Toyo Miyatake’s life, art and incarceration — through pictures

A FENCE AWAY FROM FREEDOM — Toyo Miyatake was responsible for producing some of the most iconic photography of the World War II Nikkei experience, such as this shot of young boys behind barbed wire. courtesy of United Television Broadcasting Systems

Toyo Miyatake was the preeminent commercial photographer for Nikkei in the Los Angeles area for much of the 20th century. He was the go-to guy for weddings, funerals and portraits and he served as the official photographer for community events like Nisei Week, but he was also an artistic photographer whose work was exhibited internationally and who drew praise from the likes of Ansel Adams. One could argue that Miyatake was unfairly constrained to community commercial photography; however, he clearly faced the biggest challenge to his artistry during the World War II mass incarceration of Japanese Americans. Miyatake was incarcerated with his family in Manzanar, Calif., where he was not allowed to possess a camera or take any pictures. “Toyo’s Camera: Japanese Americans During World War II,” a documentary by Japanese filmmaker Junichi Suzuki, tells the story of Miyatake’s life — his childhood, the start of his career as a photographer and the clever ways he was able to circumvent the law to continue his craft in camp and take what would become his most famous photos.

The film is strongest when it focuses tightly on Miyatake. Since Miyatake passed away in 1979, he does not get to speak for himself, but through interviews with family members, acquaintances and those inspired by his work, we get a sense of who he was and what his art meant. Also, much of the story is told in photos. In this way, “Toyo’s Camera” often turns into a slideshow, but a rather exceptional slideshow, featuring Miyatake’s world class photos as well as those by his friends Adams, Edward Weston and fellow concentration camp photographer Dorothea Lange. The opportunity to view these photos on a big screen alone is worth the price of admission.

As the title implies, though, the film’s focus is not limited to Miyatake, but instead takes on the entire Nikkei WWII experience. It covers the camps, the 442nd, the “No-No Boy” issue, constitutional challenges to the incarceration and includes interviews with Nisei veterans, local filmmakers Steven Okazaki and Chizu Omori, and even George Takei. There is a lot of good in this section of the film and a lot of necessary background information for the uninitiated. However, taking all this on makes the film feel unwieldy and disjointed. Additionally, the access to some interview subjects and music by new age musician Kitaro (who provides the film’s soundtrack) feels a bit misused.

If “Toyo’s Camera” limited itself to Miyatake’s experience, used Kitaro’s music a bit more judiciously and had George Takei do a few bits of narration, it could have been a great short film. Instead, it is a thoughtful and thought-provoking, (if somewhat meandering) conversation about Nikkei and World War II, which contains within it a fascinating portrait of an important Japanese American artist.

Suzuki’s most recent film is “442: Live with Honor, Die with Dignity,” a documentary about the 442 Regimental Combat Team. He has directed several narrative films of different genres in both the United States and Japan.

As part of the second presentation of their Bay Area Filmmakers Series, VIZ Cinemas is presenting two of Suzuki’s documentaries, “Toyo’s Camera” and “442,” telling the stories of Japanese Americans during World War II. They screen daily from Aug. 13-19. “Toyo’s Camera” will be shown at 12:50 and 5 p.m. “442” will be shown at 2:50 p.m. and 5 p.m. For tickets and additional information, visit www.newpeopleworld.com/films.

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