A speech written and delivered on May 21, 2023, at the UWC ISAK Japan Class of 2023 Graduation Ceremony by UWC ISAK Japan Theatre and Film teacher Matthew Christensen.
Dear UWC ISAK parents, guardians, and family,
friends and alumni,
honored guests from the Karuizawa community,
founders and board members,
administration, faculty, and staff,
grade 10 and 11 students,
and finally the graduating class of 2023,
I would like to pitch an idea I have for a new film. The research for this cinematic masterpiece has been the work of three years but the backstories of the characters are complex, diverse, and go back much further.
In doing my pre-production research, I had a bit of trouble defining the genre for this film. Certainly, there has been a lot of drama and some moments of heartbreak, typical of a good, old-fashioned tear-jerker. There has been a post-apocalyptic virus worthy of a good dystopian thriller. There has been a sufficient amount of laughter and slapstick to warrant a hit comedy. There have been moments of selflessness, decency, and nobility – apt material for an inspirational epic. And there have been heartwarming scenes that any great life-affirming, feel-good movie promises.
Now, as any film student will tell you, most movies follow the Hollywood three-act structure – the set up, the confrontation, and the resolution – and my film idea is no different. I have worked out, based on my research, the first two acts, but will need your help with the third.
Act I: The Set Up
Scene 1. EXT. INTERNATIONAL HIGH SCHOOL IN JAPAN in 2020 – DAY
We open on an establishing shot of a beautiful, idyllic wooded campus. In the distance, a mercifully benign active volcano lightly puffs its steam against a stunning blue sky and looks down over the school. Ambient sounds of birds singing and leaves rustling are slowly interrupted by the sound of approaching motors.
Cut to a montage of confused but happy, surgically masked individuals who can only be described as NEWBIES arriving in taxis, private cars, and buses. Among this group are about 4 dozen protagonists whose character arcs we will follow over a three-year span. Some of them arrive with a single backpack or suitcase, others, with 5 or 6. All with the same doe-eyed expression of wonder and excitement. As they alight, they are met by a strange collection of adults, sweating profusely under their PPE gear in the August heat – you cannot see their welcoming smiles because of their fogged-up visors. The wonderfully, and possibly blindly, optimistic fresh students are ushered to the gym to have their luggage sprayed and to be tested before being whisked off to their new residences and told they will be quarantined for two weeks. The pandemic everyone thought would be over in June still affects life on Earth.
The scene ends with a montage of shots of students we have not yet seen in their bedrooms across the globe – in countries like Italy, Switzerland, Thailand, China and Tajikistan – unable to gain entry into Japan, but attending online classes hosted by dedicated, weary teachers.
Scene 2. INT. AN ACADEMIC CENTER AT THE INTERNATIONAL SCHOOL, 7 MONTHS LATER – DAY
Through a classroom window, we see signs of transition from a cold, gray winter to a warm, green spring. Cut to shots of classrooms filled with our grade 10 protagonists where a similar transition is taking place. Still masked, these students are now all firmly settled in on campus. They are less wide-eyed, a bit battle-scarred from the virus, but still wonderfully eager, their minds full of new information. They have been performing Shakespeare, conducting lab experiments, hiking down to Picchio to learn about bears, practicing leadership through service, distinguishing themselves in the too many clubs they have joined, writing strange poems about scientific topics, and wondering if Economics would be a good course to take next year. They have been good and they have sometimes gotten into trouble. Many are under the strange delusion that the following two years will be just as easy as the first.
Act II: The Confrontation (this act spans 2 years)
Several Scenes. INT. INTERNATIONAL HIGH SCHOOL IN JAPAN. DAY/NIGHT
A mood of hopeful excitement pervades the now familiar campus as our returning students are finally all back on campus for another year. Crosscut between several shots of students chatting online with a new batch of grade 11s from all over the world awaiting visas to enter Japan. Our principal characters build relationships with these colleagues in advisory calls, virtual classrooms, and video chats. The feeling of anticipation is palpable. Meanwhile, our protagonists, as they emerge from the first of many quarantines, have been confronted with the realization that the IB is HARD and HL Math was perhaps not the right choice. The basic study habits developed a year earlier are now hopelessly inadequate given the Herculean task of juggling six IB subjects, social service projects, clubs, and an extended essay. They chug energy drinks, they pull all-nighters, and they have a greater tendency to sleep through alarms. After yet another quarantine, they begin to feel they spend more time in class online than in person – and they are right. One of the things that keep them going is the promise of their long-awaited new classmates due in… October? November? Perhaps by the end of the semester?
Note: half of the Class of 2023 transferred to other schools due to the pandemic-related restrictions at Japanese borders. Most of them went to UWC Thailand (on this picture) and graduated on May 28, 2023.
The plot twist here is that these new characters, just as shining and eager to learn, who have only been viewed through tiny windows on screens, who promise new scenes of drama, romance, and comedy, will tragically never arrive but take on new roles at other schools.
The next scene involves students coming in and out of quarantines, tired of eating meals from bentos, ordering needless items on Amazon in an effort to heal themselves through retail therapy. This is the part of the story cycle Joseph Campbell might call “the abyss.” Our heroes have been confronted with a world that has too quickly changed and has driven them into treacherous territory in which they have many obstacles to overcome. But do you know what? They persevere. They adapt, they learn. Another year ends and the biggest personal challenges await them even as the threat of pandemic eases.
In the last scenes of ACT II, our cast of characters, who now number 39 enter their last year at the international school nestled in the foothills of the sleepy volcano. They are tired, like marathon runners, no, more like triathletes, pushing toward the finish line. They are older, wiser, a bit bruised, but authentically themselves and in some cases better versions of themselves.
We flash forward to a bright, mostly sunny day where we find our protagonists sitting, capped and gowned. The camera pans across beaming faces, strangely looking like none of the challenges they experienced actually ever happened. The same wide-eyed enthusiasm captured in the opening shots of the film can be seen once again, but this time there is a difference. There is a resolve to take everything their education and life experience has given them and to boldly move forward.
ACT III – Main characters and directors
But this is not the resolution to the film – this is just the end of ACT II. And as you may have guessed, this is not really the idea for one film but actually for 39 films. And my poor attempts to encapsulate the complexity, the nuance of each protagonist’s story falls far short of the real-life journeys upon which my idea is based. In reality, graduates, your lives, your actions, your motivations that have brought you to this place today are compelling tales of hope and the fulfillment of dreams.
Dear class of 2023, your challenges, your victories and yes, even your defeats have helped shape you into the individuals we honor here today. As you embark upon your ACT III, and we bid you farewell, know that you are not just the characters of your 39 individual films, you are the directors as well. The choices you make as you chart your course will determine the resolution of each story. But you will also learn that your film is part of a pretty remarkable multiverse of films. Your plot lines will intersect with others, and there will be more stories to tell that have everything to do with the remarkable people you are. Now this resolution will not be easy and although there will be a lot of joyful moments, there will also be many times when you will become downhearted and will want to give up in defeat. You may even come to a place where you question what the point of everything is. And if you do, I want you to keep this in mind: the point, as poet Walt Whitman reminds us, is that “you are here—that life exists and identity, That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.” Class of 2023, I challenge you to use what you have learned here at UWC ISAK Japan to contribute to life’s powerful play (or in the case of my metaphor film). I can assure you that everyone here today cannot wait to see the amazing things that you will bring to a world that so very much needs you. So grab your popcorn everyone – here comes ACT III.