A family-run B.C. sushi restaurant closed after 39 years. The whole community came out to say goodbye.

Documentary ‘Koto: The Last Service’ shares the restaurant’s final days. For Director Joella Cabalu, making the film made her realize the importance of telling people how much they mean to you.

Documentary ‘Koto: The Last Service’ shares the restaurant’s final days.

Brothers Taigi and Kenji Maeda make sushi at Koto Japanese Restaurant on one of the restaurant's final days. In his Facebook post about the restaurant closing, Kenji wrote, "My brother or I travel from Vancouver to Campbell River every weekend to help out at the restaurant. We've been doing this for years. It's has been our responsibility to our family and our community to do so." (CBC/Koto: The Last Service )

In 2019, Kenji Maeda published a Facebook announcement to say that after nearly 40 years, his family's restaurant was closing. I remember seeing that post, flooded with hundreds of comments from friends and community members, sharing photos and fond memories of Koto Japanese Restaurant

The Maeda family introduced raw fish sushi (before it was a cool trend) to the Vancouver Island town of Campbell River, on the unceded territories of the Laich-Kwil-Tach Peoples: the We Wai Kai, Wei Wai Kum and Kwiakah First Nations. They were one of the first authentic Japanese restaurants in the "Salmon Capital of the World" and — more importantly — a place in the community for Indigenous and non-Indigenous families to come together and engage in Japanese food and culture. The Maeda family — matriarch Kazue, the late Takeo (Tony) and their sons Taigi and Kenji — were fixtures in the community, as their generosity and friendship extended beyond serving fresh sushi. 

A week before the restaurant's final day, Kenji invited me and my colleague, cinematographer Milena Salazar, to document the last services. Our intention was simply to film the restaurant and the people as a personal record for the family, because it was now or never. 

After spending a couple days in Campbell River, witnessing the tender goodbyes and the love people had for the Maeda family, I was inspired to create a short documentary with the material we had filmed. In a time when small town folks are often painted as small-minded toward immigrants, what I saw counters that stereotype and serves up an example of community cohesion and intercultural exchange.

However, as is often the case with documentary filmmaking, our attempts to secure funding were unsuccessful. In early 2020, Kenji and I started the editing process independently, but when the pandemic hit, we decided to put the project on hold indefinitely to focus on more pressing issues.

By May 2020, also known as Asian Heritage Month, there had been a rising number of anti-Asian attacks and hate crimes, particularly in response to COVID-19. It deeply affected me, making me wary of how I moved around in the world, even in the perceived safety of my own neighborhood in Vancouver. I hated feeling helpless. 

"This project made me realize the importance of telling people how much they mean to you when you can," says director Joella Cabalu. (Krista MacMillan)

I pondered how I could respond to the racist sentiments and violence as an artist and filmmaker, but also offer healing to my community. During one of my many walks in those early days of the pandemic, I remembered that we had a treasure trove of beautiful, transformative and affirming visual material of a community embracing a Japanese Canadian family. I called Kenji right away and asked permission to write an application for a BC Arts Council grant to complete the film with this new lens and urgency.

In discussing race with Asian-North American audiences, it has become clear that Canada does not yet have an established language to unpack anti-Asian racism. Indeed, in recent years, there has been a surge of Canadian media that examines racism, including the hit podcast Colour Code (Globe & Mail, 2016) and the powerful documentary nipawistamasowin: We Will Stand Up (Tasha Hubbard, 2019). However, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed deep racial and labour inequalities that gave rise to a new resolve to combat systemic racism.

Koto: The Last Service is distinct in its aim to tackle this issue by showcasing positive community relationships in small towns, and offering a soothing balm to anti-Asian racism.

For the Maeda family, watching the film was their first time hearing the interviews with the community. 

As an outsider, I could ask questions like, "What does this restaurant and family mean to you? What will you miss the most when it closes?" without the awkwardness that might surface if the family asked it themselves. The film provided an opportunity for the family to hear how deeply they touched their community, through the years and generations. 

Kazue Maeda and her late husband Takeo (Tony) opened Koto Japanese Restaurant in 1980. It was one of the first authentic Japanese restaurants in the "Salmon Capital of the World." (CBC/Koto: The Last Service)

The family said goodbye with grace and integrity. They offered ample time for the community to visit the restaurant (some folks came multiple times with different parties!), express gratitude to Kazue and the boys and taste their favorite homemade dishes: the Campbell River Roll (sockeye salmon, dungeness crab, avocado, flying fish roe) and the Tony Roll (spot prawn, avocado, cucumber, flying fish roe, with spicy and homemade sweet sauce). One patron even had his own roll customized by Tony, in his own name.

In approaching the film with editor Shun Ando, we endeavoured to reflect this gift of time with pacing, by introducing viewers to the space with long takes of each corner of the restaurant. 

From the sushi bar and booths to the light fixtures, each carefully designed by the late Tony, the opening sequence invites the audience to slow down and appreciate the details, just as you would if you were saying farewell to a loved one. 

During the no-hugs-allowed period of the pandemic, watching cuts of the film and seeing the community hug Kazue over and over again, the images of full-body squeezes and kisses on her cheek, brought me an unexpected salve of comfort and optimism. 

This project made me realize the importance of telling people how much they mean to you when you can. Not only to our friends and family, but even business owners and local neighborhood proprietors; the people in our community who are part of our daily lives and bring us a bit of joy everyday.

Koto: The Last Service came to be by way of my friendship with Kenji Maeda. We met in 2014 at the Vancouver Asian Film Festival. We sat beside each other at the opening night film and struck up a conversation over a mutual interest in documentary films, while eating all of our popcorn before the movie started.

Joella Cabalu is a Filipino Canadian documentary filmmaker based in Vancouver. She is the Director & Producer of Koto: The Last Service.

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