Two short films recounting resistance in the camps tells the story of one esteemed ally to the Japanese Americans contextualized with the story of another family’s wartime experience shortly before getting sent to camp.

Sharon Yamato tells the story of Wayne M. Collins in “One Fighting Irishman” (2023, 30 min.), a new short documentary remembering the life and accomplishments of Collins, a maverick civil rights attorney who defended thousands of Japanese Americans from deportations, as well as charges of treason in the case of Iva Toguri.

Collins first worked on the Fred Korematsu case with Ernest Besig of the Northern California American Civil Liberties Union, and would later go on to represent the renunciants. Through his cases, he would not only face opposition from the United States government, but the Japanese American Citizens League and the National American Civil Liberties Union as well.

Yamato has been making films for more than a decade. She has focused on the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans in her films and has been personally interested in the story of Tule Lake since the 1990s when she first attended a pilgrimage. The concentration camp became a high security prison to hold the so-called “disloyals,” including many who had renounced their citizenship during the war.

“My first film was about Michi Nishiura Weglyn, and that was kind of the beginning of telling stories of people who are not necessarily recognized by the wider population, so that was one of the things that prompted me to do a film about Wayne Collins,” she told the Nichi Bei News during an online video interview.

Yamato’s documentary is short, but packs as much punch as Collins’ colorful language, as she integrates a wealth of sources, including extensive interviews with Collins’ son, Wayne Merrill Collins. She also uses old interviews of those who have since passed, including Hiroshi Kashiwagi, the late poet, playwright and actor, who was incarcerated at Tule Lake in Calif., and Besig, as well as a trove of photos that Yamato found at the National Archives in College Park, Md. that had not yet been digitized. Even the narrator, actor and activist George Takei, has a personal connection to Collins, who saved him and his family from deportation when Takei was a small child.

“I hope it starts a whole conversation about Tule Lake,” Yamato said. “With the passing of all the people who actually were there and who remember their experiences there, it’s more important than ever that we try to keep that story going.”

Accompanying the short documentary, the block of films features “We Hereby Refuse: The Akutsu Family Resists,” an animated documentary by Shannon Gee, based on a graphic novel written by Frank Abe and illustrated by Ross Ishikawa. Abe wrote the comic focused on the family of Jim Akutsu, a Nisei draft resister from Seattle. He worked with Gee, the Seattle Channel’s general manager.

“Having already done Heart Mountain Fair Play Committee in my film ‘Conscience and the Constitution,’ I wanted to try something different for the graphic novel. Also, equally importantly, we wanted to have a local story, or local to the Pacific Northwest. … Jim Akutsu was a native Seattle story that fit well with the mission of our publisher, the Wing Luke Museum,” Abe said.

The comic, as well as the animation, were funded through grants the Seattle-based Asian American museum secured through the Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program. According to Gee, this is her third adaptation of such comics, including a film on the Nisei veterans focusing on Shiro Kashino, one of the soldiers who liberated the Dachau death camp, and “Those Who Helped Us,” a short animation focusing on non-Nikkei allies during the war.

“One thing that was different between ‘We Hereby Refuse’ and the ‘Nisei Veterans’ graphic novel was the way that the text was on the panel. And so this was more classically like a comic book where the text was in the speech bubbles and in the taglines in the story,” Gee said.

Gee said the comic panels served as built-in video captioning for the piece, which helped save costs and make the animation more accessible to audiences.

Abe was meanwhile pleased with the 1:1 adaptation, even if that meant Gee could only adapt half of the Akutsu family’s story from the graphic novel.

“I envisioned it as a storyboard for a movie. The panels in the graphic novel are very similar to a storyboard for a dramatic film. And so, it’s incredible to see every panel with the dialogue and narration replicated for the animation and see how it all works without anything extra in terms of the dialogue or animation. It’s all there,” he said.

While Yamato and Gee’s films focus on renunciants and draft resisters respectively, both films also focus on the role the JACL played during the war in advocating for Japanese Americans to quietly go into camp. Both films lay bare the organization’s aid to the U.S. government in getting Japanese Americans to cooperate.

“History is usually written by the winners, and for decades, the ‘50s, and ‘60s, and ‘70s — for the years of the model minority, the Bill Hosokawa years, the years of the ‘Quiet American’ — that history is written by the JACL,” Abe said. “And it took our film, in the year 2000 (‘Conscience and the Constitution’); the Omori sisters’ ‘Rabbit in the Moon’ (1999) and Eric Muller’s ‘Free to Die for Their Country’ (2001) coming out right around the same time to reclaim the history of the draft resisters.”

Abe feels that history is still being recovered today, especially through a re-examination of the so-called “disloyal” label of those incarcerated at Tule Lake. Gee, who worked with Abe on “Conscience and the Constitution,” said there is a balancing act to not appear anti-Nisei veteran or anti-JACL, but as a younger Chinese American, she felt the counter perspectives reveal more insights on the history.

“I can see why people would want to make a choice. But I would also hope that the work that I’ve contributed to will help broaden the perspectives and experiences people have,” she said.

Yamato, meanwhile, clarified that the historical JACL, which conspired to challenge Collins during the war, is very different from the civil rights organization today.

“Doing the film I read through an inordinate amount of JACL material, so I’m pretty well aware of the controversy that they kind of kept going. There was huge controversy about their role in incarceration and so it’s always sort of flavored the way I look at them,” she said. “But I’m really hoping … this film will bring to light that the JACL of today is no longer that same JACL.”

WHAT: “One Fighting Irishman” (2023, 30 min.) by Sharon Yamato and “We Hereby Refuse: The Akutsu Family Resists” (2023, 15 min.) by Shannon Gee, Ian Devier, Randy Eng based on writing by Frank Abe and artwork by Ross Ishikawa
TIME: 5:45 p.m. in the Films of Resistance program

  • 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 panelist and writer Frank Abe.
    VIRTUAL OPTION: There will also be a virtual option to watch the film From Feb. 24 through March 10 (does not include panel).

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