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Multiple exposure palimpsest

A life well lived in Shigematsu's "1-Hour Photo" @ The Cultch 

Tetsuro launching Masanobu into interstellar space. Photo: The Cultch

In kanji, the ideographic script of written Japanese (and Chinese), Tetsuro Shigematsu’s given name is “spelled” 哲郎. Literally translated, the ideograms mean something like “philosophical bridegroom,” or “thoughtful swain.”

The moniker neatly sums up Shigematsu’s idiosyncratic, self-invented art form: the bonsai son et lumière biographical monologue.

His solo, black-box tours de force are rich in anecdotal detail. But he circles around his subjects’ life stories with an oblique, almost shy relish, like an appreciative suitor, a 郎, rather than an aggressive “just-the-facts, ma’am” gumshoe investigator.

And, in mid-narrative, he’s always ready for side-trips into the outermost realms of 哲, or philosophy, with speculation on everything from extraterrestrial intelligence to the karmic ballast of ethnic cleansing to the psychological aftershocks of first love.

These smooth digressive pirouettes – and our readiness to spin right along with him – prove Shigematsu’s impeccable cadence as a performer and his rhetorical dazzle as a writer. But they also highlight the core seriousness of his tartly comic monologues.

His first such venture, Empire of the Son, traced the life arc and wasting final illness of his own late father, who died just weeks before the show’s 2015 premiere. The underlying question, according to Tetsuro: “how to die well?”

And now, in his follow-up, One Hour Photo, newly premiered at the Cultch, Shigematsu portrays his producer Donna Yamamoto’s still-living sire, Masanobu, in an earnest quest for “what constitutes a Good Life?”

The two queries both invite the same answer: living or dying, don’t harbour regrets. For Tetsuro and his father, that meant reconciling their fraught and often distant relationship in the 11th hour crucible of terminal disease.

For Masanobu, it’s subtler. You’d think, having been interned as a teenager in Canada’s World War II roundup of all Nikkei (ethnic Japanese) on the West Coast, he’d have plenty to be bitter about. His only consolation in the Lemon Creek concentration camp was his puppy love romance with a fellow inmate.

Yet there’s hardly any rancour in the 18-minute vinyl record that Tetsuro has distilled from 36 hours of interviews with his nonagenarian subject. Rather, the dominant tone is elegiac.

In contrast to Tetsuro, the ruminative哲郎 philosopher, Masanobu epitomizes the hard-charging man of action. The kanji for his name, 正进, translate as something like “frontal assault,” a neat encapsulation of his dreadnaught samurai engagement with his times.

Yet now, rounding on his ninth decade, he sounds at peace with himself and his world – so much so that Shigematsu fantasizes about sending his recorded voice into interstellar space to represent our species to any alien eavesdroppers out there.

At least that – or any other honest first-person life story, for that matter – would be lot truer and livelier than the committee-driven “Golden Record” sent out aboard 1977’s Voyager space probe. Such a mishmash of multi-lingual “halloos” and canonical musicales is “about as exciting as binge listening to CBC overnight,” in Tetsuro’s estimation.

But Masanobu hasn’t always been so upbeat. When first released from the camp, with truncated schooling and scanty assets, he found himself barred from returning to Vancouver. Instead, he had to support his family in what he saw as a dead-end life of Okanagan orchard work.

He kept up correspondence with his Lemon Creek sweetheart, who had migrated to Eastern Canada for college and graduate school. But he felt obliged, at last, to cut off the relationship as their fortunes diverged. Suicide crossed his mind.

Until a way out presented itself, which Tetsuro likens to a one-way space travel ticket: a service job in the race to stretch a Distant Early Warning line of radar installations across the Canadian Arctic. Flush with cash and his sudden status boost from enemy alien to Cold War hero, he returned from “outer space” after all and promptly married the first Nikkei girl he met (on a blind date, no less) after his interlude of Arctic celibacy.

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