By J.K. YAMAMOTO
Rafu Staff Writer
Two screenings of “Farewell to Manzanar” at the Japanese American National Museum over the weekend marked the first-ever release of the 1976 made-for-TV movie on DVD.
Based on the memoir of the same name by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and her husband, James Houston, the movie depicts the internment experience of the Wakatsuki family, told from the point of view of young Jeanne (played by Dori Takeshita). Her father, Ko (Yuki Shimoda), is taken away by the FBI immediately after Pearl Harbor, leaving her mother, Misa (Nobu McCarthy), to keep the family together after they are sent to Manzanar.
The director, John Korty, attended the screenings. During a reception on Saturday, he said he was delighted that the public can watch the film 35 years after it aired on NBC. “That’s why I went into film, because if you do something that’s worthwhile, it doesn’t disappear. Things really can last … It’s wonderful for me to realize that it’s still relevant.”
Videos of the film were distributed to California schools and libraries in 2003, but it was never available to the general public. “There were some obstacles,” Korty said. “I tried very hard to get Universal to do it, and they just didn’t think it would make any money … I think the way it’s happened now is much better because it went through the Japanese American National Museum, which is nonprofit and is not interested in making a profit. So Universal really couldn’t argue about that. I’m really glad it’s going to be available.”
Despite the potentially controversial content, Korty didn’t have that much trouble getting the film made because he had just done another historical drama, “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (1974), which was very well received. The title character, played by Cicely Tyson, is born into slavery in 1850 and lives long enough to join the civil rights movement in the early 1960s.
“Within the business, at that moment I had a lot of clout,” Korty recalled. “Sometimes they call it ‘steam,’ and when I talk to film students I say the reason they call it steam is because it evaporates. If you don’t use the steam in the first year, by the second year it’s gone.” He noted that both films are still being shown in the schools.
Speaking to the audience before the screening, Korty said, “One of the things I did when I took the job was to immediately look for Japanese Americans in the movie business … I made sure that I had a Japanese American cameraman, who turned out to be an old friend of mine, Hiro Narita …
“I also interceded for a man named Richard Hashimoto, who was in the Directors Guild because he was in line to be a first assistant director, but he didn’t have all of the necessary paperwork and credits yet. By their rules, he could not be a first assistant; he would have to be a second assistant. I said … ‘Can’t you just break the rules?’ So they did. They gave him a time in which he could be a first assistant for us if he would go back to being a second assistant for a few months after that …
“We found a wonderful art director, Bob Kinoshita, who had been in the camps. He knew them inside and out, how all the physical details should be. He designed the guard towers.”
Regarding the cast, which had Japanese Americans in all the principal roles, Korty said, “One of the hard decisions, frankly, was when I worked with the casting people. They started to bring in Chinese Americans and Filipino Americans. They were perfectly nice people and probably talented actors, but I said no, we can’t do that.”
Choking up a little, Korty told the audience, “This story belongs to you … It was actually not an easy film to make but it was a film that was rewarding in every stage.”
Paul Chihara, who composed the score for the film, said in an interview, “It was my first major Hollywood picture. I grew up in a relocation camp in Minidoka, and the story is practically my life story too. I was a young boy, so I related to it.
“Also, I knew a lot about Japanese music as well as American music, so I was able to bring, I think, the right feel to it. A lot of the music sounds like a combination of Japanese music and Glenn Miller … because that’s what we heard in the relocation camps. I had two great instrumentalists who then went back to Japan’s imperial court orchestra, but they were at that time teaching at UCLA musicology. So the Japanese music is very authentic and very high quality.”
The background music included such Japanese tunes as “Kimigayo,” Japan’s national anthem, and “Yuyake Koyake,” a children’s song.
Clyde Kusatsu, who played Teddy Wakatsuki, the oldest son, said this was the first time he had seen the film since the 25th anniversary celebration 10 years ago. “It still resonates. We shot this actually 36 years ago, and the irony of it was that a whole bunch of us had just come off the film ‘Midway,’ which was about the Japanese attack in World War II, the naval attack on the island of Midway. I was a commander … and a whole bunch of us were admirals or commanders … It’s kind of ironic that we got to play both the enemy and the Japanese Americans.
“It was especially resonant for me because we fought a lot and dealt with a lot of stereotypes. Many times the opportunities you were given as an actor was to be the laundryman or the Chinese miner, and never were we ever given a shot to portray human beings and families with emotions. Here was an opportunity that John and Jeanne and James gave us with this screenplay.”
In a scene where Teddy leaves camp to join the Army, he and his wife Koro (Akemi Kikumura, future CEO of JANM) share a long kiss. Kusatsu explained, “This was an opportunity … because in many respects Asian males were never given a shot to show their masculinity and sense of loving. It was kind of funny, because at a certain point John said, ‘Okay, cut … Cut … Cut!’ A lot of people there were shocked.”
“I believe there’s two or three generations of our community that haven’t seen this, and they could benefit from this,” Kusatsu said. “It’s a wonderful testament that still holds … It hits the right chords, you still laugh in certain places, the tears still well up … I’m very grateful to everyone here who spearheaded this thing.”
A Family Affair
For Momo Yashima, “Farewell to Manzanar” was a family affair. She played Alice, one of the Wakatsuki daughters; her mother, artist Mitsu Yashima, played Granny; and her brother, Mako, played one of the protesters in the Manzanar Riot. Also, she had just done a play at East West Players in which Shimoda and McCarthy played her parents.
“Doing something about the relocation camps written by a Japanese American was a big deal … Then the word got out,” she recalled. “Writers like Frank Chin and Lawson Inada and Shawn Wong (co-editors of the Asian American literary anthology ‘Aiiieeeee!’), who were pretty big people back then, jumped on board and you can see them in the riot scenes. So it had this snowballing effect that was very exciting.”
Noting that her father, Taro Yashima, was an artist and children’s book author, she said, “He always said that the function of art is to enlighten people so that they can make a difference when the going gets tough. I think that when I saw ‘Farewell to Manzanar’ again. It brought that feeling, we felt better, we’re stronger for seeing this.”
She had high praise for Jeanne Houston for publishing her book in 1973 and exposing the story of the camps. “She wrote about a mother who was trying so hard to keep her family together. She wrote about a father whose dignity was taken from him. She wrote about losing a brother … We got a real story of real people.”
The book includes a tense scene where the mother tells her teenage daughter to stay home and eat dinner with the family, but the daughter insists on going out with her friends. “When we were filming, there was no reference to the scene,” Yashima said. “I asked John, ‘Could you please put that little teeny scene in?’ He granted me that favor and I have had people come up to me and talk about that scene, which was … a contribution that I was able to make to tell a part of the story in my own way.”
Much of the film was shot not at Manzanar but further north at Tule Lake, where some of the barracks still existed. Yashima had an emotional response when she arrived on location. “I look out and there’s the tarpaper barracks and I look and there’s barbed wire, and I look further and I see Mt. Shasta. I thought I had done research, but nothing could explain the feeling of seeing the barbed wire and Mt. Shasta and you couldn’t go there. That was when I realized what we were embarking upon. I knelt to the ground and I was just sobbing.”
Yashima remembered that Shimoda and Pat Morita (who played Zenihiro the photographer) would share stories about camp with their younger castmates, and McCarthy, who was in Japan during the war, was still able to relate to her role as an Issei mother.
“I think we can all agree that all of us who saw it tonight were moved, but I think the true test is to be moved to the point where you want to do something, you want to fix something,” she said. “I think that we owe a tremendous debt to the Japanese American National Museum for bringing this back to us.”
From Dream to Reality
Chris Komai, JANM public information officer, credited Maria Kwong, the museum’s director of retail sales, with coming up with the idea for the DVD. She had gotten numerous requests for “Farewell to Manzanar” over the years.
Wendy Shiba, vice chair of the JANM Board of Trustees, said, “Maria had a goal and a dream of being able to offer the DVD in all its glory to the public, and the problem was that it was languishing in the vaults at NBC Universal … We had to have a licensing agreement, we had to have royalty arrangements, we have to clear the rights to the music … We were able to get the ear of a sympathetic attorney at NBC who actually became our advocate within the organization. They didn’t really understand the concept of licensing to an educational cultural nonprofit institution for such a laudable purpose …
“We set some goals and Maria committed to getting it done, and lo and behold, we are just about there. So kudos to the museum staff.”
Shiba saw the film when it was first broadcast, then “wondered what ever happened to it and why it wasn’t available on Amazon.com or at the video rental store.”
She told Korty, “When we think about the ways in which our story has either been suppressed throughout the years or has been told in a very commercial fashion, the very notion that you had the artistic vision to commit to tell this original story … with authenticity and with artistic integrity, I think says so much for you as an artist, and our community is so grateful to you for having this very pure version of the story. We’ve all seen the Hollywood … versions that have been told, which sort of dilute what the story means to us, but thanks to Mr. Korty we do have ‘Farewell to Manzanar.’ ”
OTHER MAINSTREAM MOVIES ABOUT INTERNMENT
• “If Tomorrow Comes” (1971). Made for TV. In a retelling of “Romeo and Juliet,” a Caucasian woman (Patty Duke) and a Japanese American man (Frank Liu) fall in love and marry despite the intense anti-Japanese sentiment following Pearl Harbor. With Anne Baxter, James Whitmore, Pat Hingle, Mako, Beulah Quo, Michael McGreevey, Bennett Ohta. Written by Lew Hunter. Directed by George McCowan.
• “Come See the Paradise” (1990). A labor organizer (Dennis Quaid) gets a job in Little Tokyo and falls in love with his boss’ daughter (Tamlyn Tomita). Despite the disapproval of her father (Sab Shimono), the two elope to Seattle. The lovers are separated when all Japanese Americans on the West Coast are interned, including their daughter (played at different ages by Eilzabeth Gilliam, Shyree Mezick and Caroline Junko King). With Shizuko Hoshi, Stan Egi, Colm Meaney. Written and directed by Alan Parker.
• “Snow Falling on Cedars” (1999). In the Pacific Northwest immediately following World War II, a Japanese American fisherman, Kabuo (Rick Yune), is accused of murdering a Caucasian fisherman. Local newspaperman Ishmael (Ethan Hawke) covers the trial but is torn by his unrequited love for Kabuo’s wife, Hatsue (Youki Kudoh), and his bitter experiences fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. With Reeve Carney (as young Ishmael), Anne Suzuki (as young Hatsue), Max Von Sydow, James Cromwell, Richard Jenkins, Sam Shepard, Akira Takayama, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. Based on the novel by David Guterson. Screenplay by Ron Bass and Scott Hicks. Directed by Scott Hicks.
• “American Pastime” (2007). The Nomura family is forced to leave Los Angeles and is shipped to the Topaz, Utah camp. Brothers Lane (Leonardo Nam) and Lyle (Aaron Yoo) follow different paths. Lane volunteers for the Army while Lyle pursues his interest in jazz and baseball, and falls in love with Katie (Sarah Drew), the daughter of one of the camp guards, Billy (Gary Cole), a baseball player who has been passed over for the majors. The camp baseball team challenges the bigoted residents of a nearby town to a game. With Masatoshi Nakamura, Judy Ongg, Jon Gries, Susanna Thompson, Seth Sakai. Written by Desmond Nakano and Tony Kayden. Directed by Desmond Nakano.