THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Cinematic 20th century Nikkei


bioline_Greg RobinsonIn recent times, diverse Japanese American directors have made their mark on the silver screen, including Cary Joji Fukunaga, Karyn Kusama, Gregg Araki, Lane Nishikawa, and Destin Daniel Cretton. While their productions have drawn from all sorts of material, some filmmakers have piloted Nikkei community stories. For example, Emiko Omori’s “Hot Summer Winds,” Desmond Nakano’s “American Pastime” and Chris Tashima’s “Day of Independence” represent some notable film and TV features about the Japanese American experience. Some might think that the presence of Japanese American filmmakers and their cinematic portraits of Japanese communities are rather a new thing. In fact, there are some interesting historical precedents in a set of films made in Southern California during the 1930s.

The first feature to depict the lives of the Nisei was the 1930 Japanese-language sound film “Chijiko wo mawasuru chikara” (literally, “The Force that Turns the Earth around its Axis,” but called in English variously “The Inevitable Urge,” “Eternal Passion” or “Tragedy of Life”), brought out by the Hollywood Nippon Talkie Co. According to one source, it was also put together by Japanese writer and scenarist Teruo Mayeda, who raised $20,000 for it. According to another, it was produced by the famous Chinese American artist and cinematographer James Wong Howe, who financed it partly through his own funds and partly with the aid of Japanese investors.

Howe co-directed it with Thomas Hayashi and served as director of photography. It was shot on location in Southern California, using amateur actors such as Ruth Washizu and Henry Okawa. Taruyo “Jack” Matsumoto portrayed an Issei father. The Nisei actors reportedly had problems with the Japanese-language dialogue. The film was screened in the Fox Brooklyn Theater in Los Angeles in June 1930, then transferred for further showings at the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo a few months later. In the end, the film failed to attract a large audience, either among Japanese Americans or in Japan (where audiences reportedly found the accents of the Nisei actors humorous).

While “Chijiko wo mawasuru chikara” attracted little interest among Nisei, it was succeeded in the next years by a trio of Nisei-produced silent films. The first of these was “Taichi ni Shitashimu” (“Love of the Soil”). Released in October 1934, it was the first (and likely the only) motion picture completed by a new production company, the Hollywood Japanese Picture Association. After being previewed at an event held in the Miyako Hotel, it was then screened at the Japanese Union Church in Little Tokyo. It seems to have had little or no exposure outside of Los Angeles, however. The story involved a Nisei from the countryside who goes to a big city, where he grows disillusioned and ultimately returns to his work on the soil. It was written by Jakuyo Matsumoto, with George Mitsuhata producing the titles. Yujin Takamatsu was the director and Buhachi Suzuki acted as cameraman. The cast was made up of local Nisei Eiji Takeshima, Miyako Numata, Miyeko Matsui, Kimiyo Morishima, Takeo Kikuchi, Kusuo Yanasc, Yukiko Miyakawa, Riyosui Sugihara and Jakuyo Matsumoto.

Another feature that expanded on this same theme was “Nobite Yuku Nisei” (“The Growing Nisei”), produced by the Pan-Pacific Motion Picture League (aka Pan-Pacific Motion Picture Society) and headed by Kazuo Nakayama of Los Angeles. Kido Kurimoto and Jiro Abe directed the production, which featured players Kunio Morishima, Kazuo Sumida, Reiko Tsuki, Yuriko Arikawa (a former Long Beach Nisei Beauty Contest winner), Tomoko Yoshii, Tetsuko Miyahara and Kiyo Arikawa. The film dealt with a brief but turbulent phase in the life of a Nisei youth who faces some of the harder facts of life. These include the unsuccessful search for work in the city, following a quarrel with his Issei farmer father; a scene portraying a benefit dance, with a drunken Issei; scenes of gambling; an interracial love affair which ends in disappointment. Ultimately, the hero realizes that his place is “back on the farm,” and the film ends with him organizing a cooperative movement among the younger farmers — one scene shows such a cooperative meeting in action.

The film was screened in Los Angeles in mid-1937. In his newspaper column “Smoking Room,” columnist “I.K.” (Iwao Kawakami?) praised the attractive cast of Nisei men and women, and expressed pleasure at the sequence of the Nisei farm cooperative group in action. However, the reviewer complained both of the poor quality of the cinematography and of the heavy-handed “back to the land” message. Furthermore, the reviewer pointed out that the film reflected a Kibei (Japanese American who was raised in the United States and educated in Japan before returning to the U.S.) point of view, which reflected a poor understanding of Nisei psychology.

Following the release of the film, the producers announced production of another silent film, entitled “Too Many Girls.” They also announced a plan to launch a statewide tour taking intimate pictures of Nisei life, both on the farm and in city, with the idea of compiling a documentary about Nisei life to take to Japan and show to the Japanese people. Neither project seems to have been realized.

A more ambitious, and certainly more warmly-received, project was the film “Nisei Parade,” released in 1935. Ironically, while this was the most complete cinematic portrait of prewar Nisei life in California, it was produced by the brothers Ikuo and Sueo Serisawa, both of whom were Japan-born. Born in Yokohama in 1908 and 1910, respectively, the brothers were the sons of the Japanese artist Yoichi Serisawa. They accompanied their father to the U.S. in 1918 and settled in Long Beach, Calif. Although their mother returned to Japan following Yoichi’s death on 1926, the brothers remained and distinguished themselves as artists. Just how they came to direct films is uncertain, but in 1934 they began making up a scenario and bringing their cameras into local communities in Southern California. They put together the film in their studio, a little place in the Ohio building on Little Tokyo’s East First Street.

“Nisei Parade” takes place in the celery farms of Southern California, the vegetable marts of Los Angeles, and the waterfronts of San Pedro. The story follows the lives of three Nisei youths working at a vegetable stand. The story is centered on Jiro, one of the three Nisei who is employed in one of the many huge produce markets in Southern California, and his pals George and Shig. Jiro is torn between the choice of a career as a photographer, necessitating years of study, and his love for Sumi, the sister of one of the other youths, who returns to California after attending school in Nippon. (To trace the dialogue among Nisei and Kibei, the film used both Japanese and English titles.) The Serisawas recruited Tadashi Kamayatsu, Alice Iseri, Peter Takahashi and James Suishi for the leads.

Several local Nisei, including the future pharmaceuticals tycoon Wesley Oyama, had cameos.

After months of shooting and final cutting, the film had a preview in the Miyako Hotel in December 1934, and then had its official premiere in Los Angeles in January 1935. In March 1935 it received its first Northern California showing at the Sokoji Hall in San Francisco. Although filmed on 16 mm stock, the film won praise from Nisei critics for its photographic excellence. However, columnist Jimmie Omura complained of the morbid love story “a la Orientale,” which lacked realism. However, he added, “(As) a sidelight on the life of the second generations and a pioneer venture in the cinema field…although the picture has many defects, its aim Is laudable.” The film’s San Francisco showing was sufficiently successful that it was then screened at the ME Church in Alameda under the auspices of the Alameda Japanese American Citizens League, and a week later in San Jose under sponsorship from the Nitto Club. In April 1935, the Monterey-Watsonville chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League sponsored a screening, and there was another at the Japanese Presbyterian Church in Salinas, Calif. in cooperation with the local branch of Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor.

Despite the initial buzz generated by these films, they seem to have sunk rapidly into oblivion. It is not clear whether “Chijiko wo mawasuru chikara” survived. Neither “Love of the Soil” nor “The Growing Nisei” has any recorded showing after its initial screening.

“Nisei Parade” was featured at a benefit performance in Stockton, Calif. in February 1939, and then disappeared from view.

Sueo Serisawa went on to have a long and successful career as a painter and printmaker. However, when he died in 2004, none of the obituaries (at least in the mainstream press) mentioned his early film. Historians and Nikkei film buffs can only hope that a stray print of these films has survived and will someday be rediscovered in some vault.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. His new book based upon his Nichi Bei columns, “The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches,” was recently published by University Press of Colorado. He can be reached at The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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