The Sisters Ishibashi celebrate being a Japanese American showbiz family
This story was originally published in the July 26, 2018 issue of the Slant, a weekly Asian American newsletter. Want more stories like this e-mailed to you every Friday? Subscribe for free.
Brittany, Brooke and Brianna Ishibashi are all in showbiz. That’s not totally uncommon for siblings — I mean, how many Baldwins are there again? But the Ishibashis have a whole family lineage of showbiz, tracing back to their grandmother, the Songbird of Manzanar — Mary Kageyama Nomura. The daughters and granddaughters of singers and music producers, the Ishibashi sisters grew up backstage, hanging out with Ray Charles, Michael McDonald and No Doubt. And it was a while before they realized this wasn’t exactly your average upbringing.
“It’s just something we took for granted,” Brooke Ishibashi told me over Skype. “So we kept getting feedback from friends and family, industry people, who would say ‘you have a very … abnormal upbringing.’”
Which is why the Ishibashi sisters are now producing a series of vignettes based on their experiences growing up as a Japanese American Osmonds Family: The Sisters Ishibashi. There, Brittany Ishibashi, who also stars as villainess Tina Minoru in Marvel’s Runaways, is on a mission to get the band back together after a traumatic event breaks up the sisters Ishibashi. And knowing the real-life Ishibashis, what follows can only be a wild ride.
We spoke on Skype about everything from the three-act musicals the sisters produced as kids to how Hollywood’s changed for Asian Americans since they started working.
Can you tell me what your show, The Sisters Ishibashi, is about?
Brittany Ishibashi: The Sisters Ishibashi follows three sisters from an Asian American showbiz family constantly flipping between utter codependency and defiantly establishing their individual identities. We started this project because people were always amazed at how close we were. Unnaturally close. Not just the three sisters, but mom and dad too. We were all very involved in each other’s lives. And on top of that we had all these incredible showbiz stories, growing up backstage with Rock & Roll Hall of Famers —
Brianna Ishibashi: We thought it was normal because, well, that’s all we knew. To us, that was the same as having parents who were lawyers or teachers. Not out of the ordinary at all.
Brooke Ishibashi: But the lineage of our family being performers went back so far, you know, with our grandma being the Songbird of Manzanar during her internment there — that’s mom’s mom — and it has always been a part of our lives and it’s just something we took for granted. So we kept getting feedback from friends and family, industry people, who would say, “you have a very … abnormal upbringing — ”
Brianna: [laughs] But in a good way —
Brittany: And they would see it, and be like —
Brooke: You’re a Japanese American show business family.
Brittany: It’s not traditional at all; we basically grew up as a Japanese American Osmond Family.
Brooke: Yeah, Osmond, Partridge.
Brittany: In Orange County. And so we started compiling all these stories — that was the very first part. Like, “Remember that time Dennis Rodman crashed backstage and got pushed against the wall?”
Brooke: Yeah, dad was producing a concert fest in Newport Beach and Dennis Rodman and his entourage crashed backstage and they were all —
Brooke: Uninvited, and they were being bullies and super disrespectful. So Dad, since he was producing the whole festival, went backstage —
Brianna: They were blocking the walkway to the stage, so dad was trying to make a path for the artists.
Brooke: And he confronted Dennis, and Dennis wouldn’t budge, so he — it ended up in —
Brittany: It was like a Bruce Lee moment.
Brooke: It ended up in him pushing Dennis up against a fence. And dad’s like, 5’10”. And Dennis Rodman’s like 6’4”. I don’t know.
Brooke: Isn’t he? I guess it doesn’t matter. So anyway, Dad gives him this intense look and says, “against the fence.” As he pushes him up against the fence.
Brianna: Which is such a ridiculously dramatic scenario.
Brooke: And the rest of his entourage silently melted away to let the artists onstage. And after that he always said, “Dennis Rodman, his chi — ” What’d he say?
Brittany: His mana.
Brooke: Yeah. “His mana — not strong. Not strong. I could feel it.” And dad also has this way of speaking that he’s learned over the years?
Brittany: Yeah, like where he grew up.
Brooke: And he adopted a “hosting” persona, because he did public speaking and motivational speaking.
Brittany: And was also a rock and roll guy.
Brooke: He’s known as the Asian Tom Jones in our circle. Or Asian Elvis. Asian Elvis, Asian Tom Jones.
Brittany: But. We’re wildly off topic.
Yeah, so you had this incredible upbringing that I spoke to Brooke a little bit before. So how does that turn into a show?
Brittany: The show has had many incarnations. At first we focused on our relationship as young girls versus who we are today in our lives. And the more we thought it out, the more we were getting feedback like: “We need to actually see you guys in this showbiz world.”
That’s what makes the story so unique. We’re a Japanese American family growing up in Orange County who just happen to all be musicians. And singing and dancing all the time.
So the latest incarnation, which we’re really into, involves my character in present day, trying to get the band back together. And rallying our family —
Brianna: Who are all over the place.
Brittany: Who’ve all gone our separate ways, thanks to an event —
Brianna: A traumatic event when we were kids that broke the band up.
Brittany: And at this point in my character’s life, I’m ready to get the band back together. And the story is following the Sisters Ishibashi, and our parents, and our husbands and children as we try to reconcile what it is to be performers and a family.
Brooke: It’s more about identity now. It’s about who we were in our childhood and how that informs who we became as adults. It has to do with our roots, where we come from, who we are.
Brittany: And our family obligations and our family dynamics. It really all comes back to family.
But it’s not autobiographical?
Brittany: [pause] It’s rooted in our —
Brooke: Like seventy-five percent?
Brianna: Uh — give or take.
Brittany: We take a few artistic liberties.
Brianna: Some of the wackier stories that seem off-the-wall are the true ones. [laughs]
Brittany: Yeah, the stuff that grounds it is the stuff that we fabricated. [laughs]
Brianna: But you never really know. It sort of blends together.
What’s one of those really far-fetched stories?
Brooke: The Dennis Rodman Bruce Lee story.
Oh, so that’s in the show.
Brittany: That’s totally in the show. Though I don’t know if we can get Dennis Rodman.
“Do you remember when this happened, Dennis? Can you relive it for us?”
Brittany: “I’ve blocked it out. It was too traumatic.”
What makes working on this show as a family different from any other show you do?
Brittany: We have a shorthand. We have this — even though we’re not triplets, we have this — groupthink.
Brianna: We’re really good at charades.
Brittany: Our opponents will lose. I mean, we’re one mind, one voice. The sister shorthand is helpful, and it’s fun. We’re working with our best friends.
Brianna: We hang out with each other a lot anyway, so it’s kind of like doing work but —
Brittany: We’ve always worked really well together. As kids, we would produce shows for the neighborhood or stage fashion shows in the backyard.
Brooke: We would write, produce, star and choreograph three-act musicals.
Brittany: We had a really amazing show called “Merla, the Mermaid”.
Brianna: Yes! It was in a pool!
Brittany: It was basically a Busby Berkeley water ballet.
Brianna: We gathered all our cousins, we directed them, we wrote the music, we did water choreography.
This is something you wrote yourself?
Brittany: [mock indignant] Yeah! It was an original masterpiece!
I’m just — [laughs] I’m sorry, I just needed to make sure.
Brooke: I think we were just so used to creating together, from an early age, just for fun. That’s what we would do in our spare time. We would write things, we would star in them, we would film different projects.
Brittany: We were just experimenting with our old VHS camera. We did this avante-garde stop motion fashion shoot with giant box fans where it was just us falling dramatically.
Brianna: To a Madonna song, if I remember correctly.
Brittany: We did a radio show at one point, complete with commercial breaks. It was just something that was natural to us, and made sense. The Sisters Ishibashi is just a natural evolution of all this.
Eventually we all went our separate ways. And that shows up in the show. I did a lot of film and television. Brianna and Brooke went to the East Coast. And now that everyone’s back here — it’s wonderful to collaborate again at this point in our lives.
Brooke: And the timing seemed right to work on a project that seemed cumulative. In a way, everything we’ve lived up to this point has fed into this project, and what this project is and can be.
Brittany: I don’t think we were quite ready for it before. We were all exploring our own artistic outlets and voices. We always worked well together, but I think the timing finally felt right.
Brianna: Yeah, like “Hey, we should probably do something with this now.”
Brooke: Yeah, and Brittany started her own production company. Which was, when?
Brittany: That was after Kai was born. I wanted to realize this need to have more artistic say. And to have more control. To be able to put content out there that I want to see, that I want to connect with.
And also just having a kid, becoming a mother — I needed to figure out what my voice was. I felt a little lost becoming a mother for the first time. I needed a creative outlet again and I needed to go back to family, my biggest support system.
Brooke: And for all of us, no matter what, it’s always about returning home. So it makes sense that that’s the seedling for this show and this passion project. People say “write what you know.” And this is what we know the best. So it felt very organic.
How have the rest of the family reacted to it?
Brooke: Knowing that Aziz Ansari’s parents played themselves in Master of None, our mom and dad saw that it could be done in a way that was fun and not awkward.
Brittany: And they’re natural storytellers as well. And bottom line — they just want to hang out and do things with their girls.
Brooke: They just need to be told what to do. Just put them in the space and let them be themselves in a natural setting.
Brianna: They’re performers too. That’s how they met.
Brooke: Even though they aren’t actors, the show business is in them too, inherently, so they’ve been — at first they were a bit reticent because they didn’t know what they were going to be, what parts of our real lives we were going to be using in the show. ‘cos you know, personal stuff is, it’s personal.
Brittany: But it’s heightened enough that it allows us to take a step back and have fun with it.
Did your family ever take issue with any of the stories, like “this didn’t happen like this”?
Brianna: Not really. Everyone has been a good sport about it. They understand we’re taking a lot of artistic liberties.
Brooke: Did you ever hear Bret and Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords talk about the fictional versions of themselves on the show? Basically, it’s who they are, but exaggerated — so Bret is just stupider and Jemaine is just crabbier?
Brittany: There’s a freedom in that.
Brooke: There’s a wonderful freedom in that. So that’s kind of what we’re doing — we’re amplifying these characteristics that we all have. Just exaggerating them.
This is something that’s really different, as you’ve mentioned, from a lot of people’s lifestyles, not just Asian Americans. You’re a Japanese American showbiz family. Did you ever feel a disconnect growing up as an atypical Asian American family?
Brianna: I don’t know that we ever realized that until we were older. Significantly older — like, adults. [laughs]
Brooke: That we were different from other families? Yeah, not really. We grew up in an area that seemed pretty diverse. I’d never really felt an abundance of my Asianness or a lack of my Asianness. So I don’t know, I think we were our own kind of —
Brittany: I feel I started to explore more of my Asianness and what it meant to be Asian American when I was an adult.
But I did have this moment when I was six; we were doing a project in class that was “make a book about yourself.” So you’d go and pick out buttons for your eyes, and yarn for your hair. So I picked up blue buttons and yellow yarn. So I guess that’s how I saw myself, because my friends were blonde and blue-eyed, and they were Kelly and Ashley and I was Brittany. So I didn’t question it. Because what you know is your environment, right?
I remember my friends saying, “What are you doing? You’re supposed to make YOU.” And I said, “I am making me.” And they were like, “Have you looked in a mirror?”
Oh my god.
Brittany: Metaphysical moment at six years old, where the world stopped spinning. Little Brittany was like, “Who am I?” And I remember as a child that was a very intense moment for me. I had to deliberate for a while.
Brooke: We had the influence of our Japanese culture through family get-togethers with food and traditions, but we didn’t grow up speaking Japanese. We’re fourth generation, Yonsei, and I think Japanese Americans have a different experience from other Asian Americans because of WWII, because of Internment. And we were perhaps made to assimilate in a way that other Asian Americans weren’t because we were seen as “the enemy.”
Brittany: And we kept hearing stories from that generation who said, “We wanted to prove that we were American.” And what is that? What does that look like? And how do we show that?
Brooke: So a lot of that generation had kids with American names and who practiced American customs. So even though we had an underbelly of Japanese culture, we were assimilated. We were raised in Orange County. We were Brittany, Brianna, and Brooke. And our parents are Gerald and Lisa. So it was kind of a balance.
Does that factor into the Sisters Ishibashi? Because I know your grandma is pretty much famous for being the Songbird of Manzanar. Does she show up, is there a grappling of the identity?
Brooke: She hasn’t made an appearance, but I think there’s room for it. She’s almost 93 and still singing, still super active, and lives on her own. So she would be the best guest star ever.
Brittany: I think exploring [Asian identity] is huge. Absolutely. There were a lot of Japanese influences [in our lives] too. We still lit incense at the little shrine in our grandma’s house.
Brooke: And learned to make traditional dishes — at least you guys did. [laughs]
Brittany: I think if the show is focusing on our adult lives, it has to have a lot to do with Asian identity or coming to terms with that. It’s a huge part of the story now, because Brianna and I are mothers now and it affects how you raise your children.
Brooke: Especially in this political climate.
Brittany: Right. I think that’s a huge factor in our storytelling now. And there’s also — for my character in the show, there’s a bit of backlash for her in not being Asian enough. This backlash from other Asians in the business or just the community, who are disappointed that my character isn’t representing the Asian experience. Or not as involved in the community as she should be. And that provides us a platform to explore what it means to be an American and Asian American.
Is that something you’ve faced as Asian American actresses?
Brooke: In waves. It comes and goes with the community and the experience. But I’ve definitely felt that. Because it goes both ways: being too Asian and not being Asian enough.
Brittany: You feel it in casting, absolutely. I remember when I first started in TV and film, I’d go to auditions, and they’d say “You’re not Asian enough.” And I’d always feel puzzled by what that meant. I remember asking, what are they looking for? I’m 100% Japanese. What would make me more Asian? That’s a big question.
And it’s whatever the cultural understanding of what it means to be Asian is at that time. Are we looking at the 80’s, like in Indiana Jones or The Goonies? That was something that I’d battled with because I didn’t like those characterizations, they were offensively exclusive, and it wasn’t who I was. It didn’t make sense for me.
Obviously that’s evolved, and it’s a lot different. But when I first started out, it was a big problem.
How has that changed? ‘cos now it’s 2018.
Brittany: Well, it did a 180 for a while. Like, “We’re gonna do colorblind casting! Everyone’s wonderful for this role!” And now we are in a time where there are specific roles for Japanese Americans. Stories and roles written specifically for people who have a specific story. There is a demand for authenticity, and I think that’s really important.
Because when we did the 180, and all of a sudden it was colorblind casting, it was like, “Okay, great, cool. Everyone has a shot.” But it also made everything — what do you call it? [waves arms in front, back and forth] This?
Brianna: [waves arms] This?
Brittany: It made everything this. [laughs] Murky. Safe. It didn’t offer as much [for] individual stories. It was a very safe way to start easing the industry into diversity. But also, at the same time, I remember testing for a show, and the producer called me specifically saying, “You are the creative team’s choice for this part. But we already have our ethnic for the show.”
And I said, “What does that mean?” And they said, the studio didn’t want — they’d already filled their “ethnic quota” for this cast. So it may have been colorblind casting —
Brooke: To a certain degree.
Brittany: To what they were comfortable with. But there is an active push for inclusion and diversity now. It’s been a wild ride.
There’s a huge difference between that tokenism, which you’re talking about, and Sisters Ishibashi. Who else is in the show besides your family?
Brooke: [laughs] There was a question about whether the husbands would play themselves or not, initially.
Brittany: Right. But I think the guest stars so far are some of our dynamic and colorful friends, who are basically family.
Brooke: And the last incarnation, the Brothers Riedell directed the piece for us and played the husbands.
Brittany: We want to have a great cast of supporting characters for sure, but we want to bring the focus back on the sisters. Because what makes the show so special is our bond. That’s where we’re at right now.
Where are we going to be able to see Sisters Ishibashi?
Brittany: We’re planning on releasing shorter vignettes of it. Just because it is evolving still, we’re playing with all the platforms that are available.
Brooke: We have a tendency to get super precious about perfecting it. And that manifests in a reluctance to put it out in the world. So at this point, we know we just need to do it and get the content out there.
Brianna: I think it lets us play more, too, right?
Brittany: It does free us up a lot. And because of the shorter format, we’ll be able to turn it out a lot quicker.
Brooke: It’ll be in the “near future.” [makes air quotes]
Brittany: It’s been hard to coordinate with my filming schedule.
Brooke & Brianna: And with three babies.
Brittany: Not all mine. [laughs]
Brooke: But we think this newest format will be the best option to get it out there and quickly.
Brittany: We just want to get the stories told.
I want to end this with a question from Isabel Yap, poet and author, who asks, “What’s something that’s made you happy recently?”
Brittany: I had to leave my family vacation early to film and my kids stayed in Hawaii with my husband. My four-year-old, the night he came back, he laid his little head on me, and said “I missed-ed you, mommy. Hug me extra long tonight.” And he just started to fall asleep patting my face. And I remember staring at him thinking, “I can’t believe this is gonna be over soon. One day you’ll stop asking me to cuddle with you.”
And I asked him, “Kai, can I do this forever? When you’re old and married and you visit your mommy and daddy? Can I still cuddle with you?” And he looked up and said, “Of course.” And I said “I’ll hold you to that!”
And now we have this interview, and we’ll have it in print.
I’ll send you the clip. [laughs]
Brittany: You’re on the record, Kai! Your mom will be allowed to cuddle with you forever!
Brianna: Mine is that my daughter is potty trained as of last week.
Brianna: The process wasn’t too bad, but it made me — [puts hand on heart] oh my gosh, it’s so nice not to constantly be changing diapers.
Is she proud?
Brianna: Super proud. She has a sticker chart and she gets prizes, so I think she’s really more excited by that. I don’t know how to transition her into not getting prizes later on, but for now I’m just basking in the success. Whatever works, right?
That’s going to be culture shock when she realizes she doesn’t get rewarded for pooping.
Brooke: I guess mine would be Fourth of July; we all live within a mile of each other. The neighborhood does this huge block party, with pie baking contests, and a lot of people. So we had a full family day with kids at the block party, eating hot dogs, and winning first prize at the pie baking contest. After that, we went to Britt’s house and just barbecued and hung out by the pool. Mom and dad and the hubbies and the babies.
Brittany: Our families hang out a lot. And I think that’s when we’re the happiest, when we’re all together. Making more stories to put in our show. [laughs]
Brooke: Just constantly searching for content.
Brittany: We’re constantly saying, “Write that down! Write that down!”
Brianna: And dad and mom and our husbands are like, “Are you writing that down? Are you putting that in the show?”
Brooke: We’re like, “Yeah, we are. You’re not safe. This is going in the show.”
Brittany, Brianna, and Brooke Ishibashi are three sisters who live within a mile of each other. You can find them on social media, except for Brianna, who is a self-described hermit person, at @BrittIshibashi and @brookeishibashi.