January 10, 2018

Alumni Spotlight HIKARI

By Naomi Iwamoto

Family has been the center of Hikari’s work, both on and off the screen. The theme is ever present, especially in the celebrated student film she made as her master’s thesis in Film & Television Production. Titled Tsuyako, it was inspired by her grandmother and took place in Post-War Japan. The title character is a mother who lives a demanding life as a mill factory worker and must choose between her duties to her family and following her heart when an old lover, a woman, makes a surprise visit to her home. Beautifully shot in her hometown of Osaka, Japan, it went on to win awards at multiple festivals. The film is a unique story about two women falling in love in a country where lesbian stories are rarely told. And it is undeniably a love letter to her grandmother who made her own sacrifices to raise her family.

Another of her films, A Better Tomorrow, follows two orphans who are magically transported on a voyage by their deceased father’s car. A Better Tomorrow had its world premiere at the Festival de Cannes the same year Hikari’s 2011 classmate, writer/director Ryan Coogler made a splash at the festival with his feature debut, Fruitvale Station. She smiles fondly at the memory, especially because it inspired a special family-bonding experience. “When we premiered at Cannes, I bought tickets for my mom and sister. I took my mom on a road trip through France for three weeks afterwards. I spent like three grand in a whole month! And I was like ‘oh my gosh!’ But I had to do it. She has always been my cheerleader.”

Hikari and her sister were raised by their single mother and their grandparents. “My parents divorced when I was a baby. I have a strong relationship with my mom’s side but not much of a relationship with my father’s side.” As a young girl Hikari acted, sang, painted, and directed every chance she had in school plays but dreamed of leaving her hometown, although it didn’t seem in the cards. “Growing up as a kid I never felt like I fit in in Japan. I’m from this area where there are a lot of factories in South Osaka. Going abroad or out of that area was considered weird. I didn’t think it was possible.” Despite the odds, her innate desire to experience something outside of Japan pushed her to study as a high school exchange student in Utah during her senior year.  She later continued her undergraduate studies at Southern Utah University and graduated with a degree in Theater.  

She moved to Los Angeles and worked as an actress, even unearthing a passion for photography and picking up a side gig shooting headshots and photographing artists for a small hip hop magazine. But after almost a decade in acting she felt the need to make a change.

She had an epiphany after her mother reminded her of her enthusiasm for directing her 7th grade school program. “I went home that night and looked up ‘best film school in the country’ and USC was the first search result on Google. And it was 10 minutes away! So I applied.” At SCA, she focused on cinematography and directing.

Since graduating in 2011, Hikari has worked as a director on Subaru commercials and has managed to fund a string of short films that demonstrate the depth of her talent. In 2013, she was in the first class of the Lexus Short Films series—a program that supports emerging directors as they direct a short film produced by The Weinstein Company and Lexus. “I got to learn how the studio works and how the client works,” she says of the experience. “I one day want to direct studio films, so it was a great experience for me.” A Better Tomorrow was funded by Lexus Short Films, and her third short film, Can & Sulochan, was funded by the Japanese company AVEX through the Short Shorts Film Festival Asia. Her film Where We Begin tells an end-of-life story through dance and was funded through a private investor, Kickstarter, personal savings, and a grant she won from the HollyShorts Film Festival for Tsuyako. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

The acclaim she has received for her shorts provided the encouragement she needed to develop her first feature script, and Hikari, who is currently a Film Independent Fellow, has spent the last few years trying to make that happen. “I love short films, but long format has been my goal. After graduation the one thing I wish I had was a feature script ready to move forward because there was a lot of momentum when Tsuyako was doing well.”

Her script, Cantering, follows a paraplegic female adult comic book artist who is forced to discover a new job and romance in Tokyo. Trying to get the film off the ground has been Hikari’s full-time job. Last year she participated in the NHK Sundance Screenwriting Lab, an annual workshop that invites Sundance writing instructors to Tokyo to work with filmmakers. Most recently she went through Film Independent’s Screenwriting Lab and Directing Lab. This year she participated in their annual Fast Track program, where she pitched her feature during the LA Film Festival. And now, after three years of development, she’s ready to get back on set to direct again.

“It’s been a long process,” she explained, detailing upcoming steps like attending IFP week in NYC, “where creators and companies come together to basically speed date. It’s where projects go to find funding.” She has also been meeting with private investors, both in the U.S. and Japan.

“We are close,” she says.

And what role does family play in this intensely busy and stressful effort to succeed at feature filmmaking? Even the absent part of her family, she says, serves as a driver to get back to set. “Not really having a bond with my dad’s side probably made me want to create that familial bond in my movies,” says Hikari. “I like writing but I enjoy being on set more than anything. My creativity comes when I’m on the spot on set.”

However, her mother and sister provide the daily push she needs to keep working. They have stepped up as Hikari’s support system. “My mom told me ‘I’ll do anything to support you.’ Whenever there is a moment when I was financially struggling, my mom and sister would help me with my rent for a month. I still worry, but that support has helped me have faith that the money will come.”

 “I am so grateful to have them as my family. I owe them so much. That’s part of the reason I really want to have success, because I want to take care of them because they took care of me pretty much all of my life.” Hikari pauses for a second, pensive, before that big smile crosses her face once again: “So I gotta just keep making s#*t and keep hustling.”

This article originally appeared in the current issue of In Motion, SCA's annual magazine.