the most fashionable neighborhoods in New York) in 1998 for just under $100,000.

“I would never, ever be able to afford anything in the current market,” Sasaki says. “But I have my own place, and this enables me to concentrate on work.”

In 2008, Sasaki finished her first feature-length documentary, “Herb and Dorothy,” which looks at an elderly couple who amassed an extensive contemporary art collection on the salaries of a postal clerk and a librarian.

“I think this was when I decided that reporting would never be enough to unearth the truths of a story. I stayed with the Herb and Dorothy story for years, and then I started working on another documentary — this time on the dolphin hunts in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture.”

It took six years of meticulous research and hundreds of interviews to “get this right,” Sasaki says. “But I had learned to acquire the right mind-set. A documentary should never be about what the director thinks. It’s about stepping back, and telling the story from the subject’s perspective.”

The result is “A Whale of a Tale” (“Okujirasama: Futatsu no Seigi no Monogatari”), which is now showing in theaters.

“My life is defined by work,” says Sasaki, who like many New Yorkers is fiercely protective of the personal side of it. “And I’m grateful to New York for letting me be my own person. I certainly breathe better when I’m here and definitely feel free.”

She now divides her time between New York and Tokyo, effortlessly going back and forth between two cultures and languages. It’s the sort of life that many Japanese can only dream about.

“If anyone in Japan wants to live and work in New York, I would advise them to study English — as hard as they can,” she says. “You have to be able to say what you want and how you want it, in English. It all starts from there.”

Profile

Name: Megumi Sasaki

Profession: Documentary filmmaker

Hometown: Sapporo, Hokkaido

Age: 55

Key moments in career:

1986 — Leaves job at Tohoku Shinsha and goes to India

1987 — Leaves India for New York

1989 — Covers the fall of the Berlin Wall for Yomiuri America

2008 — Finishes first feature documentary “Herb and Dorothy”

Words to live by: “Suggest before presenting. Never force your opinion on others.”

Things I miss about Japan: “People’s generosity, good manners and the comfort of having the same values.”

Strength: “A sense of adventure and strong nerves.”

Weakness: “I tend to lose myself completely in work.”


● 佐々木芽生

職業:ドキュメンタリー映画監督

出身地:北海道札幌市

年齢:55

転機:

1986年 東北新社を退社し、インドへ

1987年 ニューヨークに渡る

2008年 『ハーブ&ドロシー アートの森の 小さな巨人』を完成

2016年 『おクジラさま〜ふたつの正義の 物語』を完成

佐々木芽生氏は東京での生活に長い間違和感を覚えていたという。大学で札幌から上京し、1984年には新卒で就職したものの体調を崩し、2年で退社。日本脱出を企て最初に渡った先はインドだった。持ち物をほぼ全て売って現金を入手し、インド、ネパールを旅した結果、体力もつき、世界観が変わった。そのままインドからニューヨークに渡った。所持金はわずか20ドル。友人宅に滞在し、家賃が払えるようになるまで複数の仕事を掛け持ちした。ベルリンの壁の崩壊を報じる仕事に携わったのを機に、日本の報道機関との仕事が増えていったが、アートコレクター老夫婦の生活を追った初のドキュメンタリー長編『ハーブ&ドロシー』で、報道では掘り下げられない真実の物語を語った。現在公開中の『おクジラさま ふたつの正義の物語』の制作には6年を費やした。ニューヨークでの暮らしは、今この瞬間を生きること、世界に関心を持つこと、そしてアート・デザイン鑑賞を教えてくれた。佐々木氏を定義づける仕事を与えくれたニューヨークは、本来の自分で居られる場所でもある。