RABBIT RAMBLINGS: New works bring JA stories to light

bioline_Chizu OmoriI have spent the last few days immersed in “Perfidia,” a new novel by James Ellroy. Covering the days between Dec. 6 and Dec. 29 in 1941 in L.A., Ellroy uses the murders of a Japanese American family, the Watanabes, as the main thread in a story of a city preparing for war. In an appearance at the university bookstore in Seattle, Ellroy, who characterized the book as a historical romance, said that several years earlier his mind flashed to an image of an army truck loaded with Japanese Americans guarded by armed soldiers, weaving down a main drag in Los Angeles. He considers the eviction and incarceration of Japanese Americans as “the injustice at the heart” of his work, and is “the key L.A. event of World War II.” As this is the first of a planned quartet that he is working on, he did say that he thinks he may take the story into Manzanar, Calif. in the next parts.

His latest book is a filling out of his longtime preoccupation with the history of Los Angeles, and is a prequel to his famous L.A. Quartet, “The Black Dahlia,” “The Big Nowhere,” “L.A. Confidential” and “White Jazz.” I am not a fan of mysteries or “noir” stories, so I have not read any of his previous work, though I did see the movie, “LA Confidential,” based on his book.

Now, I will say up front that I can’t say that I find “Perfidia” a great read. According to this novel, the war was already in the works, plans had already been made to incarcerate all the JAs and a lot of people were circling around like vultures to grab their property and land. However, Ellroy claims that he hires researchers and carefully plots his novels using historical fact to anchor the action. So, that part is probably true. Now, I guess you can say that this book is not meant to be serious and the main criterion should be: Is it entertaining? Well, many would say that it is. The action is non-stop, it gets wilder and wilder, like involving a Japanese submarine in Baja. And if you tend to cynicism, you can say yeah, the L.A. police were corrupt beyond belief and isn’t it funny how they go about amusing themselves stealing, extorting, drugging, boozing, screwing around, framing innocents and killing almost randomly in their supposed work of “solving crimes.”

No one is clean, no one not totally motivated by self interest and even the supposed hero, a brilliant gay Japanese American chemist and forensic investigator named Hideo Ashida, is one shady character trying to save his job and his family from being shipped off to the camps. It is a bleak, dark and ultimately unbelievable world that claims to rest on realism, but for me, it is just too fantastic. I accept the fact that racism was part of the fabric of society at that time, and the casual use of racial expletives doesn’t bother me. But contaminating fields with shrimp oil with ground glass to ruin the land? And a murder of four Japanese Americans arranged to look like a ritual mass suicide by “hara kiri”? Come on, Ellroy, give me a break. I just don’t buy it.

Still, having a major American writer take up the incarceration as real and a worthy subject is unusual and I am willing to see just where Ellroy will take us in his next three novels. What will happen to Hideo Ashida? Who will actually profit from the uprooting of all those JAs? I obviously lack the imagination of an Ellroy, so I’ll  have to stay tuned to see what he comes up with. 

Then, there is the matter of a young man, Phinneas Kiyomura, an actor and writer, who is writing a pilot for a potential TV series to be called “Internment.” He says it will be stories of families caught up in the challenges of life in a camp, of the dynamics of life for the inmates. A reading of the pilot is scheduled to take place at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles Sunday, Feb. 8, and will be directed by actor Chris Tashima. This promises to be really interesting.

And I am reading about a new show to appear on TV this week, called “Fresh Off the Boat,” about an Asian American family new to the United States. Seems like there’s lots of activity on the artistic front.

Wonderful! I applaud all these projects.

Chizu Omori, of Oakland, is co-producer of the award-winning film “Rabbit in the Moon.” She can be reached at chizuomori@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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