1 Hour Photo is underdeveloped

Empire of the Son was a success. 1 Hour Photo may be a success or a failure.

Tetsuro Shigematsu’s 1 Hour Photo needs more focus.

There are exquisite elements in 1 Hour Photo. There are also significant problems with the storytelling.

For almost its entire length, 1 Hour Photo doesn’t seem to know what it’s about. Writer Tetsuro Shigematsu, who performs the show with musician Steve Charles, tells the life story of Mas Yamamoto, who is the elderly father of a good friend. So far so good. But what’s the core of Shigematsu’s take on Yamamoto’s history? The playwright presents several major elements, including the incarceration of Yamamoto’s family during WWII, an unfulfilled romance, and the rocky development of Yamamoto’s career, which culminated in his owning a thriving photo-development business.

As if that weren’t already enough—or too much—Shigematsu also includes material about his relationship with his own dying father. And there are other components too, including an extended bit about the Voyager spacecraft—relevant, presumably, because it sends images back to Earth and is, therefor, a camera, and because a plaque on its exterior attempts to tell a story, which Shigematsu is also trying to do. For my tastes at least, the Voyager material and other passages like it are tangential, more about the fanciness of the storytelling than about the story itself.

It isn’t until the final moments of 1 Hour Photo that the playwright makes a stab at pulling everything together. He’s been trying to answer two questions, he says: “How does one live?” and “What is a good death?” A couple of thoughts on that: he’s asking these questions too late in the game, and they’re too vague. In my observation, in all kinds of storytelling—whether it’s books, or plays, or movies—audience satisfaction grows from narrative accumulation. So, if Shigematsu is the protagonist in this story—and these questions imply that he is—then it would be a good idea for him tell us what he’s seeking right off the top so that we can invest in his progress. It would also help if his struggle had specific stakes—if there were a pressing reason why the author is asking, “How does one live?” at this time in his life. How would the answer affect a concrete action?

In saying all of this, I don’t mean to downplay the existing riches of 1 Hour Photo.

Much of the emotional substance emerges from the story of the Japanese incarceration. Yamamoto’s recorded voice describes how he, his widowed mom, and his siblings were temporarily housed in tents that got so cold at night, their bucket of water froze. The elderly man remembers being angry with the Canadian government because his little brother developed whooping cough and he was certain his sibling would die. He remembers this with a small laugh, underplaying his fury, which makes it heartbreaking.

Throughout, the physical production is gorgeous. As they did with Shigematsu’s debut effort Empire of the Son, the playwright and his team use miniatures and cameras in an exquisitely distinctive style. Shigematsu places a tiny model of an internment-camp cabin inside a mirrored cube, for instance; when he aims a GoPro at it, the cabin turns into rows and rows of cabins, a vast camp. The home where the playwright lives with his family—including, at one point, his dying father—becomes a kind of dollhouse. Shigematsu interviewed Yamamoto in that home and we see tiny versions of the dining-room table where they spoke and the cups of tea that they drank. Pam Johnson designed the sleek set and Jamie Nesbitt the spare, but multi-textured video.

As a performer, Shigematsu is working too hard under Richard Wolfe’s direction. His delivery is mannered, characterized by exaggerated urgency and sudden bursts of words that break up the simple sense of sentences.

There’s some arresting analysis in 1 Hour Photo: Shigematsu says the Japanese incarceration may have been efficient because the Canadian government had been practicing race-based theft and isolation for decades with First Nations. And, as I’ve said, there’s beauty in the current draft of the script, and the physical production is phenomenal. Still, if Shigematsu goes another round with 1 Hour Photo—and I hope he does—I urge him to find his focus and keep things closer to the heart.

1 HOUR PHOTO By Tetsuro Shigematsu. Directed by Richard Wolfe. A Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre production presented by The Cultch in the Historic Theatre on October 4. Continues until October 15.

Get your tickets here.

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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