Japanese American Filmmaker Discovers Her Mother’s Secrets

Rea Tajiri knew she would eventually lose her mother to dementia. What she didn’t know was how much of her mother she would find.

The unraveling of memories and intimate discoveries of her mother’s inner world that would otherwise be forgotten in a shroud of silence, come to life in Wisdom Gone Wild — an evocative, nostalgic documentary that follows Rea’s 16-year caregiving journey. 

“I knew her as vulnerable but also surprisingly very strong, a little bit eccentric, but very creative and also very, very private and secretive,” said Rea of her mother, Rose, during our conversation on Zoom.

Throughout the film’s 90-minute non-traditional narrative structure that crisscrosses time, much like Rea’s mother’s cognitive state, family secrets and key historical events emerge bit by bit, cued through daily encounters and reminiscences. She connects these dots of Rose’s seemingly nonsensical stories — linking them to real events in her personal history.

“We think she had PTSD. She was in the US concentration camps for Japanese Americans, which she didn’t want to tell us about. You could only come a few steps close to her and then she would put up a smoke screen. But in her dementia a lot of her defenses came down and she had a lot of agency. She even reinvented herself, by having a new name and identity.”

Through Rea’s eyes we too enter Rose’s world — listening to her fragmented anecdotes, believing in her visions, watching her dramatic outbursts, and enjoying her spontaneous musical serenades. “She could really sing,” Rea says. “And it turned out she liked to perform too. She’d go into these really beautiful reveries.”

But singing — Rea soon found out — wasn’t the only thing Rose could do.

“My mother had a lot [more] musical ability that she hid from us. For instance, this one time at assisted living, she started playing the piano, out of nowhere. It was a shock to us all. As kids, she made us take piano lessons and practice in front of her and the whole time she would say ‘I wish I could play like that.’ And then here she is — she could play like that!”

She’d say to us, ‘I’m not a housewife or mother. I’m a new independent woman.’

Rea even came to discover that like herself, her mother was an artist and a creative at heart. “She wasn’t considered to be an artist [during her] time,” she explains. “So she went to college to study art history around the same time I went to college. We had a commonality which was fun. She’d say to us, ‘I’m not a housewife or mother. I’m a new independent woman.’” 

But interestingly, when Rea shares the camera with her mother — shifting from witness to participant, and uncannily, parenting her own parent, these dynamics change. “One thing that was a big adjustment [for me] was that I had to take on more of this responsibility of having to tell her what to do. It’s uncomfortable to tell your parents what to do. Sometimes my mother would joke and say ‘Okay Mama,’ ‘Okay, Mama.’ Someone taking care of her meant they were ‘Mamas.’”

Rea offers a new perspective of dealing with the disease —telling the story of a life to be valued, not a problem to be willed away.

Many more revelations are brought to the fore throughout this sometimes-happy-sometimes-sad intimate portrait of the love, care, and connection between mother and daughter. But what really stands out is Rea’s motive for creating this documentary. Rather than focusing on the frustration and stress that caregivers of dementia patients often experience, she offers a new perspective of dealing with the disease —telling the story of a life to be valued, not a problem to be willed away. “We don’t see a lot of representations of people living with dementia and when we do it’s all about the tragedy,” she says. “There’s a tendency to dismiss or not take a person living with dementia seriously. But in fact, there are other ways to connect and communicate with that person. I want to bring hope to the world through this film and show another way of thinking about dementia.” 

For Rea and Rose, this hope comes in the form of art, humor, and music, as they confront the poignant yet powerful reality of wisdom ‘gone wild.’

Wisdom Gone Wild will have its national broadcast premiere on PBS as part of the POV series on Monday, November 20, 2023 at 10pm. Check your local listings for more information.

© Reanne Rodrigues (11/20/23) – Special for FF2 Media

Watch the trailer for Wisdom Gone Wild here.

Visit Rea Tajiri’s website here.


Featured photo: Rea Tajiri and her mother Rose at the hospice center. Image courtesy MPRM Communications & used with their permission.

Bottom photo: Rea Tajiri with her director of photography for Wisdom Gone Wild. Image courtesy Rea & used with her permission.

Tags: documentary, documentary filmmaker, female documentary filmmaker, Female Filmmaker, filmmaker, Interview, PBS, Rea Tajiri, Reanne Rodrigues, Wisdom Gone Wild

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Reanne is an arts and culture writer based in Manhattan, New York City. She loves telling impactful stories about artists and the value they bring to the world. Reach out to her if you’d like to collaborate on any projects or indulge in a lively discussion over chai at www.reannewrites.com.
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