Kristen Nemoto Jay
“I Was a Simple Man” is a film set in the pastoral countryside of the North Shore of O‘ahu and shares the highlights and low points of a life lived by a man named Masao Matsuyoshi. Four chapters of Masao’s life is revealed in and out of order as he nears the end of his life and is visited by his late wife’s ghost and estranged family members. As the narrative moves through each poignant time period — including pre-statehood days and the eventual engulfment of the island’s land to commercial development — a collective understanding of why Masao is who he is, and not just a “simple” old man who is dying, creates a feeling of empathy that’s both moving and unsettlingly familiar to those who are uncomfortable with their own mortality.
On Wednesday, Nov. 10, during the Hawai‘i International Film Festival, Presented by Halekulani’s red-carpet premiere at the Consolidated Theatres Ward with TITAN LUXE, Christopher Matoko Yogi — writer and director of “I Was a Simple Man” — described how the film evolved from niche-based into a familiar themed storyline, and the complicated grievance process that takes place, when a family member falls ill and passes on.
“I based (‘I Was a Simple Man’) a lot on my family’s story, which is a very specific story and place and was intentional in that to give it some texture,” said Yogi, while wearing an adornment of lei presented to him by his family and friends. Yogi said the more he shared the script with others, and learned of their common stories of death and grief within the family, the more he realized that “I Was a Simple Man” held more common themes than he expected. “It’s the most universal thing, which is our mortality and dealing with the loss of life. The script then became like a portal of being able to share grievances that we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to talk about if it weren’t for the script.”
While Yogi wrote the story many years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, he feels its relevance of coping with loss, which he also believes is a “universal truth that makes us all human,” is what makes this film timeless.
“I think the idea of death and mortality will always be relevant,” continued Yogi. “Hopefully not on this mass scale where we’re all processing trauma and grieving during the pandemic but I’m hoping that through that understanding, people can connect with this movie.”
Inspired by what it was like to sit next to his own father and grandfather at their deathbeds, Yogi let the story of “I Was a Simple Man” flow ferociously through him and into the script. He then submitted it to the Sundance Lab, never thinking they would invite his “mess of a script.” Much to his surprise they did in 2015, which Yogi then met Constance Wu at the Sundance Directors Lab and kept in touch thereafter to be a part of his film. The rest of his casting process was slow and arduous. Together with his crew, they scoured local theater productions, malls, fairs, dance performances and concerts. Masao was even casted after Yogi spotted Steve Iwamoto at a bon dance festival on O‘ahu in 2016. His enthusiasm while dancing was captivating and caused Yogi’s team to approach him to ask if he’s ever acted in a film before. Coincidentally, Iwamoto replied that it was always his “dream to act in a film.” Over the next few years, with the role of Masao always in thought, Yogi would give Iwamoto a crash course in acting whenever he would come home from New York to visit. To ensure Iwamoto could carry the role, and hold the primary weight of the entire film, Yogi and his team had him audition many times thereafter. Each time, Yogi replied, Iwamoto nailed it and especially sealed the deal when he told Yogi that he was dreaming in character.
“The film caused me to reflect on my own life and my relationships with my wife and kids,” said Iwamoto during the HIFF red carpet event. “As I’m getting older, it made me think over things; can’t help but let it go through your mind.”
Prior to starring in this lead role, Iwamoto was a retired lab technician from Kaiser Permanente. He’d talk about being in a movie one day but never got around to pursuing his dream. With encouragement from his family, Iwamoto’s acting resume started to grow but only as a background extra in films such as “Waikiki” and “Godzilla.” When fate brought Yogi and Iwamoto together at the bon dance, Iwamoto knew this was his moment to put everything he could into the role.
“I guess they really liked the way I was dancing,” smiled Iwamoto behind his face mask. “When the audience sees this film I hope they don’t see me though and only see Masao. One thing I learned about acting, you become the character. It takes over you.”
The unraveling of the mystery that is Masao starts once it’s learned that he’s sick. Long camera shots of Masao in different stages of his ailment are shown from subtly sighing at the handful of pills he has to take everyday to coughing uncontrollably in his bathroom toilet. An ode also to the loss of O‘ahu’s once lustrous land coincides with Masao’s fragility and denial of the end of his life with scenes of him smoking outside his doctor’s office (after she advised him to stop), overlooking Honolulu’s concrete jungle with a friend (played by Kimo Kahoano), and tanned and shirtless while watering his plants and picking mango from his bountiful mango tree. The obligatory and sometimes cold treatment that comes to his aid from estranged family members is gradually understood once Masao is visited by his late wife, Grace, whose ghost comes to watch over him as his sickness starts to deteriorate his body. It’s then understood that Masao was a widower most of his life, and had left his three children to be watched over by an aunt who (Adult) Masao (played by Tim Chiou) describes is a better fit than him. Scenes of him smoking, drinking, gambling and fighting at a pool hall are shown, along with various other scenes of him with a bruised face while out with his daughter Kati (Alex Capri Leinani Bodden). It’s those close knit scenes of them together prior that makes sense of why (Adult) Kati (played by Chanel Akiko Hirai) comes to her father’s aid rather than Masao’s other children Mark (played by Nelson Lee), whose flighty and spacey manner prevents him from taking care of himself, and Henry, who lives on the mainland and wants little to do with Masao or life on the island.
When Masao becomes bedridden, reality and dreams become morphed into one. Remembrances of himself as a young man (played by Kyle Kosaki) as he courts young Grace (played by Boonyanudh Jiyarom) comes in and out of his consciousness; a time period when young Masao was “unafraid to love.” It’s felt within the dialogue, and lack thereof, that it’s too late when Masao’s grandson Gavin (played by Kanoa Goo) helps take care of his ailing grandpa. A poignant part of the movie that culminates the weight yet simplicity of Masao’s time left on earth is when he tells Gavin: “Don’t get old. Old age is not for guys like us.” As Gavin takes in what his grandpa tells him and starts to walk away, Masao asks and makes sure he hears him — as if to seal in his life’s lesson and pass down one last remembrance of himself — to which Gavin sadly replies “yes.”
“I Was a Simple Man” is filled with many beautiful scenes that portray death as a part of life. The two are one in the same in this film. Shots of what O‘ahu was and is, from waves ebbing and flowing to clusters of high-rises with drill sounds in the background, causes pause and reflection of what we’ve done to our island home but what we can hope for the future. It’s a magnetic force that reflects on life as fleeting and will go on to the next cycle as it has done since the beginning of time. Though the film has many dark moments, Yogi hopes its message will bring people together to both grieve and feel a sense of community.
“Hopefully it can bring about some type of personal healing or at least coming together,” said Yogi. “That’s what I love about movies; this communal experience that it can create.”
“I Was a Simple Man” premieres today at the Metrograph in New York City and the Consolidated Theatres in Kāhala, Mililani, and Ka‘ahumanu. The movie will also be available on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Vudu on Friday, Dec. 10. For more information, go to strandreleasing.com/films/i-was-a-simple-man/.