Noe Valley Voice March 2012

Subject and Seer: Keiko Fukuda (left), an honored judo master familiar to many Noe Valleyans, is the subject of a full-length documentary by Yuriko Gamo Romer.     Photo by Zdenek Mlika 

Local Life Force Found in New Film

Yuriko Romer Presents Mrs. Judo at Asian Film Fest

By Heather World

Noe Valley filmmaker Yuriko Gamo Romer’s documentary Mrs. Judo: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful premieres March 11 at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, and while the film may have international appeal, the story is truly a neighborhood one.

Romer’s subject is local celebrity Keiko Fukuda, a 98-year-old judo master who last year became the first woman to earn a 10th degree black belt, the art’s highest distinction. She is one of only four such masters in the world, yet she still teaches basic judo to women at her storefront studio at 26th and Castro streets.

It was a picture of the glass-fronted building—called a dojo—that sparked four and a half years of interviews, photos, travel, and tea that became the documentary, Romer says. Back then, Romer was flipping through O Magazine and saw an article about Fukuda that included a picture of the dojo.

“I thought, that looks kind of like the place that’s down the street from me!” Romer said. She walked two blocks from her 25th Street home and found she was right. Romer stopped by the dojo and introduced herself (she speaks Japanese fluently), and from there a relationship was born.

Though part of the filming took place at a family reunion in Japan, much of the work was done at the dojo, at the Hoffman Avenue house where Fukuda lives with her longtime friend and former student Shelley Fernandez, and in other spots in Noe Valley, which serves as a sort of extended office for Romer.

“It’s lovely to work here because I can take my dog and walk to the post office, the bank, and the copy place,” says Romer, who moved here with her husband and son in 1997. “I often have meetings in a café on 24th Street.”

She can now count the dojo, formally called the Soko Joshi Judo Club, as part of her world, too.

“Even though I’m not filming anymore, I still go because this is a community that has welcomed me,” she says.

The San Francisco screening means that the aging Fukuda and her students, as well as city residents in general, can join Romer in watching the premiere.

Romer hopes local viewers will be inspired, as she was, by Fukuda’s journey from a young girl in a culture of subservient women to judo master.

“She [Fukuda] brings forth the depths and the extreme of the human spirit,” Romer says.

The 66-minute documentary, made on a shoestring $130,000 budget, crosses many genres, she says.

“It’s a film that has a lot of niches: women, seniors, Asian American, martial arts,” she says. “Maybe because of that I’m getting a lot of encouragement.”

Three-quarters of the mail she has received has been from men who saw clips on YouTube, she says.

“Men are interested in it purely because it’s a martial arts film,” she says. Many of those who sent mail thanked her for adding depth to their understanding of women’s struggles. “Just a little bit of awareness in that area could be huge,” says Romer.

The film’s subtitle, “Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful,” is a quote from Fukuda, a motto that came to her early in her career. “She feels like those are the components that were important for living life and living judo,” Romer says.

Mrs. Judo is Romer’s first feature-length film. Through her Flying Carp Productions, she has made three shorter pieces. One, Occidental Encounters, a film about intercultural marriage, won an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences student gold medal and was aired on PBS.

Romer hopes her latest effort will achieve even wider distribution. 

Mrs. Judo: Be Strong, Be Gentle, Be Beautiful will show Sunday, March 11, at 3 p.m. at the Castro Theater, 429 Castro Street at Market. It will also run in San Jose the following Sunday, March 18, at 2 p.m. at Camera 3 Cinemas.

To buy tickets for the San Francisco screening, visit the Center for Asian American Media at www.caamedia.orgFor more information, call the center at 415-863-0814. To buy tickets, select ext. 2, then ext. 110.

During the making of Mrs. Judo, local filmmaker Yuriko Romer traveled to Japan to capture a ceremony honoring Keiko Fukuda (seated), holder of the highest rank in judo, a 10th-degree black belt. Fukuda, 98, still teaches at her Soko Joshi dojo in Noe Valley.    Photo courtesy Yuriko Romer and Flying Carp Productions