Tetsuro Shigematsu and Steve Charles in 1 Hour Photo.
Tetsuro Shigematsu and Steve Charles in 1 Hour Photo.

“Do we remember memories or recollect photographs?” A somehow fitting question for a show which takes its name from a found object – a kitschy Japan Camera coffee mug – and what would become the impetus for Tetsuro Shigematsu’s new work, 1 Hour Photo.

Setting out to discover the significance of the seemingly inconsequential modern artifact, Shigematsu soon found himself delving into the life of 90-year old family friend, Mas Yamamoto. His curiosity about Yamamoto’s life led to recording some thirty hours of conversations at the family’s kitchen table.

As Shigematsu says with a wink near the top of the show though, those thirty hours have been distilled down to just 19 minutes for 1 Hour Photo. And while it may be difficult to comprehend how a near century of living can be condensed into mere minutes, Shigematsu’s concise editing provides a sometimes powerful, often touching, glimpse into a life well lived.

The stories Yamamoto tells are at times extraordinary, and it is easy to see why Shigematsu was compelled to share them.

From growing up as a fisherman’s son on the Fraser River, his family’s internment during World War II, a stint in Canada’s arctic, and eventually becoming a successful businessman (the revelation of the found object), the anecdotes are filled with both joy and pain. Yamamoto’s almost self-deprecating voice in the recordings hides what he has both endured and celebrated.

One of the most heart-wrenching stories are of the Yamamoto family’s internment, alongside thousands of other Japanese Canadians in 1942. But along with the challenges faced growing up as a Japanese Canadian, there are also moments of playfulness, joy and love. The story of Yamamoto’s reunion with his childhood love is sweetly sentimental.

At times though, Shigematsu’s attempts at layering the story of his dying father (largely explored in last year’s Empire of the Son), and other theatrical flourishes, results in a loss of focus.

1 Hour Photo is at its best as Yamamoto tells his stories in his own words, embellished by what is quickly becoming Shigematsu’s trademark style. These include Susan Miyagishima’s beautifully detailed miniatures projected on a large screen behind him; whether a mirror box multiplying a single tiny shack into dozens in the internment camp, or a peek inside a model of the family home.

As with Empire of the Son, there is an overall aesthetic to 1 Hour Photo, which seems somehow fitting. Modern, with a touch of Japanese symmetry and hipster-ish charm from set and costume designers, Pam Johnson and Laura Fukumoto, it is as accessible as it is handsome. Gerald King’s lighting design adds emphasis in all the right places.

A welcome new element, not seen in Empire of the Son, is the addition of Steve Charles. The musician not only provides live accompaniment, but is also called upon to assist in telling some of the stories.

Wrestling with questions of life and death, 1 Hour Photo is most heartfelt in its exploration of Yamamoto’s life. Ultimately, we are all a little better off for his willingness to share it through Shigematsu.

1 Hour Photo written and performed by Tetsuro Shigematsu. Directed by Richard Wolfe. A Cultch presentation of a Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre production. On stage at The Cultch’s Historic Theatre (1895 Venables St, Vancouver) until October 15. Visit http://thecultch.com for tickets and information.