Halving the Bones

Director: Ruth Ozeki Lounsbury
Screenwriters: Ruth Ozeki Lounsbury

Institute History

  • 1996 Sundance Film Festival


In Halving the Bones, Japanese-American filmmaker Ruth Ozeki Lounsbury embraces the complex relationship between personal identity, family history, and ethnicity. When her grandmother dies in an old-age home in a Tokyo suburb, Ruth goes to Japan to attend the funeral. Since her mother is unable to attend, the relatives decide to halve the bones as a “nice gesture” toward her absent mother and present Ruth with her grandmother’s bones—stored in a plastic Tupperware container. Ruth returns to her home in New York, places the bones in a tea can, puts the tea can in her closet, and goes on with her life. Then she waits for her estranged mother to ask her about the bones.

Five years later, Ruth’s mother has still not asked about the bones, but their presence in Ruth’s apartment, and memories of her trip to Japan, have fueled a need to understand her maternal history. Halving the Bones follows Ruth as she begins a new relationship with her mother by offering her the bones of her mother, and explores and retells the histories of these two women. Because of their experiences as Japanese women living in America for all or part of their lives, Ruth observes that the three women share an inherent sense of alienation. As Ruth comments about her own experience, “In America, people think I’m Japanese. In Japan, they think I’m American. Wherever I go, I’m different.” In the experiences of grandmother and mother, both the tragic and humorous sides of this “confusion” emerge.

Unfolding in beautifully shot re-creations and Ruth’s lyrically written narration, the film‘s highly poetic approach perfectly complements its exploration of the way personal identity is shaped, articulated, and shared between mothers and daughters. Out of Ruth’s specific experience, Halving the Bones yields many universal truths: the way family and history can impact one’s self-perception and the power of shared history to soften generational divisions. Through this evocative portrait of herself, her mother, and her grandmother, the filmmaker stunningly witnesses the importance of remembering and saving fragments of family history that are too often “discarded and forgotten.”

— Lisanne Skyler

Screening Details


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