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Halving the BonesHalving the Bones

(United States, 1995, 70 minutes, color and b&w, VHS)

Directed by Ruth Ozeki

Note: Filmmaker and fiction writer Ruth Ozeki will read from and discuss her work on Thursday, April 1, at 8:00 p.m. in the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center on the University at Albany’s uptown campus. Earlier that day at 4:15 p.m. she will present a seminar in the Assembly Hall of the Campus Center on the uptown campus.

The following article by Edward Guthmann appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, March 12, 1996: [This article refers to Ruth Ozeki by her then-professsional name Ruth Ozeki Lounsbury.]

In Japan, when a person is cremated, the body isn't reduced to ashes, as it is in the United States, but instead to a collection of bones. And so, when film maker Ruth Ozeki Lounsbury went to a bleak Tokyo suburb to collect her Japanese grandmother's remains, she found a fragment of skull, a bit of rib and another unidentified bone.

In her wonderful new film Halving the Bones, …Lounsbury turns those bones into a metaphor for family legacy and memory, and offers a rich exploration of what it means to be a daughter and what it means to be of mixed blood.

Raised in New Haven, Conn., by an American father and a Japanese mother, both of whom taught at Yale, Lounsbury grew up with a feeling of vague estrangement -- of being aware of her mother’s "Japaneseness" and of knowing, as she says in the film, that "wherever I go, I'm always different."

Instead of examining that genetic split, however, and looking at how it had shaped her, Lounsbury followed a path that divided her from her family and roots. At 14 she went to boarding school and from then saw her parents only on holidays. College followed, plus eight years in Japan and a film career that kept her constantly moving.

After all that time, Lounsbury said during a conversation in San Francisco, "I was disturbed at how my mother and I had gotten out of touch. So I thought, since I’m such a workaholic and the only thing I pay attention to is what I’m working on, the best thing I could do is make my mother the center of my work . . . give her a chance to see what it is that I do."

In Halving the Bones, which showed in January in the Sundance Film Festival’s documentary competition, Lounsbury traces her mother's Japanese roots and constructs an exotic portrait, partly factual and partly speculative, of her maternal grandparents and their lives in Hawaii.

She says she barely knew her grandmother, who had been sent from Japan to Hilo, Hawaii, as a "picture bride" in 1909, and had met her grandfather, a gifted photographer, calligrapher and haiku poet who spent four years in a Japanese American internment camp in New Mexico, only once before he died.

In her grandfather, Lounsbury found a soul mate who shared her artistic sensibility and passion for record-keeping. "I spend a lot of time poking around in the past or imagining the future," she says in her narration, adding that her mother, a straightforward pragmatist, "lives entirely in the present."

When Lounsbury’s grandmother died, in fact, her mother didn’t go to the funeral in Japan but sent Ruth in her place. "Over the years," Lounsbury says, "she had forgotten what it was to be a daughter. I didn't want that to happen to me. That’s why I gave her the bones."

By presenting her grandmother’s bones to her mother -- an event that became the centerpiece of Halving the Bones -- Lounsbury established a bond with her mother and retrieved a sense of family that assimilation and geographical distance had buried.

"So much gets discarded and forgotten in a lifetime," Lounsbury says in the film. "I think family relationships are like family stories: You have to practice them to keep them alive."

It’s that conviction, combined with her grandfather’s legacy, that made Lounsbury turn to documentary film making. "I think a lot of documentarians are closet archivists," she says. "We want to fix it, hold it in place; we want to preserve it."

Asked what she learned about her mother while making the film, Lounsbury thinks for a long time, and says finally, "I learned who she was. I had left home at 14 so in some way, during that interim period, she had retained the quality of a 14-year-old’s mother -- which is very different from the person she is now."

"So to know her as an adult was really stunning, a remarkable experience. I never knew she was funny -- it never occurred to me as a child. Also, I didn’t grow up speaking Japanese, and now that I do I’ve found there’s a very different side (of my mother) that’s accessible in Japanese that’s not accessible in English."

In a sense, Lounsbury’s life has been, and will remain, an exploration of what it means to be "half," to never fully belong anywhere.

"One of the things about being ‘half,’" she says, "is always objectifying the other side. You have a very voyeuristic relationship with yourself that’s embedded inside you. The two sides are constantly watching each other."

That dichotomy, she adds, is particularly complicated when you’re half-Japanese. "You grow up with the idea that World War II -- with the occupation and the postwar environment -- is part of your genetic inheritance. One of the things I encountered in Japan was people thinking I was the daughter of a prostitute and a GI. There’s all this history you carry around with yourself, even though you didn’t experience it firsthand."

Halving the Bones was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival.

The following is adapted from a bio that appears on the website of Women Make Movies (

Ruth L. Ozeki … graduated summa cum laude from Smith College with degrees in English Literature and Asian Studies, then received a Japanese Ministry of Education fellowship and emigrated to Japan to do graduate work in classical Japanese literature at Nara Women's University. She worked in Kyoto University before realizing that none of these were viable long-term career options.

Ozeki returned to New York and began a film career as an art director for low-budget horror movies, making sets and props for films with names like Robot Holocaust, Mutant Hunt, Breeders, and Necropolis. She then switched to Japanese production work, trading blood and prosthetics for the more subtle horrors of network TV. After several years of coordinating and directing "documentary-style" television programs, she started making her own films. Body of Correspondence, made in 1994, won the "New Visions" Award at the San Francisco Film Festival, and was screened at the Sundance Film Festival and on PBS. Her most recent film, Halving the Bones (1995), traced her mother's Japanese roots and offered an exotic portrait, partly factual and partly speculative, of her maternal grandparents and their lives in Hawaii. Variety described it as "an intensely personal and lyrical exploration of family history... Roots with a little Joy Luck Club thrown in," and it aired at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the 1996 Asian American Film Festival in San Francisco, the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, and many other venues, as well as being shown on PBS.

During an interview at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, a journalist remarked, "So I suppose you've always dreamed of becoming a filmmaker" to which Ozeki replied, "No, I've always dreamed of becoming a novelist" That year, dead broke like her hero Jane, she started writing My Year of Meats. Ozeki says that she "was testing a hunch that even in literature, point of view, as we traditionally experience it, has been turned on its ear by MTV, editing, and multiple camera angles." She is very interested in the cross-over between documentary and fiction, paralleling the subjective/objective shifts in voice that occur in her novel. "I have worked in commercial television long enough to know that these are somewhat specious distinctions." she says. "In order to ‘work’ in a visual medium, issues must be so radically edited and simplified as to belie complex truths, as though the introduction of images switches off the intellect. I wanted to make a book that could really exploit what a book could do: it could be full of complexity; it could shift points of view even while it talked about shifting points of view; it could transgress simple categories; and it could travel around the world and have a big cast and lots of interesting locations, without costing a fortune."

Ozeki's second novel, All Over Creation (March 2003) shifts the focus from meat to potatoes in a story of a family farmer and his prodigal daughter, an itinerant gang of environmental activists, and New Age corporate spin doctors for agribusiness, whose lives and interests collide in Liberty Falls, Idaho. In a starred review, Kirkus called this cast of characters "most fully realized and heart-wrenching in their imperfect yearnings," and declared All Over Creation, "a feast for mind and heart." The book made the bestseller lists of The San Francisco Chronicle, Denver Post, and Rocky Mountain News, and was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.

Ozeki currently divides her time between New York City and British Columbia, where she writes, knits socks, and raises exotic chickens with her husband, artist, Oliver Kellhammer.

For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at