Among the estimated 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry who were forcibly relocated during World War II, stories abound of the men, women and children whose lives were interrupted, broken and rebuilt in countless ways.
Offered midway through the Films of Remembrance program, “Hidden Histories” presents three poetic narrative shorts that each depict a different phase of the concentration camp experience.
“Hidden Histories” is a touring collection of films curated by Eugene Sun Park and Jason Matsumoto of Full Spectrum Films based in Chicago, Ill. The series premiered last fall, with the intent to immediately address current-day events.
“Given the current political climate and rhetoric and what’s happened with the immigration ban, things like xenophobia and racism are becoming very front and center,” said Matsumoto, who is also co-producer of the first film in the program, “The Orange Story” (2016, 18 min.).
“There’s a story, and a model and lessons we can learn, and (these films) have never been more relevant than right now for people in the Muslim community who are specifically being targeted for where they come from and what they believe in,” Matsumoto said.
“The Orange Story,” filmed in Chicago by Erika Street Hopman, covers the countdown to the mass incarceration as told from the perspective of a Japanese shopkeeper. Protagonist Koji Oshima, played by first-time actor Joe Takehara, walks the viewer through the emotions of leaving what he has built behind and embarking on an unknown life.
“We’re trying to express how difficult that situation is and humanize the moment where you’re looking at your stuff and deciding what to take with you. Where you’re looking at your shop and deciding how much it’s worth,” Matsumoto said. “There are a lot of really important lessons in the moment of evacuation.”
The second film in the program, “A Song for Manzanar” (2015, 18 min.) was produced by Kazuko Golden of Los Angeles.
The film focuses on the feelings of separation and detachment from the outside world during a woman’s incarceration at Manzanar War Relocation Center in California — including from family in Japan.
The main character, Sachie, played by Emmie Nagata, desperately tries to communicate with her sister, who resides in Hiroshima, Japan.
Golden, who currently works at Lionsgate Studios in Los Angeles, found inspiration for the film in her own family. The film was completed as a thesis project for her MFA in film production at Columbia College, and is based off of a novel-in-progress by her mother, Yoshimi Golden. Yoshimi was born in Manzanar and is the eldest of 11 children. Her novel is “derived from a lot of conversations that my grandmother had exclusively with her about their experience in Manzanar,” Golden said.
“For my grandmother, she never had the voice to share her story, but I think she wanted to in some way, and I am now breaking that silence,” Golden said. “Part of the silence of not telling her story was part of the trauma, and in order to break down that trauma and say it’s not OK is by sharing that story and letting people know it actually happened.”
The final film, “Tadaima” (2015, 15 min.), rounds out the series with a visually stunning portrait of a family returning home from the incarceration in 1945. “Tadaima,” a Japanese expression meaning “I’m home,” pays homage to the thousands who were confronted with the wreckage of their past lives. Shot on location in Santa Cruz, Calif., the film was written, directed and produced by Robin D’Oench.
D’Oench is the grandson of the late University of California, Berkeley criminology professor Paul Takagi, who was incarcerated at Manzanar, and served in the Military Intelligence Service. Takagi was also known for his civil rights activism, with friends like Richard Aoki of the Black Panther Party. D’Oench’s aunt, Dana Takagi, recently retired as a sociology professor at UC Santa Cruz.
“When I started conceiving (“Tadaima”), it was 2008-09 and a lot of kids were coming home from the Middle East to a less than perfect home,” D’Oench said. “It sort of struck me that as filmmakers and audiences, we spend so much time watching war films from the lens of the actual event itself, and I think the aftermath or fallout of such a traumatic event — that’s where the pain comes through. You have this small victory of coming home and getting out, but then what?”
“Tadaima” does offer a “glimmer of hope.” Without it, D’Oench said, his film would be a disservice to his grandfather and the life he was able to rebuild after the camps.
Matsumoto, co-curator of Hidden Histories, hopes that the films will provide valuable lessons for more future audiences. They are working on an educational Website and organizing screenings across the country. “Commemoration can become activism in a very real way,” said Matsumoto.
Hidden Histories will screen at Films of Remembrance, 2:15 p.m., Feb. 25 at New People Cinema. All three filmmakers will be present for a discussion.