BACK IN THEATERS: 12th annual Films of Remembrance

Filmmaker George Wada with Judge Johnny Gogo, filmmakers Kaia Rose, Robert Horsting, Katie Jennings and Randy Eng with NBC Bay Area Morning Traffic Anchor Mike Inouye. photo by William Lee

Following two years of online-only programming, the Nichi Bei Foundation held its 12th annual Films of Remembrance film series in person at the AMC Kabuki 8 in San Francisco’s Japantown Feb. 25 and the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin in San Jose’s Japantown Feb. 26.

According to Kenji G. Taguma, president of the Nichi Bei Foundation, the event offers filmmakers a venue to showcase their work focusing on the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. The event, which had been previously held at the New People Theater, moved to the larger AMC Kabuki 8 for the first time, while it returned to the Buddhist church in San Jose.

“Counting this year, we presented 95 separate films,” Taguma said during the program. “If you count the Films of Remembrance Encore in Sacramento in 2017, Films of Remembrance New York … in 2019, our first event outside of the state, we showed 143 films all together.”

According to event organizers, more than 600 people registered to watch films either in person or online, with 243 attendees in San Francisco and 178 in San Jose. The showcase featured five blocks of films in theater each day, along with an online-only block entitled “Life After Camp” featuring “Enduring Democracy: The Monterey Petition” (2022, 67 min.) by David Schendel, “Namba: A Japanese American’s Incarceration and Life of Resilience” (2022, 45 min.) by Emily Hanako Momohara and “Nisei Bowl” (2019, 22 min.) by Alli Nakamura.

Following the San Francisco screenings, a filmmakers reception featured entertainment by the Nikkei Choral Ensemble of the University of California, Berkeley’s Nikkei Student Union and the OWU Band, featuring Scott Oshiro, Wesley Ueunten and Francis Wong.

Films of Resistance
The event began with a screening of “We Said No! No!: A Story of Civil Disobedience” (2022, 74 min.) by Brian Maeda in the first block of screenings entitled “Films of Resistance.” Maeda recounted the story of Japanese Americans who protested their incarceration, particularly those who were confined to Tule Lake in California after being labeled as “disloyal” through the so-called loyalty questionnaire. Blending a mix of interviews with anthropologist Rosalie Hankey Wax and Violet de Cristoforo, along with re-enactments of historical episodes from within the wartime era, Maeda told a story about wartime civil disobedience.

Maeda, a career filmmaker, said Japanese Americans initially wanted to portray a positive image of themselves during and after the war. With additional research and added context since then, however, he said it is important to tell the stories of those who protested their treatment. While researching for the film, he found Wax’s book on the research she did within the camps entitled “Doing Fieldwork: Warnings and Advice,” which in turn led to de Cristoforo, Wax’s detractor.

Their combined recounts of camp life, along with other personal accounts, helped inform Maeda’s recreation of scenes from within the jail at Tule Lake.

The project, initially, however, was far more ambitious.

“I had originally written a narrative or feature script,” Maeda said. “… We’re talking millions and millions of dollars, so I decided to shoot these recreations, and picked out specific parts.”

Rediscovering History

Celine Parreñas Shimizu and her father-in law-Robert Tadashi Shimizu. photo by William Lee

“Rediscovering History,” the second block of films, featured “Shikata Ga Nai (It Cannot be Helped)” (2022, 11 min.) by Kevin Kodama, “Resettlement: Chicago Story” (2022, 16 min.) by Reina Higashitani and “80 Years Later” (2022, 50 min.) by Celine Parreñas Shimizu. The films have three separate takes on how the wartime incarceration affected multiple generations.

Kodama’s short focused on two queer ghosts trying to reconcile after the war, while Higashitani’s film focused on a multi-generational family in the post-war resettlement years in Chicago. The final film focuses on Parreñas Shimizu’s extended family and their reflections on growing up in the Midwest after the war. Her father-in-law, Robert Tadashi Shimizu, joined the panel discussion in San Francisco.

While disparate in theme and form, all three were connected in some ways, according to the filmmakers. Parreñas Shimizu knew Kodama from her time as the director of the School of Cinema at San Francisco State University, where Kodama made their film as their senior thesis project.

“The main inspiration for me to make this film is Celine,” Kodama said. “I actually came to her, was looking for advice. This was during the pandemic and the wave of anti-Asian hate. So I was just expressing those anxieties and what I was feeling at the time. At the very end of the meeting, as she was stepping out, she was like, ‘You should make this film.’”

Jason Matsumoto, producer for “Resettlement: Chicago Story,” said he grew up knowing Kiyo and Jean Fujiu from Parreñas Shimizu’s documentary as a member of Chicago’s Japanese American community. Matsumoto, working with Higashitani, set out to create a film shedding light on the resettlement period after Japanese Americans left the camps. She noted that Jean Fujiu was formerly the executive director of the Japanese American Service Committee in Chicago, which was originally the Chicago Resettlers Committee.

Parreñas Shimizu wished to document her extended family’s story in the Midwest where her father-in-law is a local high school football hall-of-famer. Through the film, Shimizu said he was able to confront what his mother tried to protect him from when he was younger.

“My early kind of narrative from my mother was, as I grew older, I thought it was pretty pollyannish,” Shimizu said. “Her famous saying was, … ‘I didn’t even have to cook,’ like that was a big benefit of being incarcerated, and later on, as I thought about it more, her attitude was to protect my brother and I who were just little kids, from all the hatred and prejudice that was shown against us just because you were Asian.”

Rooted in History
Next, the “Rooted in History” slate featured three films about digging up history from the wartime incarceration era. “Amache Rose” (2022, 29 min.) by Billy Kanaly, “Hakone Gardens and Executive Order 9066” (2022, 22 min.) by Curt Fukuda and “Sonzai” (2021, 32 min.) by Barre Fong, which focused on gardens and archeology. Kanaly, a filmmaker for the Denver Botanic Gardens, delved into the survival and blooming of a rose bush in the Colorado desert, while Fukuda’s film told a story about the Saratoga, Calif. Japanese garden and the family who took care of it. Fong’s film followed archaeological work in Santa Barbara, Calif.’s former Japantown.

Reiko Iwanaga with filmmakers Billy Kanaly and Curt Fukuda, and Lisa Hirai Tsuchitani of University of California, Berkeley for the “Rooted In History” block of films in San Jose. photo by William Lee

In San Jose, Fukuda and Reiko Iwanaga, one of the interview subjects, participated in the panel discussion. Iwanaga, who had presented the film at a separate showing in Saratoga, noted that many in the audience who saw the film there had never heard about what Japanese Americans suffered during World War II and the discussion there was “quite different and interesting” compared to the discussion in a predominantly Japanese American audience.

In the San Francisco showing, Kanaly and Fong talked about their directorial experience working on their two films. Fong, who worked closely with archeologist Koji Lau-Ozawa, said they did not want to make a film about the Japanese American incarceration, but found themselves needing to discuss it to contextualize the reason why there were caches of purposefully buried Japanese American artifacts underneath downtown Santa Barbara.

“That is a primo block of downtown Santa Barbara, so imagine that it was once occupied by Japanese and Chinese Americans and then it was stripped away,” Fong said. “The financial impact there is incredible.”

Kanaly, who makes films for the Denver Botanic Gardens, said he noticed the rose bud in Amache, Colo. during the 2022 pilgrimage to the former camp. The budding was particularly significant since the roses had not bloomed in 80 years, as they tried to survive in their non-native environment. Botanists had thus far been unsuccessful in getting cuttings of the rose to bloom at the Denver Botanic Gardens. Kanaly captured the moment of discovery on film.

“So I just wanted to get a shot of the National Park Service people walking over to the roses, and so I kind of ran ahead to find them and I noticed immediately that there was a bloom on one of them,” Kanaly said. “So I just sort of set the camera up strategically within the 30 seconds or so that I had as they walked up. … It was exactly how it happened.”

The Art of Activism
The fourth block, “The Art of Activism,” focused on the various ways people supported wartime inmates and survivors. “Stamp Our Story” (2022, 19 min.) by Kaia Rose and Robert Horsting, “Honor, Recognition and Respect” (2022, 10 min.) by George Wada and “Point of Departure” (2022, 10 min.) by Katie Jennings focused on modern day efforts to memorialize those who were incarcerated. “Those Who Helped Us” (2022, 18 min.) by Randy Eng, meanwhile, focused on the white people who extended help to Japanese Americans during the war.

Rose and Horsting spoke about their experience working on the project and being able to witness the unveiling of the commemorative stamps dedicated to Nisei veterans.

“Something that doesn’t come up in this film is that, in the unveiling of the stamp, Fusa (Takahashi) was there. So she experienced the culmination of all that effort all those years. And she was able to participate in that,” Horsting said. He added that Takahashi was hard of hearing and he later produced a subtitled video so that one of the three women who spearheaded the effort could fully take in the culmination of their efforts.

Veteran Bob Izumi signed a flag for Gogo for his ongoing project. photo by William Lee

Meanwhile, George Wada explained how he met Judge Johnny Gogo in Los Angeles while he was getting survivors of the wartime incarceration to sign 48 star maps. Gogo, a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge, continues to collect signatures, now working on his ninth flag, which he hopes to donate to the Nisei Veterans Committee in Seattle. At the screening, Gogo got World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veteran Bob Izumi to sign his flag.

In the second half of discussions, Jennings and Eng, both from the Seattle area, spoke about how they came to work on their films. Jennings recalled the first interview she did with Lilly Kodama, one of the leaders of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American community.

“That interview happened the first time I had talked to Lily about this project,” Jennings said. “And she was so amazing. She was so authentic in her storytelling.”

Eng meanwhile talked about how his project was part of an education series the city was producing through a grant from the National Park Service and King County. The film focused on work by Ken Mochizuki, highlighting the white people, many of them Quakers, who assisted Japanese Americans during the war.

Untold Stories
The final block of two films, “Untold Stories,” explored the racism Japanese Americans faced outside the camps during the war. “When You Leave” (2022, 16 min.) by Jason Yamamoto follows the story of a traumatized young man who hesitates leaving the concentration camp because of racism he faced outside. “Before They Take Us Away” (2022, 60 min.) by Antonia Grace Glenn is a documentary on the 5,000 or so Japanese Americans who “voluntarily” left the exclusion zone before being sent off to the camps, and the hardships they faced farming and working despite being “free.”

Yamamoto said his interest in the wartime experience started when his grandfather started opening up about his experiences around 2010. Considering the film his “passion project,” Yamamoto wished he had more time and money to make the short into a feature-length film or a longer series. With limited resources, he opted to subtly allude to camp experiences in the film with symbols or environmental storytelling.

“There’s a lot of stuff that I would want to explain in the short film, but because there was such a short amount of time, it sort of left me to just imply it and hope that people (who) want to know more will research it,” he said.

Following Yamamoto’s film, Glenn’s film highlighted the research her mother, Evelyn Nakano Glenn, did on Japanese Americans who left the West Coast to avoid the concentration camps. The University of California, Berkeley professor emeritus started collecting stories about the “self-evacuees” after learning about the experience from an in-law. Her daughter, an award winning documentary filmmaker, helped her mother compile the work into “Before They Take Us Away.”

“I think that one of the things that comes out more clearly in the case of self-evacuees is the actual fear of discrimination, or really, really bad treatment” Evelyn Nakano Glenn said. “I think in the case of self-evacuees, many more of them expressed suspicion or fear that something awful would happen, or extermination was possible. So I think that does make a difference in terms of motivating people, as well as the idea of not wanting to be unfairly interned.”

Joining the filmmaker and her mother, Howard Yamamoto and Don Kaneshige, whose families “voluntarily” left the wartime exclusion zone, spoke on their memories of living outside the camps during the war. Kaneshige, who moved to Spokane, Wash. with his extended family, said he got into regular fights with other children at school and would have rocks thrown at him. Howard Yamamoto, one of nine remaining living survivors of the Keetley Valley colony in Utah, spoke about his experiences as his son and KPIX News Anchor Ryan Yamamoto emceed the panel discussion. The elder Yamamoto said he had no idea how many other people “self evacuated” like his family did.

“I have no idea as far as I’m concerned. I was four years old when the war started,” he said.

“Unfortunately, this whole ‘self evacuation’ story was getting lost, and it’s people like Evelyn and Antonia who produced this beautiful film that is bringing this up to light. In fact, initially the idea of camp was slowly being lost and suppressed. But if it wasn’t for the Sansei, and the Yonsei and people like Evelyn who taught Asian American Studies at University California, … these stories would be gone.”

Though the wartime incarceration was more than 80 years ago, its documentation remains more relevant than ever. Supervisor Dean Preston, representing District 5 of San Francisco, thanked the filmmakers for their work throughout the pandemic.

“We are in an age of, unfortunately, so much disinformation, and it becomes especially important in the age of disinformation … that we have filmmakers, especially documentary filmmakers, who are documenting history, recording history, and putting history into the present day in a way that young people, especially youth and young adults can see and know their history, and others can learn the history of Japanese Americans, without that history being whitewashed, erased or reinvented by folks with other agendas,” he said.

The stories captured on film continue to not only preserve and inform future generations about the war time experience, but also explore the identity of Japanese Americans today. The variety of films shown at the annual film retrospective speaks to a wide range of topics even decades on.

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