‘Ebb and Flow’ profiles area pioneer in oyster farming

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An ironic truth of being a journalist is that the richer a real-life story is, the harder it is to tell properly, which makes Port Townsend documentarians Shelly Solomon and Kent Cornwell’s film “Ebb and Flow” all the more impressive.

“Ebb and Flow” encompasses the history of the Yamashita family, Japanese immigrants to America, whose lineage descends directly from actual samurai. It also documents how the Yamashita family helped resurrect oyster farming along America’s Pacific Coast throughout the 20th century.

In the telling of this family saga, Solomon and Cornwell also focus heavily on how the Yamashita family was affected by the internment of Japanese in America during World War II. They intersperse the Yamashitas’ story with mouthwatering “foodie” segments on the Pacific oysters that the family patriarch, Masahide Yamashita, helped foster in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1900s.

This is a film necessarily juggling a number of subjects and moods, but Solomon and Cornwell bring their decade of experience in documentaries to bear, creating a holistic piece out of these potentially disparate elements by framing them in the narrative device of a conversation between Masahide’s son, 95-year-old Eiichi “Jerry” Yamashita, and Jerry’s own adult son Patrick.

Speaking from experience, I will say that when your interview subject is as stoic as Jerry, it can be challenging to get him to talk about himself. Solomon and Cornwell rely on Patrick to draw his father out of his shell, as father and son sit together on the beach at night, their faces lit by the fire cooking their oysters.

The documentary also makes effective use of Jerry’s colleagues in the oyster farming industry, which he did not retire from until he turned 88. Their love and respect for him shine through and help reveal the character of a man whose grown children admit he is reticent to dwell on the past, particularly events as significant as his WWII internment at Tulelake, California.

Michael Yamashita, one of Jerry’s other sons, apologizes for getting emotional as he recalls when he first learned about his father’s internment, after a history lesson at school. This contrasts sharply with a moment from a reunion of Tulelake survivors, when two women, who are roughly Jerry’s age, laugh and tell him, “We’re the only ones left from Block 13.”

If you didn’t know they were talking about their own wartime imprisonment by the government, you’d think they might be sharing memories of attending school together. Their attitude underscores the resilience of their generation and illustrates how, in his son’s words, Jerry tends to “move past” old tragedies.

Jerry’s family had no shortages of hardships to overcome. Even after his family was released from internment, Masahide had to start his business from scratch yet wasn’t allowed to own property. However, his son Jerry, who was born in Seattle, could.

Jerry coped with the impact of pollution on his own oyster farming, just as the pollution of the early 20th century necessitated the replacement of the native Olympia oysters with Pacific oysters from Japan. He survived by gaining support for oyster farming on an individual basis, earning converts by serving them oyster and pickle sandwiches from his mother’s recipe.

Jerry eventually turned over his oyster farming operation to the Nisqually Indian Tribe, which seems fitting, considering both of their cultures have persevered even in the face of systematic discrimination.

To learn more about “Ebb and Flow,” visit Solomon and Cornwell’s website at leapingfrogfilms.com.

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