Art & Culture

Documentary by former San Juan resident wins L.A. Area Emmy

Akira Boch’s ‘Masters of Modern Design’ focuses on five Japanese American artists, their experiences during WWII and the impact it had on their work.
Artist Ruth Asawa creating a looped wire structure (circa 1957). Photo courtesy of Akira Boch.
Artist Ruth Asawa creating a looped wire structure (circa 1957). Photo courtesy of Akira Boch.
"Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese Experiment" documentary flyer. Courtesy of Akira Boch.

Former San Juan Bautista resident and filmmaker Akira Boch longed to create a documentary based on the stories of those like his maternal grandmother, who was one of over 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry incarcerated during World War II. In 2019, Boch was given his opportunity, directing a program that addressed this dark period of American history and which recently received a coveted industry award.

On July 18, “Masters of Modern Design: The Art of the Japanese Experience” was awarded a Los Angeles Area Emmy. Directed by Boch, the hour-long special debuted in September 2019 and was co-produced by the Los Angeles-based public television station KCET’s “Artbound” series and the Japanese American National Museum’s Watase Media Arts Center.

“Masters of Modern Design” follows five Japanese American artists, paying particular attention to their war experience and the impact it had on their future work. One of those featured is the late Ruth Asawa, the prolific Bay Area artist and mother of six who received several public commissions, established a Bay Area arts school, and created signature looped wire structures that fetch millions at auction today.

In an email to BenitoLink following the documentary’s Emmy win, Boch, who serves as director of the Watase Arts Center, expressed his hope that its recognition would spur more public interest in the program and encourage viewers to learn more about the “five amazing artists profiled” and “the history of the Japanese American community during World War II.”

Humbled and proud of his work, Boch was quick to recognize the “hard work and creativity” of his Watase team. Housed in the Japanese American National Museum (JANM), Watase Media Arts is responsible for producing documentaries and other audio-visual media for the museum.

“The Emmy is a testament to Akira’s skill as a director and a powerful validation of the Watase team’s consistent creativity and innovation,” said JANM President and CEO Ann Burroughs.

The Television Academy established the Emmys in 1949 to recognize Los Angeles-produced programming, eventually extending the awards nationally, according to its website. “Masters of Modern Design” won the Emmy in the Arts category for News and Programming. This year’s awards ceremony was live streamed because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

In a pre-taped acceptance speech, the 48-year old Boch dedicated the Emmy to internees like his late grandmother who were “unjustly incarcerated during World War II in America’s concentration camps. And everyone out there that’s continuing the fight for justice and equality.”

Boch’s path as a filmmaker didn’t occur too far from his childhood home. Right next door was El Teatro Campesino and on many days in the director’s chair sat its founder, Luis Valdez. Often cast in roles alongside Valdez’s sons, the young Boch witnessed firsthand the famed director’s style and technique, as well as his signature use of theater as a way of both entertaining and raising awareness about social injustice.

Valdez praised Boch’s latest work and said that while “rooted in the historical injustice of the WWII concentration camps, it ultimately celebrates the creative power of the indomitable human spirit.”

Valdez recalled those days directing Boch, and the moment he realized that the then-teenager was destined to follow in his footsteps.

As an extra on the set of Valdez’s 1987 movie “La Bamba,” Boch—without a directional cue—walked directly between the film’s leading characters as the camera zoomed in.

According to Valdez, the young understudy knew the scene “would not end up on the cutting room floor…” but “he obviously knew how to lock himself into the picture, and told me all I needed to know about his potential as a future filmmaker.”

Boch credits Valdez with his decision to become a filmmaker and the lasting impression the San Juan playhouse has made on his life and career.  

“All of the time I’ve spent at El Teatro over the years has clearly seeped into my consciousness and deeply influenced my creative output. Most people wouldn’t be able to recognize it, but I certainly do,” he said.



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Frank Pérez

I’m a lifelong resident of San Benito County. I reside in Hollister with my wife, Brenda. For over two decades, I've been a faculty member at San Benito High School, where I teach world history, Mexican-American history, and Ethnic Studies. I've been reporting for BenitoLink since 2015. My passion is delving deeper into the nuances of the local, historical record, while including lesser-known stories of our past. My hope is that county residents will have a greater appreciation for the diversity and complexity of San Benito County, realizing that its uniqueness depends upon our responsibility as its stewards.