Like all great parties, it started with an invitation. Michael Fukushima was fresh out of Sheridan College, where he had studied animation, when Doug McDonald, then-Executive Producer and Head of the National Film Board’s (NFB) Animation Studio, invited half a dozen new graduates from all over Canada to visit the studio’s Montreal offices for a week. “It was just to experience the animation studio and what life was like at the NFB,” Fukushima says in our virtual interview. “We didn’t do anything; it was really just tours, shadowing, observation, and getting a feel for the place.”
Now, of course, he is officially retired and relishing the time he has to ski — “All of my travels centre around skiing” — but we at The Asian Cut couldn’t possibly celebrate National Canadian Film Day without highlighting one of the key, behind-the-scenes players in Canadian animation.
A force indeed, Fukushima holds over 200 film credits to his name (including, Window Horses, Shannon Amen, and Animal Behaviour), is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, has won a slew of awards for his work (from Genies to Canadian Screen Awards), and through his work at the NFB has helped shape the landscape of our national cinema. All it took was a mix of ambition and imagination, preparedness and forward-thinking, and a touch of old-fashioned luck.
Little would Fukushima know that, while that initial invitation from McDonald didn’t necessarily yield an employment opportunity at the NFB, it would effectively offer the next best thing any artist at the beginning of their career could hope for: a chance to network. In fact, in addition to a couple of other artists he met that week, Fukushima kept in regular touch with McDonald himself, pitching ideas every now and then.
It wasn’t, however, until a couple of years later, during lunch with McDonald at the Ottawa Animation Festival, that one of Fukushima’s ideas finally got the greenlight — and it was partially due to the Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement in 1988. Signed by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the redress settlement was an acknowledgement by the Canadian government of their wrongful internment of more than 90 percent of Japanese-Canadians during World War II.
For the surviving internees, this resulted in reparations of $21,000 per survivor and reinstatement of Canadian citizenship to those who were deported. For Fukushima, this was his chance to make a movie: “Shortly after the redress was announced, I met with Doug, and he said, ‘There’s an opportunity here. The government is interested in a cultural video relating to the internment. I don’t think there are any animated films — would you have an idea?’”
As it turned out, Fukushima did have an idea, one that would become the short film Minoru: Memory of Exile. With Minoru, he turned the lens towards his own family, specifically, his father Minoru’s childhood experience of being forced into an internment camp in British Columbia after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “Over the course of eight months, it evolved into [an] animated documentary and moved away from fiction,” he said. “And that’s how I went from being this freelancer in Toronto to joining the [NFB] studio.”
In order to make Minoru, Fukushima moved to Montreal. While he had only planned to stay there throughout the production of his film, life naturally had other ideas. “I ended up teaching animation at Concordia University after several years,” he explains. On top of teaching and Minoru, Fukushima was effectively establishing himself in Montreal by working on other films. “I was working in animation, even if I wasn’t directing.”
This time in his career would actually be another pivotal period, and it was because of two converging events. Firstly, on an institutional level, the NFB was making significant structural changes. “There was a gradual ending of the staff filmmaker position when I got there,” Fukushima recalls. “The momentum was already starting to change the nature of filmmaker relationships with the board, getting rid of staff filmmakers and now making space for freelancers.”
Then, on an individual level, Fukushima was questioning whether he had the “stamina,” as he puts it, to continue on as an animation director, “Projects were taking two, three, four years. You have to be able to focus for that long to make animated films.” Essentially, he wanted to find a way to work on multiple projects at the same time.
Luckily, Marcy Page, a friend and producer at the NFB, suggested a different path at the studio, and, in 1997, Fukushima became a producer. And though the career shift better suited him, it, of course, wasn’t without deep contemplation and even regret. “I came to realise that being a producer fit my personality better. What I had to do when I decided to jump in was make that hard choice: am I prepared to give up on being a director?” he remembers asking himself. “In the end, it was the right path. I regretted it, maybe, for the first year, but what I was able to do as a producer — I only agreed to develop projects that secretly I wish I could have been directing myself.”
The NFB, while giving Fukushima the creative opportunities he wasn’t finding as a freelancer in Toronto, has a curious history that I wanted to discuss with the filmmaker. Federally funded, NFB’s history dates back to WWII when it produced military propaganda on behalf of the Canadian government. Considering the immense pain and trauma that time period inflicted on Fukushima’s family, it would be understandable for him to have conflicting feelings about the institution. However, he was quick to say that, for him, it was foremost about the chance to create. “There were so few opportunities [at the time] for an independent filmmaker to make an art-driven animated film,” Fukushima recalls. “The Film Board has its history, but they gave me an opportunity to tell the story that I wanted to tell.”
Fukushima also recalls how, while it was hard for an indie filmmaker to acquire opportunities to make movies, it was doubly so for racialized artists. “I think about the world today, especially for a young racialized filmmaker, and there are resources for young folks who want to become filmmakers and maybe don’t quite know how to,” he observes.
He lists off the Black Screen Office, Indigenous Screen Office, and Reel Asian Film Festival as examples of institutions geared towards uplifting underrepresented filmmakers today. “None of that existed when I was young. It was a different landscape back then,” Fukushima tells me.
“If today feels predominantly white, male, and middle-class, then it was almost exclusively white, male, and middle-class back then.”
This is why, as a producer and eventual Head of the NFB’s animation studio, nurturing new talent and bridging the gap were at the forefront of his work. In 2002, for instance, he and Executive Producer David Verrall created the Hothouse Animation Apprenticeship for emerging Canadian filmmakers. And then, in 2018, Fukushima was the recipient of Women in Animation’s Diversity Award for making the studio the first animation organisation to achieve 50/50 gender parity.
Notably, Julie Roy was Head of the NFB’s French animation studio alongside Fukushima, and the significance of them holding these positions — as a woman and an Asian man — weren’t lost on either. “Julie is a feminist, has always been a feminist. She was very aware of the pioneering steps she was taking when she became Head,” Fukushima says, acknowledging both the NFB’s progress towards gender equity and the improvements that could still be made when it comes to racial diversity.
He continues, “All my career, I’ve been conscious of being the only, or one of the only [racialized people in senior management]. I took that privilege seriously and did something with it.”
For Fukushima, having a seat at the table wasn’t necessarily about fuelling his ego or self-centred ambitions. It was about opening the door and expanding the table for others to join, which, when thinking about the survival of Canadian cinema, is paramount. When asked how he strove to represent all of Canada as best he could with the films he produced, Fukushima says simply, “The only secret I can offer up is open-mindedness. Assessment came down to the passions and convictions and potential in the artists who came to us, and putting faith in them that they would be true to their own internal compass.”