World War II is the defining period of Japanese American history. There’s the concentration camps, the resisters, the no-no boys and, of course, the 442nd and 100th infantries. Anyone with an interest in Nikkei culture and history should be familiar with the story of the all-Japanese American combat units — they were so important to our history that there have been countless books, films and community events honoring them.
Junichi Suzuki, a Japanese veteran director, recently shifted the focus of his career by making two documentaries about the Japanese American experience of World War II. His latest, “442: Live With Honor, Die With Dignity,” brings a fresh perspective to the Nikkei soldier’s story in a documentary that takes both a broad look at what the unit meant to history and an intimate look at what the war meant to the soldiers who fought in it.
The film covers Japanese American life before the war, the mass incarceration of West Coast Nikkei, the formation of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, its combining with the Nikkei from Hawai‘i of the 100th Infantry Battalion, the battles in Europe and the legacy of soldiers’ unparalleled service. It tells the story through stock footage, interviews with historians and experts, as well as Nisei veterans themselves. Narration by Lane Nishikawa and interviews with Sen. Daniel K. Inouye and George Takei give the film a nice sheen.
“442” also brings an international perspective to this American story with some interesting tidbits about how the Nisei battalions were received by the Italians, the French and even the infamous General Hideki Tojo.
What really makes “442” stand out from other documentaries is the way it highlights the soldiers’ humanity. The Nisei veterans of World War II made an invaluable contribution to the country through their service, but they also had a singular impact on the status of Japanese Americans in this country. Due to the respect for their heroism and general respect for elders in Japanese American communities, the Nisei vets get perceived as almost mythic heroes, but as such they become more of an image or a concept instead of human beings. Right from the get-go, the film lets its priorities be known. It starts with a shot of a veteran golfing and shopping for produce, then shows us the war injury to his arm that makes even these basic activities difficult.
The film is best in these segments, which take the interview subjects out of the talking head format and give us a glimpse of their daily lives. Possibly because the director comes from a country which has a very different legacy of World War II, “442” confronts the ugliness inherent in any war in a way that few American-made World War II docs do. As in “Toyo’s Camera,” Suzuki’s other World War II documentary, Nisei vets candidly discuss the impact that killing people, losing friends and witnessing unthinkable violence had on their lives, bringing out their vulnerability in a shocking and heart-wrenching manner. When the film shows a man in his ‘80s making a couple of sandwiches and enjoying them with his wife, it’s clear that the soldiers were ordinary people and not superheroes. This treatment of the vets does not denigrate their legacy; it makes their accomplishments seem all the more incredible and their sacrifice much more immediate and visceral. When many of the vets make a point of saying they are not “heroes,” as they have taken human lives, it speaks to their compassion, thoughtfulness and humility.
If there is any shortcoming to the film, it’s the occasional overuse of dramatic music. The excellent interviews are already doing the heavy lifting so the music can be overkill.
“442: Live With Honor, Die With Dignity” is a wonderfully comprehensive documentary, but it doesn’t let its broad scope take away from its greatest strength, its intimate portrait of the human beings whose sacrifice changed the course of both Japanese American and world history.
For more information, visit: www.442film.com.