The Sisters Ishibashi celebrate being a Japanese American showbiz family
Brittany, Brooke and Brianna Ishibashi are all in showbiz. And so is pretty much their whole family, tracing back to their grandmother, the Songbird of Manzanar . 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.
Now, they’re producing a series of vignettes based on their experiences. There, Brittany Ishibashi, who also stars 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. Read the whole interview on Medium.
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.
This is something that’s different from a lot of people’s lifestyles, not just Asian Americans. Did you ever feel a disconnect growing up?
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?”
Does that factor into the Sisters Ishibashi? Is there a grappling of that identity?
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.
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.