Candid camera

PTE's streaming 1 Hour Photo a revealing biographical drama about a man whose life is a snapshot of history


Advertise with us

While his own father was dying, playwright Tetsuro Shigematsu found consolation and inspiration through deep, personal conversations with another older Japanese-Canadian man. As they chatted at a dining table, the man’s fascinating life unfolded, a life Shigematsu realized needed to be shared.

Read this article for free:


Already have an account? Log in here »

To continue reading, please subscribe:

Monthly Digital Subscription

$4.75 per week*

  • Enjoy unlimited reading on
  • Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
  • Access News Break, our award-winning app
  • Play interactive puzzles

*Billed as $19.00 plus GST every four weeks. Cancel anytime.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/05/2021 (753 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

While his own father was dying, playwright Tetsuro Shigematsu found consolation and inspiration through deep, personal conversations with another older Japanese-Canadian man. As they chatted at a dining table, the man’s fascinating life unfolded, a life Shigematsu realized needed to be shared.

The result is 1 Hour Photo, a play that starts streaming via Prairie Theatre Exchange today and runs through Sunday. It sees the return of the actor-playwright to the PTE venue in a “digital tour,” owing to the ongoing pandemic.

The Vancouver-based Shigematsu, 50, showed up in the flesh last time for a performance of his show Empire of the Son in November 2018 as part of PTE’s Leap Series of one-person plays. In that very personal piece, Shigematsu examined his relationship with his own distant father, Akira Shigematsu, who died weeks before the play premièred in 2015.

Supplied The one-man play 1 Hour Photo is based on playwright Tetsuro Shigematsu's interviews with Mas Yamamoto, who lived a storied life.

In some ways, 1 Hour Photo may feel like a companion piece, he admits, as it also examines the life of an older Japanese-Canadian man.

Mas Yamamoto’s long life includes being locked away during the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War, and working on the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line in the Canadian Arctic during the Cold War. The title of the play comes from Yamamoto’s late-life job at a Japan Camera shop, where he developed pictures in a neighbourhood business franchise that was once a common presence in malls and main streets across the country.

Curiously, it was this latter gig that got Shigematsu thinking about a possible theatre piece.

“I thought, ‘That’s an interesting subject.’ Because, to me, it was kind of a proto-Internet, if you will, in terms that they were at the centre of the neighbourhood and they had kind of a fascinating insight into everyone who surrounded their store, because everyone came in to develop their photos,” he says. “They could be photos of a very domestic nature but then they also encounter very private photos as well, sometimes of a possibly criminal nature.

“It was kind of a fascinating window into everyone’s private world and I thought, ‘There’s a play here. Maybe this is the play.’ “

• • •

The circumstances of the playwright getting to know Yamamoto were quite dramatic themselves.

“At the time when I started my conversation with Mas Yamamoto, my father was in fact in the next room, literally dying,” he says.

That room was in a house belonging to Yamamoto’s daughter Donna, who was Shigematsu’s producer. While it became apparent the senior Shigematsu was dying, “Donna, who is also such a good friend, would often ask me, ‘T, what do you need?’

“Usually I would say, ‘Nothing.’ I think it’s hard for men to ask for things in particular,” he says. “But at one point I said, ‘Donna, you can help me find a house for my dad to die in?’ Because my father’s one wish was not to die in a hospital.”

Donna offered her own home, which is how he found himself at a dining room table in progressively deeper conversations with Mas Yamamoto, who had a trove of remarkable stories to tell.

“One of the gaps that I explore in the Empire of the Son is the distance, culturally and linguistically, between my father and myself,” he says. “My father wasn’t comfortable in English and my Japanese is abysmal, whereas with Mas and myself, we could just talk without any friction whatsoever and be easily understood.

“So I suppose it was a kind of transference there in terms of losing one father and also welcoming another older Japanese man into my life.”

The play, a finalist in the 2019 Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama, had a rough birthing process. Shigematsu’s interviews with Yamamoto required a lot of trust, given that the show would be the playwright’s subjective interpretation of Yamamoto’s life.

“For me, only one review mattered and that was Mas’s,” he says. “But it was never my intention to write a hagiography or pander to him. There was actually some push and pull in terms of things he disagreed with. But I really wanted him to be satisfied, or at least approve of, my version of his life story.

“At one point, he said, ‘Take my name off the show.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ We were getting close to the production time in the world première.

Raymond Shum Photo Tetsuro Shigematsu wrote and stars in 1 Hour Photo,

“He said, ‘I just don’t want my friends think I’m some sort of big shot now.’

“In Japanese culture, there’s a proverb that says: The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” Shigematsu explains. “He just didn’t want to have any kind of notoriety, because it was an unusual honour to have a biographical play about you and a subsequently published book as well.

“And I said, ‘You know Mas, even if you do experience (notoriety), that will be a price you pay.’ I told him the lesson you’re offering other people in terms of what it means to be resilient in the face of setbacks of historic proportion. It’s just really instructive. And it has the potential to be a real gift.”

It has worked out that way. Yamamoto has enthusiastically participated in post-show Q&As in Vancouver and in some post-streaming sessions. (The filmed show was shot in Vancouver’s Cultch Theatre.)

“It struck me that more than anyone I’ve ever met, his life so closely follows the contours of the major events of the 20th century,” Shigematsu says. “Here’s a man who has is at the end of his life but has seen seen so much and his life is intersected in such interesting ways with everything that’s happened.”

The way Yamamoto worked through adversity has added a pertinent dimension to the show, Shigematsu allows. When the show debuted in 2017, it was simply a portrait of a man the playwright found fascinating, with a story worth sharing; in 2021, he says, the reimagined version of the show resonates with what’s happening in the world.

“For example, he had a season up north in the Arctic where he hadn’t seen the sun in a half a year. Right now I think a lot of people can really relate to that where we’re hardly able to venture beyond one’s own house.

“Another thing that is pandemic-related is the rise of hate crimes against diaspora of Asians,” he says. “People that look like me or Mas or his daughter Donna, we are being faced with a level of xenophobia that none of us find surprising.

Shigematsu says the level of violence that’s bubbling to the surface is unprecedented, and it’s spreading fear. “I don’t like my mother walking outside by herself,” he says. “She used to walk around Douglas Park every single day and she stopped doing that.

“I think the precondition for these acts of violence is the dehumanization of a community. I think Mas’s story is kind of the antidote for that, because when you look at Mas, he’s a senior citizen. He’s an elder. He looks like the ‘other,’ so to speak.

“But when you see him in his life story, you realize: Oh, he’s just like me in so many ways,” Shigematsu says. “So I’m thinking that 1 Hour Photo is more timely than ever.”

Twitter: @FreepKing

If you value coverage of Manitoba’s arts scene, help us do more.
Your contribution of $10, $25 or more will allow the Free Press to deepen our reporting on theatre, dance, music and galleries while also ensuring the broadest possible audience can access our arts journalism.
BECOME AN ARTS JOURNALISM SUPPORTER Click here to learn more about the project.

Randall King

Randall King

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

Report Error Submit a Tip


Advertise With Us

Arts & Life