Picture Bride's Kayo Hatta

Film's Topic

Kayo Hatta: When I first talked to those real-life picture brides in 1989 they were surprised that someone was interested in their lives. They were amused. They would giggle and ask, “What would you want to know about my life” But Barbara Kawakami, who's doing a book on picture brides, paved the way and was able to get them to open up with very intimate details of their life, like their sex life.

Some of the women were very funny, like one said: 'I keep the door locked cause you know how he wanna have one more and he keeps banging on the door.' It was wonderful to get that view of them because few of us, even with our own grandmothers, get to ask those kinds of questions.

Riyo's Character

KH: Riyo is not your stereotypical shy, quiet Japanese wife. That's what I wanted to bring out. It's boring if the characters are total villains or total saints. The challenge–and what had disappointed me about so many portrayals of Asians in the media–is they're so simplistic. During several drafts of the script, someone said, 'She's not really likable at all. She's a spoiled brat.' I was going overboard in making her so strong and stubborn.

Her character is based on several interviews with these women, and I also drew on my own family history. But her personality was inspired by my maternal grandmother who was not a picture bride, but the wife of a Buddist minister.

Approach to Story

KH: The film became my obsession. I was determined to be the protector of these women's stories. No one was going to mess with their stories, no one was going to water them down by telling me to make this film more commercially appealing. It's so easy to distort their stories, and I felt I was entrusted to preserve their integrity.


KH: We had advisers and we paid a lot of attention to little details by relying on old photographs, books from that era, which is pretty well-documented. Barbara Kawakami was a consultant and for her book on plantation clothing, she had done a lot of the research and was able to give us the finer points down to how the headgear should be wrapped.

Shooting on the first day in the cane field was amazing. We were waiting for the actors, when suddenly the crew looks up and a whole row of women walk down in their costumes. It was like history coming to life. Everybody became really quiet because it was so cool to see them. Then we positioned them and they started singing. That was really amazing.

Location Shooting

KH: I wanted a plantation with old existing structures. That would have cut production costs rather than us having to build, but it was difficult to find. A lot of them have been remodeled and upgraded and they look too nice. Conditions in the plantations have really improved because of the unions. We had a difficult time finding a plantation that not only had the right look, but also allowed us to shoot on the grounds, because of the huge liability problem, especially if the plantation is still operating.

We had a lot of convincing to do, but at the Wailua Plantation several people who were interested in the project managed to convince the company to let us shoot there. We were lucky.

Conditions of Production

KH: I started shooting with only half of my budget in hand. That was a calculated risk but our idea was to shoot gorgeous footage and then show investors and get the rest of the money. We knew midway that we were going to run out of money, but at that point, we just had to do it after five years of fund-raising and working on the script. We had to use the momentum. We had to shoot during the dry season, which summertime.

Youki Kudo

KH: Youki actually called the president of the dress and lingerie company in Japan that she models for. She wouldn't hang up until he said yes. She had a lot invested in it–she's the star of the film. She convinced him to invest $600,000 and that allowed us to borrow money from our relatives until other money came through.

Toshiro Mifune

KH: I wrote Mifune a flattering fan letter. Not a pitch, but I told him it would be appropriate for him to play the benshi (silent film narrator), because the benshi were legends and you are the legends of today. Mifune had already appeared at the Hawaii Film Festival, and we tried to tap into that. When he didn't write back, we realized it was a ridiculous thought. But then out of the blue, his son called and said his father was interested in playing the part. We were such a low-budget production; we could barely afford lunches for our crew, much less hotel and first-class airfare for Mifune. But the folks in Hawaii were so excited, they helped with that part.