Heather Elder Represents
Reps Journal

Doug Menuez' Documentary "Because of You, I Am" Celebrates Japanese-American Taiko Drumming, Culture and Community

Doug shows his multimedia experience by directing and editing the documentary, and shooting stills for movie poster, zine and new website. 


In a world that often moves at a breakneck pace, finding moments of stillness and introspection can be a challenge. However, filmmaker and artist Doug Menuez has managed to capture these moments in his latest documentary, “Because of You, I Am”. This film takes viewers into the world of taiko, the Japanese drum, through the eyes of two of its beloved pioneers while delving into the deeper philosophical aspects that underpin it.

“Because of You, I Am” follows the stories of PJ and Roy Hirabayashi, two Japanese American artists who found the taiko drum as their identity and voice fifty years ago. Executive Producer of the film, Pear Urushima, has been a long-time collaborator with Doug since they first met on a project for Apple. Pear, who is a marketing guru and also a taiko player, thought of Doug to tell this story knowing his deep passion and understanding of artistry, working in tandem with his ability to share stories of humanity and art.

Pear produced PJ and Roy's website (pjroytaiko.org) which celebrates their journey of taiko artistry, social activism and community building. From the start, this project was designed to be a multimedia production, requiring Doug to see the whole picture of the documentary film, stills, and publications while shooting. The entire crew worked together to merge all of these components, setting a captivating exploration of cultural exchange, mentorship, and the pursuit of artistic excellence.

The Artistry and Intentionality of "Because of You, I Am"

“Because of You, I Am” offers a genuine glimpse into the rich tapestry of Japanese-American culture and history. Doug skillfully weaves together interviews, historical narratives, and breathtaking visuals, creating a compelling narrative that transports viewers to a world where intentionality reigns supreme.

Each element of the film serves a purpose and gives deliberate attention to each detail - from the choice of black-and-white cinematography to the carefully curated interviews. With these intentional decisions, Doug invites the audience to reflect on the power of simplicity and the beauty found in spaces left unfilled.

Embracing Cultural Connections

While navigating the complexities of cultural representation, Doug approaches the subject matter with humility and curiosity as an outsider exploring a deeply rooted Japanese art form. 

“Because of You, I Am” serves as a poignant reminder to slow down, embrace the present, and find meaning in the spaces between. It is not merely a documentary; it is a call to embrace the richness and diversity of our shared human experience. Doug’s artistry and commitment to storytelling create a captivating experience that resonates on multiple levels. Through his lens, viewers are transported into a world of rhythm, philosophy, and cultural exploration.

Together, let us explore the beauty and complexities of cultural fusion, forging connections that transcend borders and inspire us all.

This project was a true labor of love and artistic passion with Doug and his crew generously volunteering their time to shoot the film on location. Beyond the film, Doug created an 80-page zine and theater poster. We spoke with Doug and Pear to learn more about the making of the film and dove deeper into the meaning behind it. 

How did you approach the creation of this film?

It was important for me as a storyteller to be invited in I was invited in as this meant they trusted me. And because my work addresses the human condition and what we all have in common, I felt confident in my artistic approach. So, as a storyteller, I actually like to be “the outsider”, Because I feel like that gives me a perspective that is contrary. Sometimes you can't see the forest from the trees if you're in something so deeply and as an outsider can put a mirror to things. I think that's the role of artists in our society to understand our activists. I like to get access to cultures I don't know so much about because then I can learn. And also if I'm curious, and I want to learn, I feel like my audience can learn.

What was a new challenge for you on this production?

Usually, I hand off to an editor, but my editor was too busy so for six months, every single day, at least a few hours a day when I wasn't shooting or occupied elsewhere, I was editing. I learned both DaVinci and Adobe Premiere video editing tools which is something I hadn’t done before, so it was time-consuming on the back end. I also have never tried to create a film in black and white that wasn't shot in black and white film, as opposed to digital video. To give digital video the same contrast and punch as film is just very difficult as my colorist Luke Carquillat explained over and over. I kept pushing though. And I was thrilled to get a call from Spike Lee’s former cinematographer, Jonathan Burkhart, raving about the gorgeous black and white look we finally got.” 

The black and white felt very intentional, can you speak to the decision to have this film in black and white? 

There is a density and richness of the blacks that we have in the shadows. There's a book called In Praise of Shadows, a Japanese book from the 1930s and it influenced me years ago. I still read the book every now and then. I really like the thinking that you know in the shadows are the unseen things or the things you don't pay attention to. There is a Japanese philosophy about the beauty that can be found in shadows. So I wanted that rich feeling of matte mood in this film. In Japan, there is so much attention to visual aesthetics and beauty. It's incredible. So every decision we made for this film, followed that and was very intentional.

I felt a sense of intentionality throughout the entire film, was that a part of the thought while making the film?

I didn’t think of it like that in the making, but I do think of the film as a sort of meditation. The artists’ journey and what people go through to be artists and to make their craft and to find purpose in their art and their lives. It's very important.

What did you learn about Taiko during the making of this documentary?

I had seen Taiko when I was 14 years old in San Francisco on a visit there from New York. This was an early iteration of the San Francisco Taiko group. After seeing the performance, I was always very curious about the art. But I never saw it again until I met Pear and she told me she was a taiko drummer. One of the first things I learned about taiko when I got to shoot PJ and Roy,  was that there is traditional Japanese taiko that evolved over centuries in Japan and was used to gather a village or to accompany battles. What I didn't know was PJ and Roy's influence in developing taiko as an Asian American art form and their ancestral values that kept them grounded. They inherited Japanese culture from their parents and grandparents, and they were surrounded in the 1960s by rock and roll and jazz and other forms of American music. Their original compositions reflect this merging of cultures and became a permanent part of the repertoire for their performing ensemble, San Jose Taiko, an esteemed group that led for nearly four decades. This unprecedented and unique way of presenting taiko music became a pillar of Japanese-American culture and established taiko as an Asian American art form. 

Yes, I felt that the documentary highlighted Japanese-American culture through a unique lens and raise important topics within that community. 

Absolutely, one of the film's main themes is identity and culture. PJ and Roy’s experience is growing up post World War II in California, where there is a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment and racist behavior. They had a hard time navigating this and through that process, they found taiko as a means of expression. So I wanted to create empathy about that experience. I want people to glimpse what it's like to be in someone else's shoes.

You’ve mentioned identity, empathy, artistry, and visual aesthetics as some of the main themes of the film, what would you like viewers to take away from seeing this documentary?

This film takes the viewer through PJ and Roy’s history in chapters that echo their personal values. They’re incredibly humble and don't like to use the word legacy, but to me, this is a way to show their legacy because they certainly have one. I hope viewers gain an appreciation for taiko as an art form, the community around it, Japanese-American culture and the celebration of artistic excellence.

Editors note: We spoke with Executive Producer, Pear Urushima who offered this as a takeaway.

“We would like people to watch the film and just sit in and enjoy the artistry of the film. But moreover, we'd like for people to see how important art is to being human. How important art is for social change. How important art is in being able to unify and to also amplify community and connection. Its power to be a force for social change and social justice. We also would like people to take away what is at stake. If we don't care for taiko and other folk and traditional art forms, they can lose their value and meaning. So we must nurture and care for not only artists but what they've done and what they can continue to do.” 

How will this documentary be used?

We plan to pursue film festivals and educational outlets to share this amazing story and what the arts can do. We've also created a zine with some of the stills I shot for promotional purposes. PJ and Roy's website features my stills and footage from the documentary. We are all so proud of this film and are excited to share it with others.