Documentary Film Reviews – Vol 88, No 4

HAFU: The Mixed-Race Experience in Japan. Directed, produced and shot by Megumi Nishikura and Lara Perez Takagi. Reviewed by Kaori Mori Want 

JALANAN: A Music Documentary. By Daniel Ziv, director, producer, cinematographer. Reviewed by Edwin Jurriens

HAFU: The Mixed-Race Experience in Japan. Directed, produced and shot by Megumi Nishikura and Lara Perez Takagi; thematic advisor, Marcia Yumi Lise; executive producer, Jilann Spitzmiller; edited by Aika Miyake; music by Winton White. [Japan]: HAFU is made with the support of Japan Foundation and Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), 2013. 1 DVD (87 min.) US$300.00, Institutional use; US$29.97, Personal use. URL: 

Nowadays, mixed race/ethnic Japanese are called “hafu” (hāfu) in Japan. The word stems from an English word, “half.” Hafu generally means half Japanese and half non-Japanese. Using the term, “hafu” to denominate mixed race/ethnic Japanese is controversial because mixed race/ethnic Japanese are wholly Japanese, not partially Japanese. The term isolates mixed race/ethnic Japanese from the full membership of Japanese society. The term hafu is in circulation in Japan and mixed race/ethnic Japanese use the term to represent themselves. This review uses the term while acknowledging the problems with it.

The social position of hafu would be characterized by their hyper-visibility and invisibility. They are hyper-visible in show business. They have been popular as actors, singers, anchors, athletes, and models since the 1960s. The 1960s witnessed the emergence of many hafu stars. After the defeat of World War II in 1945, the Allied forces servicemen, mainly Americans, came to occupy Japan. Some had legitimate or illegitimate mixed race/ethnic children with Japanese women. Some of these children reached their twenties in the 1960s. Their physical difference fascinated the Japanese audience, and they became popular in show business. In fact, the term “hafu” is said to be derived from a once popular girls group, “Golden Half,” which consisted of four mixed race Japanese. The popularity of hafu entertainers still continues today. While hafu entertainers in the 1960s were marred by the negative stereotype of being the illegitimate children of Japanese women and American servicemen, contemporary hafu entertainers are not susceptible to that kind of negative stereotype. They are very visible in show business, and in demand for their beauty and talent.

Japanese people tend to associate hafu with hafu entertainers in show business and they do not pay attention to the everyday lives of ordinary hafu. Unlike ethnic minority groups such as Ainu, Korean residents in Japan, and Okinawans, hafu have never experienced institutional oppression in Japan. They are not recognized as ethnic minority people. If they have Japanese nationality, they are entitled to all the benefits Japanese nationals have. They have no difference from anyone else in a legal sense. The lives of ordinary hafu are therefore invisible in Japanese society. However, having a multiracial/ethnic heritage makes them physically and culturally different, and their difference sometimes brings difficulties to their lives. Megumi Nishikura and Lala Perez Takagi, directors of the film, “HAFU,” and who are hafu themselves, shed light on the everyday diverse lives of ordinary hafu. The film is significant in telling us of the pain and resilience of ordinary hafu, which most Japanese people do not recognize.

The film introduces the diverse lives of five hafu. The first one is Sophia Fukunishi. She has an Australian mother and a Japanese father. She was raised in Australia and cannot speak Japanese. She visited Japan to find her roots. She tried to fit in by joining many activities, but she found herself isolated from Japanese people due to her lack of Japanese language as well as cultural knowledge. She ends up leaving Japan as if escaping. The second individual featured is David Yano, whose mother is from Ghana and whose father is Japanese. His parents were separated, and he was raised in an orphanage with his two brothers. He recounts negative experiences such as being bullied by Japanese children at the orphanage, and he says he used to hate Japan. The third story featured involves the Oi family, consisting of a Mexican mother, Japanese father, their son and daughter. The film focuses on the son, Alex. He was bullied at a Japanese public school because of his physical difference. He moved to an international school where many multiracial/ethnic students like him study. Alex struggles to master three languages; Spanish, English, and Japanese. The fourth person the film focuses on is Edward Yutaka Sumoto. He was born of a Japanese mother and a Venezuelan father, but raised only by his mother. His only tie to Venezuela is his Venezuelan passport. Since Sumoto has only Venezuelan citizenship, he is legally Venezuelan. He faces a difficult decision: to get Japanese nationality and abandon his Venezuelan one, in order to keep living in Japan. The last person featured in the film is Fusae Miyako. She has a Japanese mother and a Korean father. Her parents kept her Korean heritage a secret because having a Korean heritage used to be thought of as a stigma in Japan. Miyako was shocked to know the secret, and tormented because she did not know how to accept her biethnic heritage. She was in an identity crisis.

All the stories illustrate the painful experiences of hafu. All of the subjects in the film seem to be alienated from Japanese society, and find it difficult to live in Japan. They may look very vulnerable. However, the directors show their resilience, too. For example, Sumoto launched a support group for hafu, “Mixed Roots,” and he has become an active advocate for hafu. Miyako joined the group, and has supported other hafu. After visiting Ghana, Yano determines to be a bridge between the two countries of his roots, and he has started fundraising to build schools there. Overcoming painful experiences, hafu embrace their multiracial/ethnic heritages, and have started making Japan a bearable place for them to live in. The examples of Sumoto, Miyako, and Yano look quite hopeful.

The film ends with statistics that show the increasing number of intermarriages in Japan, which suggests an increase in the number of hafu. With their rising numbers, hafu may become more visible in Japan, but whether Japan could be a comfortable place for hafu depends not only on hafu themselves but on all Japanese people. The film lacks the perspectives of Japanese people: what they think about and how they accept hafu. Without mutual efforts, Japan may continue to be an unbearable place for hafu as the escape of Fukunishi from Japan symbolizes. If the directors pursue the issues of hafu, it is expected that Japanese perspectives on hafu may be incorporated in their next film project.

Kaori Mori Want, Shibaura Institute of Technology, Tokyo, Japan


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JALANAN: A Music Documentary. By Daniel Ziv, director, producer, cinematographer; Ernest Hariyanto, editor, co-producer; Meita Eriska, sound recordist; Levy Santoso, sound design & mixing; Dadang SH Pranoto, music scorer. [Jakarta]: DesaKota Productions; distributed by Miles Films, 2013.
1 DVD (107 mins.) Rp100,000
. In Indonesian, with English subtitles. Url:

The title of this beautifully crafted documentary refers to being on the street as well as the pathway of life. It focuses on the lives and aspirations of three musicians in their late twenties or early thirties: Boni Putera, “Ho” Bambang Sri Mulyono and Titi Juwariyah, who make a living from busking on buses and in other public spaces in Jakarta, Indonesia’s bustling capital of over 12 million people. The filmmakers follow the three characters over a considerable period of time, during which life-changing events happen to each of them. The documentary provides details about their work, living conditions, and family and private life, including their ideas about themselves and their surroundings. It is an intimate portrait of life in post-authoritarian Indonesia, where some things have changed, but many others have remained the same.

The movie starts with Boni, who lives with his wife and family in a sewage tunnel. Ho, who regularly performs with Boni, is single and without permanent accommodation. Titi lives with her jobless husband and their son at her mother-in-law’s, in a devout Islamic environment. Insight is provided into the buskers’ poor financial situation. In Titi’s case, US$10 of her average earnings of US$40 per month goes to cigarettes for her husband, another US$10 to groceries, and US$20 to school fees for her son and medicine for her ill father in her home village. Ho’s earnings are barely enough for his daily meals. Some of his minimal savings are spent on occasional girlfriends and prostitutes. Boni considers himself fortunate, because he and his family have had fresh water for free for years, after accidently hitting a hole in a pipe of the Jakarta water company.

Throughout the movie, the viewer learns more about the background of the three characters. Boni has been on the streets of Jakarta since he was a child. Ho comes from Purworejo in Central Java and Titi from a small village in East Java. Their opportunities for education were severely limited. At a young age, Boni, who can read but not write, felt morally obliged to help his mother with work instead of going to school. Titi comes from a family of seven children, of whom only two finished junior high school. She left her home village for Jakarta, in order to find a living and not be a burden to her parents. All three share a great passion for music, and enjoy the sense of freedom and artistic fulfilment provided by their work. Especially for Titi, who has three young children in three different locations, it is not easy to combine her lifestyle as a busker with family life.

At some point in the documentary, the three characters are faced with dramatic turning points in their lives. Boni’s sewage tunnel is hit by floods. He and his family manage to restore their dwelling, but are eventually evicted by the municipality and forced to find another place. Ho is arrested by the police for busking and not carrying an ID. On the positive side, he finds love with a young widow, whom he will later marry. Titi is divorced by her abusive husband because of her unconventional lifestyle and irregular working hours, and forced to separate from her youngest child. Nevertheless, she manages to complete senior high school, and fulfil the dream of her father, who dies only a couple of days before her graduation. The exceptional optimism of the characters is moving and inspirational, and reflects the resilience of Indonesia’s lower socio-economic class.

What is refreshing about this documentary is the space it provides for its characters to show and tell about their own lives as well as Indonesian society more broadly. Their narratives are not interrupted by questions or voice-overs by the filmmakers, who also visually stay out of sight. Boni, Ho and Titi show who they are and tell what they think in a clearly confident manner, using both down-to-earth language and poetic lyrics and expressions. The documentary breaks with stereotypes about class, gender and religion, and focuses on aspects of Indonesian society that are rarely shown in the national and international mainstream media. To a certain extent, although different in style, it follows the example of the early documentaries about workers and street children of renowned Indonesian film director Garin Nugroho. At the same time, it shares some of the visual and story-telling techniques promoted by contemporary youth and video communities like Kampung Halaman.

Jalanan illustrates the fascinating, but also often disturbing, complexity and diversity of contemporary Indonesia. The busker songs and performances, with their highly topical as well as personal qualities, are the highlight of the movie. Some of the other remarkable visual and narrative aspects include Boni seeking entertainment by strolling around and visiting a bathroom in a luxurious shopping mall; Ho referring to politicians participating in an anti-corruption demonstration as hypocrites; Titi and one of her classmates struggling with their exam preparations; Boni painting a Hyatt hotel sign on his restored sewage dwelling; Ho courting his wife-to-be by inviting her to a Padang restaurant; Titi’s father recounting nationalistic songs and education systems from Dutch, Japanese and post-Independence times; Ho performing songs in and about jail, and Titi performing Islamic songs in order to appeal to women wearing headscarfs.

Although the behaviour and speech of the characters feels authentic, the act of being filmed must have intensified their self-reflections and impacted on their personal decision making. The documentary style confirms the power of the camera, and triggers numerous ethical questions. It may have caused Titi to reflect on her divorce, while also encouraging her to return to study. It gives attention to Ho being sent to prison, but may also have steered his quest for a wife. It may have contributed to Boni giving in to forced eviction, and directed him to find better accommodation for himself and his family. The filmmakers may consider creating a video or website about the negotiations with their characters about the film-making process itself, as a complement to their remarkable and highly recommended documentary.

Edwin Jurrïens, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Australia


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