This month Cinema Asian America on Xfinity On Demand presents Yuriko Gamo Romer’s inspiring documentary, “Mrs. Judo: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful.” A profile of Keiko Fukuda, the highest ranking woman in judo history, “Mrs. Judo” chronicles the life of an individual who at age 98 was awarded the 10th degree black belt – judo’s highest honor, and a position held currently by three people and never before by a woman.
Romer’s documentary, which has already screened-world wide to acclaim, follows Fukuda, from her early years in Japan, where she gave up a traditional life of marriage and family to pursue her passion of judo, to her life in the US, where she lived from 1966 until her death in 2013 and broke barriers for women in professional sports.
Romer elaborated on her interest in documenting Fukuda, and the inspiration that she created through her life and commitment to both judo, and gender equality.
Fukuda passed away earlier this year at the age of 99, a little over a year after you completed this film on her life. When did you first meet her and what drew you to her as a subject?
YR: In 2006 I read an article in Oprah‘s “O” magazine about Fukuda Sensei. I realized that her dojo (studio) was in my neighborhood in San Francisco. So I walked the two blocks and went to introduce myself to her. From the moment I saw her I could sense a presence, one that commanded attention. After her class I introduced myself, she was very happy to chat with me in Japanese and invited me up to her house for tea. I live in between her dojo and her home. I think it was my destiny to make this film, especially when I recognized so much “destiny” in Fukuda’s life.
Some of the most poignant moments of “Mrs. Judo”, are those when Fukuda allows herself to reflect on her life, and her commitment to judo, which came before everything else. We have the sense of a woman who has achieved all that she dreamed of, but also harbored some regrets about the path she took and those things which she didn’t experience. What effect do you think your filmmaking had on her own self reflection, as she faced the twilight of her life?
YR: I know she had no regrets. I think as humans we all feel loneliness, and she was not exempt from this. I also think at the time she made “the choice” it was not a conscious decision to live a solo life, and in retrospect she saw how big that decision had been. She was a very emotional being, I appreciated that. It was very real and very human. She had no husband or children but she cherished her loyal students and her dear friend Shelley, who cared for her especially in the final years of her life. We all know people who have children and die alone. Fukuda was fortunate, she had so much love from all over the world.
I had Fukuda Sensei’s support in making the film, from the very beginning. As the years progressed I became more a part of her life and I think I made her recall her past. I was always pulling out old photos and asking her about her life. I think she was especially nostalgic of her “best friend” the woman from Hawaii. I know that some of the archival footage in the film, she saw for the first time when it screened at the premiere.
Soon after the film was released, I went to her summer judo camp and watched it with her and her students, many of whom were in the film. Afterward some of them started to share their stories with me, and I encouraged them to tell Fukuda Sensei directly. Soon there was not a dry eye in the house, I think everyone appreciated the opportunity to thank her and to share their stories. The filmmaker in me wishes I had those stories on tape, but I know that the moment was rare and precious. Later, Fukuda Sensei took my hands and thanked me. That was a special moment, a reward that we filmmakers cherish. I think she knew that through the film, her life mission would live on beyond her. Now I feel it is my job to introduce her inspiration and wisdom to as many people as possible.
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Fukuda was the highest ranking female judo practitioner in history and was promoted to the rank of 10th dan in 2011, at the age of 98. She is the only woman to have held this rank. What is her legacy to not only the sport of judo, but also to female athletes worldwide?
YR: She will forever be the first. This opened many doors and there is no more glass ceiling for women in judo. Once the sky is open to the pinnacle it is open, period. 10th dan, or 10th degree black belt, is a rare honor. There are under twenty people to ever have been given this honor in the 131 year history and existence of judo. As far as I know, there are only three living 10th dan today. These are the three men mentioned in my film, as having been given the 10th dan just before Fukuda Sensei was given the 9th dan. These men are all at least 10 years her junior. The 10th dan was given to her by USA JUDO and the United States Judo Federation. But technically the Kodokan, Japan’s founding judo organization, has not given her the 10th dan. I think it might be because there was no 11th dan that they could give the three men. But this is not relevant because she has earned this honor by internationally recognized judo organizations, and there is no one in the world that will not recognize her rank.
I believe Fukuda’s legacy to female athletes around the world, is that women are never second to men. And that you can achieve anything you truly commit to accomplishing. Granted the solo, singular life mission is not for all, but I think the road has gotten wider for women. Several of the other judo women I interviewed have been able to succeed in judo without personal life limitations. Many of them are happily married, with children. Of course we all know that with any choice there come consequences, but I think having that choice available today for women is huge. I hope that all female athletes, young and old get to know who she is, and what she has accomplished. I’m amazed at how few people outside of the judo world know about her. I hope to reach out to the women’s sports world in my next phase of community engagement.
You have worked on many documentaries, as director, editor and producer and a through line is that many are biographical profiles of individuals, including the pianist Olga Samaroff Stokowski, and the civil rights leader Howard Thurman. What draws you to this way of investigating history and larger themes of gender, race and aspiration through the stories of individuals?
YR: I’m drawn to stories about inspiring people, and I love seeing how our world grows through these pioneers. In 2010, I made a short film about Manjiro and Captain Whitfield. These two met in 1841, on a deserted island off the coast of Japan. Whitfield’s whaling ship rescued shipwrecked Manjiro, but could not return him to Japan because it was during the Shogun’s closed era of Japan. Instead young Manjiro went to Massachusetts and was educated there, later to return to Japan as a cross-cultural hero and interpreter for the Japanese government. He was an inadvertent ambassador, one of the first from Japan to the US. And, for 20+ years the descendants of Manjiro and Whitfield have been running a grass-roots, home-stay exchange between Japan and the US.
Technically I am an immigrant, I was born in Japan (although I didn’t live there very long). My father came to the US to do research for IBM at a time when Japan was still poor and didn’t have much money for scientific research. I feel it was my destiny to share some of the stories that make our country great. I believe that we are a nation of immigrants and that bringing together many cultures is a gift. I love finding the people and the stories that opened roads for us of this generation. It’s very easy to complain about today’s conditions, but I think it’s important to reflect on where we came from, and see the inroads that were built for us.
I am currently researching a film about the shared love of baseball between Japan and the US. This history goes back 130+ years, and has weathered some tough and ugly times. But most will agree that today baseball is a common thread and has been a positive vehicle for cross-cultural relations.