Sunday Shorts: An American Piano

Directed by award-winning filmmaker Paul Leeming and written and produced by Hamish Downie, An American Piano is based on the extraordinary true story of a young Japanese girl who played the piano for Prisoners of War during World War II and how it affected their lives. War is only possible when the enemy is dehumanised. An American Piano is a story of humanity, compassion and the universality of music in helping to heal the rifts between wartime rivals.

Article written by Hamish Downie

The Genesis of An American Piano

The genesis of An American Piano was another script that I had written, and raised funds for. Paul Leeming, another talented Australian based in Japan, was attached to direct. We’d even gone as far as to cast the lead actor, Blue Mountians native Adam J Yeend (who has had guest spots in All Saints, Scandal, and featured in Liz & Dick); but we were facing the dilemma that in order to make that film properly, the budget would need to be ten times that of the one we had. I thought about cancelling the project, and then, we received an offer from a Producer to raise 4 million for the film if we could rewrite it as a feature. That producer turned out to be full of hot air, but in the process of researching that script, I came across the POW Research Network Japan. An organisation which aims to bridge the gap in understand between former wartime rivals. Two of the volunteers in the organisation offered to take me to the graveyard of POWs in Yokohama, Japan, and tell me their stories. I immediately said yes.

So many films have been made about World War II and the Pacific Chapter that we think that we’ve heard everything there is to hear about that time, but it simply isn’t true. There are so many stories that are yet to be told. One of the stories that the women told me that really captured my imagination was the story of Youko Koshida. The women told me that she was still alive and asked if I would like to meet her. I said yes knowing that her narrative wouldn’t really fit in with the script I was wanting to write, but thematically, it was exactly what I wanted to write. And just the simple fact that she was alive and willing to share her story, I just couldn’t refuse the chance to meet her.

The day came to meet Mrs Koshida, and at her home, she shared her story via the translator, and she played the titular American Piano for me. It was a very special day. Afterwards, I went home and wrote the script in one go. It was the easiest script that I ever wrote. I just got out of the way and let the story tell itself with one minor change, I made the character younger. Youko Koshida was sixteen at the time of the story, but I changed the age to about 10. I wanted to remove any possible sexual element from the film. Plus, it’s probably the most confident age of childhood.

This change caused some issues with the POW Research Network Japan, because they thought that I wanted to make a documentary, not a biopic. But, luckily, once that wrinkle was ironed out, it was pretty smooth sailing from there.

Paul Leeming loved the story, but was putting his focus into the aforementioned other film. When it became clear that this Producer was nothing more than empty promises (among many others who have offered us dream deals that had no basis in reality), we had to face facts and try and make a film within our budget. And it was a sizeable budget for a short, it’s just that when making a period drama, so much of the budget goes to recreating the period.

Planning the shoot or how we ended up making the film in a Buddhist Convent

So, then An American Piano officially became our next project. With plans to film in the Japanese summer. But, again, one of these dream job offers came about, and Paul was lured to the big lights of San Francisco to the burgeoning world of 3D filmmaking. So, again, our film was delayed. But, we did shoot the film’s coda that summer, so progress was made. I visited Paul in SF and a dream offer came my way, to write a feature script for another American producer. I got as far as a treatment, but again, it was an empty offer and came to naught.

We finally set a date for filming in winter, which is a great time for indie filmmakers as no major Japanese productions happen over the winter holidays, so we had our pick of the best of the best. Paul came over to cast the film, and found some fantastic actors. We were lucky enough to get a major Japanese actor and comedian, Lou Oshiba, because the story resonated with his manager, who came from Okinawa.

While planning the shoot, we realised that the script was still demanding a budget beyond our means, and we needed to rewrite the script to adjust to the budget. Which almost meant that it needed retranslating.

Finding the write location was the next hurdle. I was so stressed finding a place that I was even admitted to hospital hyperventilating. But, our executive producer Taeko Sato, had an idea, and took me to a restaurant that was run by Buddhist Nuns in a convent, and as I looked around, I realised that this was the perfect place. And luckily, the Nuns let us film there.

I was over the moon with the idea of filming a World War II film about music in a convent… and was hoping that we could capture some of the magic that The Sound of Music had many years before. One challenge for shooting the film in a Nunnery provided, was that we lost a day of shooting when a funeral came up. The other challenge was that the Nuns all got up at 3am and went to bed at 3pm. So, I had to negotiate staying longer, and we were able to film until 6pm. The Nuns version of staying up all night. Yet another challenge was filming a Summer Film in Winter. A lot of cups of tea and heat packs were used those days.

Finding the film in the edit

They always say that you make a film three times, as a screenplay, shooting, and finally in the editing room. While flying back to the USA, Paul had a stroke of genius when he realised that the film should be edited like movements in classical music pieces. Once he realised that, everything came together. We did a couple of pickups to support this new edit. Believe it or not, one of our beta viewers was a former underground wrestler, and he actually provided the best feedback for tightening the film.

Not Australian or Japanese enough – The Festival Circuit

It wasn’t easy for this film to find it’s feet. We took it to the short film market in Cannes to look for distribution, but while we fielded many offers, none were offering any payment upfront. From there, we were at a Japanese festival where they told us our film was too professional to win. After that, the turning point was the Lake Champlain International Film Festival. They programmed us in the Family Friendly category (and have since screened the film at their next two festivals). That was when Paul and I realised that we should try for Children’s festivals. Up until that point we were targeting Human Rights and Top Tier festivals to little success. Once we shifted to Children’s festivals the film started to really pick up steam, eventually winning three festivals, and being officially selected at the Toronto International Film Festival – Kids 2015. The film had no success at Australian Festivals. We weren’t Japanese enough for the festivals in Japan, and we weren’t Australian enough for the festivals in Australia. So, we almost always competed for the International Category (which filmmakers will know is much harder to succeed in than the national categories). Despite this lack of support from Australia, the arthouse cinema in my hometown of Newcastle, The Regal, screened the film as the opener for Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises for the commemoration of Hiroshima Bombings. Which is perhaps the best recognition of all.

Post Festival Circuit

Probably the best thing that has happened since the film was released is that we were contacted by the daughter of one of the POWs that Adam J Yeend’s character was based on, and we were able to connect her with the daughter of Mrs Koshida.

We have provided the film as donation-ware to the public via (you can donate directly here: we plan to donate any profits raised to the POW Research Network Japan.

Paul and I are developing a number of projects, but the next out of the gate will be my feature film directorial debut, Matcha & Vanilla, which stars Qyoko Kudo (The Wolverine, Babel) and features Adam J Yeend – both from An American Piano.

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