Friday, May 27, 2016

Hiroshima and Tyrus Wong

The Asian Pacific American Heritage Month concludes in a few days.  The month of May was designated due to key historic May events that defined the Japanese-American and Chinese-American experience.

African-Americans have their month in February; National Hispanic Heritage month runs from September 15th through October 15th each year.

My mementos from the concert
The L.A.-based jazz band, Hiroshima, scheduled a concert in Arcadia this recent May 14th.  The group leader, Dan Kuramoto, called the attention of the audience to the heritage month, explaining that he coincided this at-home concert because "this is our month".

Dan Kuramoto and musicians at their May 14th concert
Several weeks earlier, the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival featured a screening of "Tyrus Wong:  Brushstrokes in Hollywood" in Little Tokyo's Aratani Theatre.  Tyrus, now 105 ½  years old, was the center of attention in receiving rounds of applause as he entered the theatre in a wheelchair.  His long-time friend, colleague and fellow artist, Milton Quon, arrived shortly before, with the help of a walker.

My souvenir button purchased after the screening

Pamela Tom's film reveals his contributions to the 1942 animated film, Bambi.  Tyrus' delicate expressions of forest scenes led Walt Disney to ultimately adopt his conceptual style for the entire film's background scenes.  In recent years, Tyrus was belatedly recognized and honored for his considerable contributions to the film, notably by the late Diane Disney (daughter of Walt).  The documentary also explains the influence of storyboard artists, (like Tyrus, who later worked for Warner Bros.) whose visual layouts for movie scenes often swayed the directors.

Filmmaker Pamela Tom during the Q&A session
following the screening at the Aratani Theatre

It would be wonderful if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences could present an Honorary Award to Tyrus next year .  It might redeem the sting from the last two years' Oscars ceremonies:  the #OscarsSoWhite show earlier this year was inclusive of Asian Americans but only to poke fun at the same old stereotypes; last year's awards show brought on comedian Margaret Cho to act as a North Korean.  (Update:  Rest in Peace, Tyrus Wong.  He died at age 106, December 30, 2016) (Update:  He was recognized for a couple of seconds during the In Memoriam segment of the 2017 Oscars ceremony televised February 26th)

Tyrus in 1928, seated with legs crossed at front row, second from left.
Courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research

Tyrus Wong was born in 1910, about the same time East Coast movie companies were discovering the year-round sunshine in L.A.  Tyrus immigrated from China to the U.S. as a child.  All he ever wanted to do was draw.  He made it a successful livelihood in order to raise a family by working in Hollywood but also branching out as a commercial artist.  He managed to bring his artistry into the cultural fabric of our country.

The band, Hiroshima, formed with a unique sound through the accompaniment of the Japanese string instrument, a zither called the Koto, played by master kotoist June Kuramoto.  The early band was a pride of the 1970s local L.A. Asian American dance scene, and Hiroshima later found mainstream success, radio play and Grammy nominations.  Like Tyrus, the band Hiroshima managed to bring their artistry into the cultural fabric of our country.

June Kuramoto on the Koto

This post is published on the day of President Barack Obama's historic trip to Hiroshima, Japan, one of the two sites bombed by U.S. atomic bombs to force an end to World War II.