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A Song For Ourselves | 2009 | dir. Tadashi Nakamura
Sometimes, social justice is found in unexpected places. In 1968, two middle-aged Japanese American women--former internees, prisoners of conscience and friends with this amazing activist -- began an antiwar community organization called Asian Americans for Action (familiar initials) while eating lunch on a park bench in Manhattan. The son of one of those nisei, Chris Kando Iijima (CC '69!), would document the Asian American Movement on the twang of guitar strings and a humble yet forceful voice. Weaving in and out of cities with his bandmates Joanne Nobuko Miyamoto and William "Charlie" Chin, Iijima would be the Movement's traveling newscaster, spreading the word to organizers just as quickly as he digested their own experiences into his lyrics.
A Song For Ourselves, the recently-released documentary by filmmaker Tadashi Nakamura (Pilgrimage, Yellow Brotherhood), is the story of Iijima's life. A combination of older footage, present-day interviews, and some slick animation tricks, the movie starts somewhere between childbirth and Malcolm X and ends in the wake of his heartwrenching death in 2005. With protests and sixth-grade classrooms as the backdrops, Song is as much about the movement and the music as it is about the man himself and the people whose lives he touched.
A journey down an empowering and emotional road is set to the greatest soundtrack possible: A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America, the 1973 LP released by Iijima, Miyamoto, and Chin and a personal favorite. Recorded in a time when being "Asian American" was a new thing, and more about what you did in the community than who you said you were, the album travels down as many roads as Iijima and co. did. The twelve songs pay tribute to fallen Black Panthers, retell Native American folklore, and in one case end up in Spanish. At the same time, it celebrates these struggles as profound moments of self-realization and sonic beauty:
And we walked, feeling the ground
We'd someday own, not alone
And I knew there was something different
And I feel us growing stronger
Building something new...
I knew there was something different about me today

A Grain of Sand | Something About Me Today

A Grain of Sand | Somos Asiaticos (We Are Asians)

A Song For Ourselves operates in the same way--Iijima's role in voicing the Movement is just one chapter of this story. Equally important is his later life: his decision not to professionalize his music and become a teacher on the Upper East Side, his wife and children, his law professor years in Hawaii, and the rare illness that claims his life. The inevitable is somber, but Nakamura injects the penultimate moments with a subtle sweetness that defines the entire film. If you don't tear up by the time the credits roll, you're probably a robot.
Equally important to the documentary is its supporting cast: bandmates Miyamoto and Chin, parents Kazu and Tak (family friends, believe it or not), wife Jane, sons Christopher and Alan, and longtime friend and California Assemblymember Warren Furutani. (and guest starring John & Yoko!) A must-see--major props to Nakamura for taking the Asian American Movement and giving the force that Iijima himself sang: "where the strongest bomb is human, who is bursting to be free."
Two more songs, because this album is so $*@! good:

A Grain of Sand | We Are the Children

A Grain of Sand | Jonathan Jackson

(And hey, this means Yuri Kochiyama is a friend of a friend of Grandma!)


  1. David said...

    ryan, you need to explain the last fofof thing  

  2. Heiroku said...

    read paragraphs 1 and 5.  


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