In 2017, Jessica Stuart was several months into teaching film director Daniel Roher how to play the guitar, when her past and present collided.
“We were having some very benign conversation after a guitar session, and I mentioned [being] a kid in Japan, and he was like, ‘Oh, you lived in Japan?’” explains Stuart from her home in Toronto. “He knew I played the koto [a traditional 13-string Japanese instrument] and spoke Japanese, but he thought I was a Japanophile.”
Roher asked if she was still in touch with anyone there? Stuart’s response was brief and weighted. “No,” she recalls responding. “I only had one good friend and we lost touch.”
In 1988, Stuart’s parents were working and living with their two daughters in Saku City, in Nagano Prefecture. Being the only Caucasian family in a town of approximately 6,000, they became stars of sorts, regularly chronicled in the local newspaper, and followed around by a videographer employed by the school. Much of the footage resides on half-a-dozen VH1 cassettes, as well as an educational video: English is Fun: Sing Along with the Stuarts. The songs were written by Stuarts’ ethno-musicologist mother, who also plays the koto and shamisen [a traditional three-string Japanese instrument].
Over the course of a year spent in Japan, Stuart formed a life-changing friendship with Fukue. Both were outsiders – Stuart would later learn that Fukue was impoverished and terribly bullied. Both girls were kind and creative, and they became inseparable. But a year after returning to Canada, Fukue’s letters, that once arrived regularly, stopped. The unexplained end of the friendship haunted Stuart for 30 years.
Once an adult – now a singer-songwriter/musician in the pop/jazz/experimental realm who fronts her own band, The Jessica Stuart Few – she needed answers. She returned to Japan in search of Fukue, even enlisting the help of powerful local friends in the community where they once lived. But the search was unsuccessful, inspiring the song “Lost Friend,” from her 2016 album, The Passage. Fast-forward 10 years, and Roher insisted on helping re-unite the long-lost friends, assuring Stuart that this time the outcome would be different. “I was like, “’Alright, man,’” says Stuart with a hearty laugh. “You want to take it on, I’ll support you.”
Filmed in the spring of 2018, this past winter the CBC documentary Finding Fukue debuted, taking viewers on a compelling 21-minute journey as Stuart searches for her childhood friend. It’s become a CBC Short Docs hit – viewed more than 2.5 million times on YouTube – creating deep interest in the pair, and Stuart’s music. Its closing track, “Fukue’s Theme Pt. 1,” has become a fan favourite, so much so that Stuart decided to release it on Bandcamp. Interestingly, its creation was as serendipitous as the documentary itself.
“We were shooting B-roll in Tokyo, and they wanted to do artistic shots of me playing the koto,” says Stuart. “I didn’t feel like pretending to play, so I wrote [all of the koto parts, song structure, and the framework for the vocal melody]. I almost completely composed the music during that session.”
The unconventional, chorus-free song, which recounts a vivid, recurring dream Fukue shared with Stuart, is an ode to friendship, and an example of Stuart’s belief that songs must move, rather than conform to a prescribed formula.
“I can write conventional music, and I do write conventional music, but I never limit myself to a structure,” she explains. “I’ve never written, ‘I’m missing this, I should fill that blank there.’ It’s more of a progression. Where does the music want to go? I understand that that means its not going to be a single, I get that. But there’s a mood about the song, and I think that was the most important thing, so I just rolled with it.”
Two months into the doc’s debut, Stuart and Fukue are pen pals once again, and also e-mail and facetime friends. Stuart forwards fan art to Fukue, now a visual artist. (The film won’t be broadcast in Japan, a promise Stuart made to the deeply private Fukue.) Stuart’s now returned to writing for other projects, including collaborating with Robyn Dell’Unto. But many are wondering whether there will be more forthcoming music inspired by the heartwarming friendship.
“There probably will be a part two, and maybe three,” says Stuart. “We need to see each other again before I write the next part.”