Mayumi Yoshida doesn’t know it yet, but she’s kind of a big deal.
Positive reviews and award nominations follow the Japanese filmmaker wherever she goes, yet she often seems genuinely surprised to be noticed at all. Asked about her recent win at the East Van Showcase, Yoshida gushes about the other finalists before adding that the organizers “happened” to award her the title of Best Actor for her role in Akashi—a short film she also wrote, directed and co-produced.
“I had nothing prepared. No speech, not even on a napkin. And then they said my name!” Yoshida laughs, amazed at her good fortune.
Take a look at her work, however, and it quickly becomes apparent that there’s more to her popularity than luck. In addition to the accolades for her acting skills—which also include a nomination for Best Emerging Performer for her role in Amazon’s Man in the High Castle at last year’s UBCP/ACTRA awards—she’s also a powerful force behind the camera.
This week, Akashi screens at the New York Asian American International Film Festival. Two weeks from now, it will be one of 16 semi-finalists, chosen from over 4,000 submissions, to screen at the NBCUniversal Short Film Festival.
On top of that, Akashi took home the BC Grand Prize in TELUS STORYHIVE’s inaugural Digital Shorts: Female Director competition—the first foreign-language film to ever win a STORYHIVE Top Award—which led to a sponsored trip to the Banff World Media Festival this June. There, Yoshida met executives from media corporations like the CBC, HBO Canada and Lifetime.
“It was so scary going in,” she says. “There were maybe eight people of Asian descent [on the list of delegates] out of 200 or 300 people.” She worried that no one would understand or relate to the stories that she wanted to tell.
As it turned out, she was exactly what everyone was looking for.
“They were all wanting to find more diverse voices in their content. They want to launch more TV shows that feature people of colour, and women. It was really encouraging!” She pauses. “But again, it did come from all white males.”
It’s true that the industry’s shift toward diversity promises to be a painfully slow process, but Yoshida is as persistent as she is modest. After all, challenging the whitewashing norms of North American media is the very reason that she moved to Canada in 2010.
“I hated seeing TV shows of Japanese characters portrayed by different ethnicities,” she says. “You’re just like, ‘Man! If I could go there…’ so that’s what really motivated me.”
NeOn, her playwright debut and the basis for Akashi, premiered at the Vancouver Fringe Festival last fall with a primarily non-white cast and a bilingual English-Japanese script. Reviewers loved the show, and it was included on several must-see lists. Less than a year later, it was remounted for the rEvolver Festival.
The story was inspired by a real-life family secret—a few years ago, her grandmother revealed that Yoshida’s grandfather had never stopped seeing the woman he’d fallen in love with prior to their arranged marriage. This got Yoshida thinking about the stark contrast in cultural expectations of love in Japan and Canada, compounded by generational differences between Millenials and their ancestors.
“It’s a story about choices,” says Yoshida. She’s paraphrasing her mother’s synopsis of the play, which she says is far better than any she’s been able to articulate herself. “It’s about people who make choices they think they want to make, and then regret them, and people who don’t make those choices because they think it’s better not to. It’s the story of consequences, of how these choices also [affect] the other characters.” In other words: NeOn the story of life, no matter where you’re from.
It’s hard to be certain what the future holds for Yoshida, but if she keeps making the kinds of choices she’s been making so far, the consequences may be pretty wonderful for underrepresented communities in the entertainment industry.
Catch the 30-minute version of NeOn at the Powell Street Festival on August 6. Admission is free, and all are welcome.