Three films that transcend time ‘Rediscover History’

Kiyo Fujiu. courtesy of Celine Parreñas Shimizu

As those who lived through the wartime incarceration experience grow older and fewer in number, a new generation of Japanese Americans are coming of age. In the 12th annual Films of Remembrance film showcase, the “Rediscovering History Program” examines three films reflecting on the wartime incarceration’s impact beyond the concentration camps.

Kiyo Fujiu. courtesy of Celine Parreñas Shimizu

The block features one documentary, “80 Years Later” (2022, 50 min.) by Celine Parreñas Shimizu, and two shorts, “Resettlement: Chicago Story” (2022, 16 min.) by Reina Higashitani and “Shikata Ga Nai (It Cannot Be Helped)” (2022, 11 min.) by Kevin Kodama.

Although disparate in story and structure, all three films address the wartime incarceration’s lingering impact on Japanese Americans decades after the war.

Shimizu’s documentary retraces the wartime history of her extended family as they established new roots in the Midwest after the war. Centered on patriarch Tadashi Robert Shimizu, the filmmaker’s father-in-law, and his cousin Kiyoko Kasai Fujiu, the documentary focuses on intergenerational family conversations about the wartime experience as well as the Shimizu family’s life in Cincinnati and Fujiu’s life in Chicago.

Shimizu, an ethnic studies scholar and filmmaker, wanted to capture the multi-generational conversations and impacts the camps have on the family.

While Tadashi Robert Shimizu was very young during the war, the film showcases his older cousins’ undying rage against what happened to their family. Fujiu and her younger sister baby-sat the elder Shimizu when he was young. He described them as the “nicest, kindest, sweetest people,” but also said their anger about the wartime incarceration was “ever-present.”

“When they would talk about it, this rage would really come out, and that’s when he recognized that it was really horrific and traumatic in ways that he didn’t feel himself,” Shimizu told the Nichi Bei News.

Shimizu’s film, however, also focuses on the lives of her extended family after camp and how they forged a new life in Ohio and Chicago.

“I think this film was really born in 2013, when my father-in-law … was installed in the high school hall of fame for being the star quarterback,” Shimizu said. “… When we went to the inauguration, into the Hall of Fame, grandpa really talked about what it meant to be uprooted into a place where he and his brother were the only Japanese Americans in their school experience.”

The Filipina filmmaker said she also hoped to touch upon the younger generations of mixed-race Japanese Americans and what the Japanese American community will look like in the future through her nephew, Matthew Maclachlan Risk.

“I’m really moved by how Matthew is in Japanese American Student Union, is really committed himself to learning Japanese language and culture and history in order to claim his heritage, especially when people are telling him, ‘It doesn’t belong to you. You don’t look like a Japanese American,’” Shimizu said. “So I’m interested in that. Like, what does the future of Japanese America look like?”

Along with Shimizu’s film, Higashitani examines the resettlement of Japanese Americans with a fictionalized account of a teenage girl growing up in 1950s Chicago. Focusing on Mary, a young Japanese American teenager who is at odds with her single mother, “Resettlement: Chicago Story” tells a fictionalized account of post-war resettlement made up of an amalgam of true stories Higashitani heard from camp survivors.

The story follows Mary, a teenager trying to appease her Nisei mother so that she may be allowed to attend a dance after being suspended from school.

Produced by Full Spectrum Features in Chicago, the film is meant to be a centerpiece to a teaching module for students in elementary through high school.

Higashitani met Jason Matsumoto, the film’s producer, while working on an unrelated project during the outset of the pandemic. While the film is aimed at school-age children, Higashitani said she put in considerable thought and effort to ensure authenticity in her film.

Her women-led production crew worked hard to recreate a 1950s dry cleaning business in Chicago and cast Japanese American actors who were bilingual, a challenge when many young Japanese Americans are now Gosei or even Rokusei.

“It’s becoming harder to find the actors who can be fluent in both languages, and another challenge was for Japanese actors who can speak Japanese, and (have lived) here in the U.S. for a long time,” Higashitani, who is from Hyogo Prefecture, told Nichi Bei News. “They might be able to do it, but they might not have a clear sense of (the wartime incarceration) history.”

And while Shimizu and Higashitani focused on the multi-generational experiences of Japanese Americans in the Midwest, Kodama’s “Shikata Ga Nai” takes on the trauma inflicted upon the Japanese American community through a metaphorical lens through two ghosts haunting the former Manzanar, Calif. concentration camp. Filmed as their undergraduate thesis at San Francisco State University, “Shikata Ga Nai” examines the so-called loyalty questionnaire’s effect on the Japanese American community.

Kevin Kodama’s “Shikata Ga Nai” takes on the trauma inflicted upon the Japanese American community through a metaphorical lens through two ghosts haunting the former Manzanar, Calif. concentration camp. courtesy of Kevin Kodama.

Kodama, a Gosei whose family is from Hawai‘i, said they do not have a personal connection to the questionnaire, but said they felt it was a central source of conflict for the Japanese American community.

The young filmmaker packed a lot into the film both visually and narratively. It takes on a surreal quality reminiscent of a Richard Linklater film, while paying homage to Manzanar’s historical ties to early 20th-century Western films. Add to all that, the central characters are queer.

“I think the one perspective that was missing was the LGBTQ perspective,” Kodama said. “So I always knew it was going to be some sort of queer relationship. And yeah, like there actually was a similar story of … this gay man who had a similar situation of being separated from his partner because of the questionnaire.”

All three films discuss the aftermath of the wartime incarceration. While families picked up the pieces to resettle, the films in “Rediscovering History” speak to the pain and hurt that persisted.

The 12th annual Films of Remembrance will screen the “Rediscovering History Program” at 11:55 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25 at the AMC Kabuki 8, 1881 Post St. in San Francisco’s Japantown and 12:25 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 26 at the San Jose Betsuin Buddhist Church 640 North 5th St., in San Jose’s Japantown. For more information on screenings, including online screenings, visit https://annual.filmsofremembrance.org/2023/.

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