Four artistic perspectives on wartime incarceration and its consequences

FILLING IN THE GAPS ­— A film still from “Blue Garden” showing a faded sepia photo of five men in a field. courtesy of Natalie Murao

Art can explore and convey history, whether to soften the pain it evokes to recall difficult times or to entice a new generation to learn more. The “Artistic Interpretations” block at the 2024 Films of Remembrance presents four short films that artistically take on the wartime incarceration.

The films delve into a personal history of the filmmakers in some way, but each one takes on a radically different approach. From an artistic and experimental story to a short documentary about art itself, four shorts convey a variety of experiences and memories.

In Natalie Murao’s “Blue Garden” (2022, 5 min.), the Japanese Canadian Yonsei scripted a conversation she imagined she would have had with her grandfather, had he still been alive. Murao’s grandfather, a fisherman who was sent inland during the war wound up farming tomatoes in Ashcroft, British Colombia. Murao, whose grandfather passed away when she was young, had seen photos of her grandfather during the war and learned about his experience. She wondered if that latently led to her own dislike for tomatoes.

“When my grandfather passed away a long time ago, my mom, she decided to make a whole album of everything and put all of his photos that he had taken during the war time and after into an album,” Murao told the Nichi Bei News. “When I started actually starting to research on this project, I took the album to a Japanese Canadian archivist at the Nikkei Center, and she was able to piece together the finer details of my ojiichan’s wartime journey. … It wasn’t until when I worked on this project, I felt like I learned way more about his history, and kind of understood what he was thinking during that time.”

While Murao could not get the story from her grandfather directly, George Wada has living relatives to recount his family’s story. Despite that, however, the trauma of the wartime incarceration, and the post-war years, make it difficult for him to learn about his family’s history. In “Traveling Rice Pot” (2019, 7:20 min.), Wada tells his family’s story the only way he could learn it: through a cooking pot his grandmother bought in the 1930s.

Two people look at an old rice pot, which they have pulled from a cardboard box.
A storied journey for a rice pot. courtesy of George Wada

Wada, a member of Visual Communication’s Digital Histories program, said he was inspired to tell the story through the rice pot when he got it from his uncle after he was diagnosed with cancer. His aunt, 93 at the time, offered to show him how the steaming pot was used to make rice and started recounting family stories as she did.

“My family refuses to talk about anything, about camp or their past life, but my aunt just started talking about this pot, and how it was part of their lives ever since they were kids. And so I go, ‘OK, that’s the story right there,’” he told the Nichi Bei News.

“That was the only way I could tell the story with the cooperation of my aunt.”

The story, was understandably difficult for Yoshi Yokoi, now 99, to tell. She and her family were deported to war-torn Japan after the war. Wada, however, said he took what he could get and told his family’s story through the family heirloom.

While Wada told his story through a pot, Marlene Shigekawa told hers through a blue jay her grandfather carved at the Poston camp in Arizona. In “The Blue Jay” (2023, 14 min.), Shigekawa’s historical fiction depicts a young couple dealing with living in a concentration camp located on the Colorado River Reservation.

A man cradles another man who is bleeding while lying on the ground of the Poston, Ariz. concentration camp. Another man stands over them. Three people run from the barracks toward the men.
A scene from “The Blue Jay.” courtesy of Marlene Shigekawa

Sam Shigeta, trying to secure baby formula for his newborn, befriends Pohache, a Mohave Indian.

Shigekawa said she shot the film based on a children’s picture book she wrote called “Blue Jay in the Desert” as well as to create a proof of concept for a longer dramatic film she wishes to make, all while serving as a dramatic component to entice high school and college students to do more research on the wartime incarceration.

“This film is part of a larger educational piece, … an online multimedia course for high school and college students,” Shigekawa, an education consultant, said. “And the companion piece is called ‘Sharing a Desert Home,’ which is written by my friend Ruth Okimoto. It’s a research document about how the Japanese Americans developed the reservation.”

And while Murao, Wada and Shigekawa’s films focused on the wartime experiences of Japanese Americans directly in an artistic way, Pear Urushima’s “Because of You, I Am” (2023, 30 min.) instead focuses on art itself and how the wartime incarceration is part of PJ and Roy Hirabayashi’s identity as Japanese American taiko pioneers in San Jose.

Urushima, along with director Doug Menuez, created a short documentary that delves into their life philosophy for their 50th anniversary show held in November of 2023. With limited time, Urushima, a former San Jose Taiko member through the 2000s, was the ideal person for the project as someone who knows the couple well, having designed their personal Website and PJ Hirabayashi’s TaikoPeace Website.

“So in putting all that together, I had to know the story backwards and forwards, from their beginnings to now. Their whole biography, their value system, and all of that,” Urushima told the Nichi Bei News.

Four films, each different but featuring the camp experience in their own ways, show the variety of ways World War II impacted Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians. The filmmakers of all four films will attend the 2024 Films of Remembrance and discuss their films during the Artistic Interpretations block of the series, starting at 2:15 p.m. on both days in San Francisco Feb. 24 and San Jose Feb. 25. For more information, visit https://2024.filmsofremembrance.org.

WHAT:
“Blue Garden”
(2023, 5 min.) by Natalie Murao
“Traveling Rice Pot” (2019, 7 min.) by George Wada
“The Blue Jay” (2023, 14 min.) by Marlene Shigekawa
“Because of You, I Am” (2023, 30 min.) by Pear Urushima
TIME: 2:15 p.m. in the Artistic Interpretations program
WHEN & WHERE:

  • Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024 at AMC Kabuki 8 theater in San Francisco’s Japantown
  • Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024 San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin in San Jose’s Japantown
    WHO: With panelists Roy and PJ Hirabayashi.
    VIRTUAL OPTION: There will also be a virtual option to watch the film From Feb. 24 through March 10 (does not include panel).
    INFO/TICKETS: 2024.filmsofremembrance.org

Corrections

Accuracy is fundamental in journalism. In the Feb. 15-28, 2024 issue of the Nichi Bei News, the article entitled “Four artistic perspectives on wartime incarceration and its consequences” erroneously stated “(t)he Hirabayashis’ commissioned (Pear) Urushima, along with director Doug Menuez, to create a short documentary.” The Nichi Bei News regrets the error. To contact the Nichi Bei News about an error, please e-mail news@nichibeiweekly.org.

The original version of this article has been edited.

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