INJUSTICE ON THE SILVER SCREEN: Films of Remembrance sheds light on WWII history


The Nichi Bei Foundation held its fourth annual Films of Remembrance Feb. 21 at the New People Cinema in San Francisco’s Japantown. The program featured the latest in films focusing on the Japanese American wartime experience and preceded the Bay Area Day of Remembrance, which took place the next day. Some 600 people attended the event, which screened five films.

“Films of Remembrance was designed to provide a venue for the public to learn more about the Japanese American concentration camp experience and the deprivation of civil liberties, while also trying to help empower filmmakers who spend a tremendous amount of time and money helping to bring these stories out to a broader audience,” said Kenji G. Taguma, Nichi Bei Foundation president and executive producer of Films of Remembrance. “We were pleased that for the first time in four years, all filmmakers were represented at Films of Remembrance, with Chris Hope attending from Toronto, Canada, Dana Hankins from Oregon, and David Ono and Chris Tashima from Los Angeles.”

This year’s program, which was more than three hours longer than last year, included a full-length feature film (“Under the Blood Red Sun” by Tim Savage) and the first film on the Japanese Canadian experience (“Hatsumi: One Grandmother’s Journey Through the Japanese Canadian Internment” by Hope) in the event’s history. Also shown was Shirley Muramoto’s “Hidden Legacy: Japanese Traditional Performing Arts in the World War II Internment Camps,” Mary McDonald and Thomas McDonald Mazawa’s “Nisei Stories of Wartime Japan” and Ono and Jeff MacIntyre’s “The Legacy of Heart Mountain.”

The event concluded with a filmmaker reception, featuring entertainment by Muramoto and her son, Brian Mitsuhiro Wong, on koto and the University of California, Berkeley Nikkei Choral Ensemble alumni a capella group MEaN.

“All of our films this year added new and important pieces to the Japanese American mosaic,” Taguma said. “Hidden Legacy” features how traditional Japanese culture and arts thrived within the concentration camps while “Nisei Stories” provides, what discussion moderator Tim Yamamura called, “a new area of JA research” of Japanese Americans spending their war years in Japan. “The Legacy of Heart Mountain” covers a diverse collection of wartime incarceration experiences through the focal point of the Heart Mountain, Wyo. concentration camp and “Under the Blood Red Sun” is a feature-length film based on the young adult novel by Graham Salisbury depicting Hawai‘i’s wartime experience. The last film, “Hatsumi,” shed light on the Japanese Canadian incarceration experience.

Following the “Hidden Legacy” screening, jazz musician and composer Mark Izu discussed the film with Muramoto, who said she first set out to make the film after learning her mother practiced the koto in camp.

“When culture and art become illegal or very frowned upon, it becomes an art of resistance,” Izu said.

“Nisei Stories” director McDonald said one of the greatest rewards of making the film was meeting all of the interview subjects to get their story. She recalled Taz Iwata, one of the Nisei interviewed, who told her “nobody knows about us.” Peter Sano, featured in the film and the author of “1,000 Days in Siberia: The Odyssey of a Japanese American POW,” spoke about his experience as a POW in Siberia.

During the discussion moderated by KTVU Fox 2 News reporter Jana Katsuyama, Ono, an anchor at ABC7 Eyewitness News in Los Angeles, talked about making his film on Heart Mountain, which is told in part through a collection of more than 2,000 photos taken and developed by father and son, George and Frank Hirahara, from a secret darkroom under their barrack (the collection was also utilized in “Hidden Legacy”).

Ono said he was embarrassed about not knowing about the Japanese American experience until he came to California 23 years ago. His mother, who was from Japan, and his father, a Swedish American in the Army, raised him in Texas since he was 1 year old. “I didn’t know about internment. My high school education in Texas did not have one sentence about internment and I was a World War II buff,” he said. Similarly, he said those children of former inmates he interviewed also said their parents seldom spoke about their experience of wartime incarceration.

“Under the Blood Red Sun” screened to an almost sold out theater. San Francisco State University Asian American Studies Professor Wesley Ueunten moderated the discussion with producer Dana Hankins and actor Chris Tashima, who won an Academy Award for directing the short film “Visas and Virtue.” Ueunten said the film allowed him to learn “about that part of history my parents never really talked about,” following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Hankins said the film had been a 10- to 12-year journey working with Salisbury. Tashima, who played the role of “Papa,” said he first heard about the project online and asked about the role on Facebook. Hankins and Tashima discussed what it took to realize the film, including changes from the novel, which was part of a trilogy.

“There is so much amazing history that’s just starting to get told,” Tashima said of wartime martial law on Hawai‘i — how it split families apart as Issei were taken away and were not allowed to reunite with their families for years, some until after the war.

The final film, “Hatsumi,” is Hope’s 12-year journey of learning about his grandmother’s experience in Canada’s concentration camps. Hope began shooting the film in October of 2001, frustrated by the lack of attention to the Japanese Canadian wartime incarceration experience. In a discussion moderated by filmmaker Wendy Hanamura, Hope spoke about the process of funding and creating the film and its changing focus over its lifetime.

“The point was, that ‘shikataganai’ is not actually a bad thing, which is the antithesis of what I started the film to tell,” he said. “It’s like the best coping strategy they ever had.”

Overall, the filmmakers reaffirmed the value of these interviews, but also mentioned the quickly disappearing Nisei. Ono stressed the importance of recording stories while they can still be told. Hope’s grandmother passed away a year after the premiere of the film and several of Muramoto’s subjects also passed away since. Mazawa also agreed, saying many of their subjects were “ready” to tell their stories.

Ono said his film could be tied to racial prejudice today faced by Muslims and people of Arabic descent in post-9/11 America.

“The opportunity to meet the filmmakers and hear the back story of the trials and tribulations of filmmaking offers a unique opportunity for the community and hopefully encourages more support for the filmmakers who brave a new path for the Nikkei narrative to be told,” said program coordinator Jill Shiraki. “We look forward to more opportunities to bring the community together to support and showcase more films on the Nikkei experience.”

Attendees were also impressed by the educational experience and cited the importance of recording history before it is gone.

Barry Duell, a visiting scholar from Japan, said he did not know much about the wartime experience and bought all the DVDs after watching “The Legacy of Heart Mountain.” “I want to see what I had been missing and to show my family and people in Japan,” he said.

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