‘Films of Remembrance’ explores layers of WWII Nikkei experience


A HERO’S WELCOME — Roy Matsumoto, 100, receives a standing ovation after the screening of “Honor & Sacrifice: The Roy Matsumoto Story.” Carole Hayashino (R) discusses “The Untold Story.” photo by William Lee

With a fresh call to renew dedication to civil rights through the Bay Area Day of Remembrance a day earlier, a series of films screened at the New People Cinema in San Francisco’s Japantown on Feb. 23. “Films of Remembrance,” presented by the Nichi Bei Foundation, showed six films focused on the experience of the forced incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Close to 500 people attended throughout the day, according to Kenji G. Taguma, president of the Nichi Bei Foundation, a “tremendous growth” from the several dozen who participated in the first iteration of the film series in the Union Bank Community Room in 2012.

Taguma said the film screenings served as a compliment to the annual Day of Remembrance program to offer a “deeper context on the various subjects related to the wartime deprivation of civil rights.”

The film series also gave filmmakers a venue to showcase their work. “We thought that filmmakers spent a lot of time and energy making films, but didn’t necessarily have a forum to screen them. Thus, we’re proud of our efforts in helping to empower filmmakers,” Taguma said.

The films shown were “Searchlight Serenade: Big Band Music in the WWII Japanese American Incarceration Camps” by Claire Reynolds, Sam Greene with Amy Uyeki for KEET-TV; “Honor & Sacrifice: The Roy Matsumoto Story” by Don Sellers and Lucy Ostrander with Karen Matsumoto; “Hiro: A Japanese American Internment Story” by Keiko Wright; “Searchlight Serenade,” an animation by Amy Uyeki; “Tule Lake,” an animation by Michelle Ikemoto; and “The Untold Story: Internment of Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i,” produced by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i.

“Searchlight Serenade: Big Band Music in the WWII Japanese American Incarceration Camps” focused on the accounts of Japanese American musicians and their efforts to bring some sense of normalcy during the war. Uyeki, the animator for the film, was present at the screening. Following the film, Anthony Brown, a noted jazz musician and one of the film’s advisors, moderated the discussion with Uyeki, along with former inmates and musicians Yone Fukui and Roy Hatamiya.

Brown called the film a “landmark work” for teaching that provided an important opportunity to let Japanese American musicians tell their own stories on the screen.

“This particular chapter was inspired by George Yoshida’s book,” said Uyeki. Yoshida, one the subjects interviewed in the film, wrote “Reminiscing in Swingtime: Japanese Americans in American Popular Music, 1925-1960,” which detailed the music played in camps. “It really made life bearable in the camps,” she said. The conversation following the film included several former musicians from the camps including Ron Yoshida, Fukui and Hatamiya.

A HERO’S WELCOME — Roy Matsumoto, 100, receives a standing ovation after the screening of “Honor & Sacrifice: The Roy Matsumoto Story.” Carole Hayashino (R) discusses “The Untold Story.” photo by William Lee
A HERO’S WELCOME — Roy Matsumoto, 100, receives a standing ovation after the screening of “Honor & Sacrifice: The Roy Matsumoto Story.” photo by William Lee

For the second film in the series, “Honor & Sacrifice” followed the wartime experience of Roy Matsumoto, one of 14 Japanese American Military Intelligence Service members serving with Merrill’s Marauders. The film illustrates how Matsumoto’s knowledge of Japanese dialects helped turn the tables on an enemy ambush that would have been devastating for his unit deep behind enemy lines in Burma.

The 100-year-old Matsumoto was present at the film screening along with the film’s producers Ostrander, Sellers and Karen Matsumoto.

San Francisco State University ethnic studies Professor Ben Kobashigawa moderated the post-film conversation. Ostrander and Sellers met Matsumoto during their work with interviewing Bainbridge Island Nikkei, and the filmmakers were inspired by Matsumoto’s father’s story. Karen Matsumoto herself didn’t learn about her father’s story until college when a professor asked if she was possibly related to the “Matsumoto” in a book about Merrill’s Marauders.

The first 17-minute film the three made in 2009 focused on Roy Matsumoto, but they were not satisfied. “Our initial interview … was somewhat of a grind,” Sellers said. “At first he just didn’t want to talk about it.”

Following the initial film’s release, Karen Matsumoto found more than 10,000 photos her grandfather took as a photographer in the U.S. and then Japan at her relative’s house near Hiroshima, Japan. “As soon as Lucy and Don saw them, it really changed the direction of the film,” she said. The new photos and the additional history about Roy Matsumoto’s family drove the filmmakers to create a new film with the help of a Kickstarter campaign.

The third block of films, entitled “Story Art of Camp,” was a series of short films focusing on the wartime incarceration. Wright’s Student Academy Award-winning “Hiro” followed the filmmaker’s inquiry into her grandfather’s past incarceration at Heart Mountain, Wyo. Following that, “Searchlight Serenade” showed Uyeki’s animated portions from the longer documentary to tell the story of music in the camps. Finally, “Tule Lake” focused on the true story of filmmaker Ikemoto’s grandmother, and her memories of one winter night.
Uyeki and Ikemoto took part in a discussion moderated by documentary filmmaker Yuriko Gamo Romer following the screenings.

The final showing of the day was “The Untold Story,” a documentary on the plight of several Nikkei incarcerated during the war in Hawai‘i. Directed by Ryan Kawamoto, the film showed how, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawai‘i was placed under martial law and the government detained hundreds of Japanese American community leaders including Buddhist priests, Japanese language teachers and newspaper editors since the military could not detain and incarcerate the majority of the island’s workforce.

The film detailed their treatment and the existence of 13 different confinement sites on the islands where more than 2,000 men and women were detained. Wesley Ueunten, professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, moderated the post-film conversation with Carole Hayashino, the JCCH’s president and executive director.

“For my whole life, I never heard this story,” Ueunten, who is from Hawai‘i, said. “It’s filling a lot of pieces of the puzzle in my life.”

Much of the wartime camps in Hawai‘i were overtaken by jungle, according to the film, and the exact location for sites such as Honouliuli were unknown until recently. Hayashino said it was “baffling” that the story had remained relatively unknown.

“We first started with about 1,800 names,” she said. “In about a year and-a- half, it’s now grown to 2,300. We took this film around Hawai‘i, and every screening another family said they’re not on the list.” Another family at the film screening said they too are likely not on the list.

Due to the lack of records on the wartime experience of Japanese Americans arrested by the U.S. military during World War II, Hayashino said the documentary had to make use of re-enactments in the film. “There aren’t many historical documents. Here you have photos of Manzanar, you have home movies in camp. There’s none of that in Hawai‘i. What we have is a lot of stories, and that’s what we focused on.”

The third annual Films of Remembrance has come a long way from its inception, and Taguma attributes the growth of the film series to several factors including dedicated staffing for the event, collaborations with other community organizations, the use of New People Cinema as the venue, and the establishment of the Wayne Maeda Educational Fund, named after the late-founding board member for the Nichi Bei Foundation, which helped to fund the additional costs.

“The turnout and feedback for this year’s ‘Films of Remembrance’ has been tremendous, and we’re proud and excited to offer this as a centerpiece of our growing educational programming,” he said.

The Films of Remembrance, presented by the Nichi Bei Foundation, was co-sponsored by the National Japanese American Historical Society, the San Francisco chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, the Bay Area Day of Remembrance Consortium and the Nichi Bei Weekly.

One response to “‘Films of Remembrance’ explores layers of WWII Nikkei experience”

  1. Gene Oishi Avatar
    Gene Oishi

    I purchased 2 tickets on line for the 10 a.m. films but only received a confirmation letter, and not tickets. Is the letter my tickets?

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